The Mongrel Speech of the Streets

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

by Jonathon Green
London: Chambers, three volumes, 6,085 pp., $625.00 (distributed in the US by Oxford University Press)
winchester_1-030812.jpg
Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Thomas Rowlandson: Six Stages of Mending a Face, Dedicated with Respect to the Right Hon.ble Lady Archer, May 29, 1792; from the exhibition ‘Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine,’ on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, through March 4, 2012

On Perry Street, in New York’s Greenwich Village, in an otherwise unremarkable seventh-floor apartment known to many but visited by few, is a veritable lexicographic Wunderkabinett. It is probably truer to say that the apartment itself is a Wunderkabinett, since books begin at its very threshold, and in the space beyond there is precious little room, what with the bulging and bowed-down shelves, the ladders and stacks and piled-up boxes and Matterhorns of curled-edge paper. There is little enough room within for either its owner, a mercifully diminutive and slender lady of years named Madeline Kripke, or for those remarkably few possessions of hers—a bed, a stationary bicycle, some gymnasium weights, and a modest clutch of clothes—that are not, in some way, related to the collecting of books.

To be more specific: what Ms. Kripke has been collecting—and selling, and dealing in—for many decades past are books and manuscripts and ephemera that either are, or are about, dictionaries. And to refine things even further: she is best known for collecting dictionaries that represent the very living and breathing edge of the English language: the ragged and ill-defined omnium-gatherum of informal, witty, clever, newborn, and usually impermanent words that constitute what for the past two centuries has been known as slang.

Just about everything known and enviously regarded by those in the field is present in the collection (though not all is on display: Ms. Kripke has space in three warehouses dotted around New York, holding even more). There are sixteenth-century dictionaries of what was once politely known as “the vulgar tongue”; there are volumes and sets of volumes and monographs and private letters (a note to the Merriam-Webster Company from the young Brooklyn journalist who then called himself Walter Whitman was recently unearthed), as well as papers on cant, on argot, on jargon, on flash, on colloquial English and informal American, and countless studies that percolate through the interminably broad reaches of dialect.

Every imaginable activity that has lent itself to the employment of slang is represented on the Perry Street shelves. There are dictionaries and word collections and lexicons that catalog the language of circus performers and criminals, of gamblers and drug takers, of teenagers, aviators, policemen, miners, hobos, musicians, homosexuals and prostitutes and habitués of entire other worlds besides. Theirs are the raw words, the words of the half-light, the code words, the words not quite promoted to the respectable and the mainstream. So from the carnies, for example, we have words like grifter and shill; from prison, fall guy, bum rap, and screw; from soldiering, we learn that a rookie might drink armored cow, fall crook, catch …

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