This may be the funniest and best-smelling work of profound lexicographical slang-scholarship ever published. Some may respect the hint of Elmer’s glue in recent printings of Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.), or the faint traces of burlap and cocoa-bean that linger deep in The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, or even the fume of indoor swimming-pool that clings to the paperbound decolletage of Slang!: The Topic-By-Topic Dictionary of Contemporary American Lingoes. But a single deep draught of J.E. Lighter’s magnificent Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Volume I, A-G) is a higher order of experience: it smells like a high-ceilinged bare room freshly painted white—clean and sunlit, full of reverberative promise and proud of its mitered corners, although with a mildly intoxicating or hyperventilational “finish.” Since these one thousand and six pages embrace more concentrated filth, vilification, and depravity than any contiguously printed sequence is likely to contain until Lighter’s Volume II (H-R) appears in the spring of 1996, we may momentarily question the appropriateness of so guileless a fragrance. Yet reading onward (and Lighter really must be read, or at least deeply browsed, rather than consulted—the book belongs on every patriotic coffee table) we begin to acknowledge its aptness, for this work makes us see American slang—a dingy, stuffy, cramped apartment that we’ve lived in for so long now that it bores and irritates us—with sudden latex-based clarity and awe. What a spacious, cheery gallery we now have in which to tour our swear-words! How delightfully chronological and typographically tasteful it all is! How firmly principled, how unchaotic, how waltzable-in!

And mainly, how unexpectedly funny. To judge by his helpful introduction, Mr. Lighter, who has been laboring on this project for twenty-five years, is not himself a wildly comic person, but he is an exact and deliberate and historically minded person, and he has a rare ability for positioning formerly funny words and phrases in settings that allow them to become funny once more. He is slang’s great straight man. I never suspected that I would again laugh aloud at the phrase “broken-dick motherfucker,” having found it inert for some time—but no, reading (on the plane) one of the several citations under “broke-dick adj. worthless.—usu. considered vulgar,” I was suddenly, mystifyingly, pounding the tray-table. So too with the entry for airhole:

airhole n. [partly euphem.] ASSHOLE, 1 & 2.
a1925 in Fauset Folklore from N.S. 134: Mary had a little lamb,/Its face was black as charcoal,/Every time it shook its tail,/He showed his little airhole.
1985 Webster (ABC-TV): I wear socks with black shoes. A lot of people think I’m an airhole.

And fern:

fern n. Stu. the buttocks. Joc.
1965 N.Y.C. high-school student: How’s your fern [after a fall]?
1965 Adler Vietnam Letters 99: You know, the hardest part of all this is the feeling of sitting around on our ferns, doing nothing.

And even:

asshole n. [ME arce-hoole] Also (Rare in U.S.) arsehole.—usu. considered vulgar. [See note at ASS, n., which is usually considered to be less offensive. Additional phrases in which these words appear interchangeably may be found at ASS.]
1. the anus or rectum  […]
1987 D. Sherman Main Force 183: when I tell you to do something, I expect to hear your asshole pop, do you understand me?

You enter, while studying this book, the west wing of verbal consciousness—the realm of slangfarbenmelodie, of alliterative near-similarity and drunken lateralism and chiming hostility purged of its face-to-face con-text and abstracted into music: you are in the presence, at times, of the only good things that a million anonymous bullies and sadistic drill-sergeants and cruel-minded, mean-spirited frat boys or sorority girls have bequeathed to the world:

chicken-fucker n. a depraved or disgusting fellow.—usu. constr. with baldheaded.—usu. considered vulgar.
1953 in Legman Rationale 20: Suddenly two bald-headed men enter, and the parrot says, “You two chicken-fuckers come out in the henhouse with me.”
1976–79 Duncan & Moore Green Side Out 276 [ref. to ca1960]: All right ya bald-headed chicken fuckers, I want this area policed the fuck up.
1967–80 McAleer & Dickson Unit Pride 287 [ref. to Korean War]: Heave in the first shovelful…and run like a bald-headed chicken-fucker.

Of course, nice, gentle people invent slang, too, once in a while. And nice, gentle people can take private satisfaction in slang that they would never more than mutter. In the trance of linguistic close scrutiny that this book induces, terms which would simply be tiresome or embarrassing if actually employed in speech—if used by a winking wall-to-wall carpeting salesman or an obnoxious dinner guest, say—may without warning deviate your septum here. That we manage to see them as harmless and even possibly charming is entirely to Lighter’s credit; the trick seems to hinge, curiously enough, on the repeated use of a single abbreviated versicle: “usu. considered vulgar.”


A donkey dick, for example, meaning “a frankfurter, salami, or bologna,” is “usu. considered vulgar.” Few observers would disagree. A fartsack, defined as “a sleeping bag, bedroll, bunk, cot, or bed; SACK” is, again justifiably, “usu. considered vulgar.” The morning request to “Drop your cocks and grab your socks!” is “usu. considered vulgar.” To have a bug up (one’s) ass [and vars.] (meaning to “have an unreasonable, esp. obsessive or persistent, idea”) is “usu. considered vulgar.” A come-pad (“mattress”) is “usu. considered vulgar.” Cunt-breath and dicknose are “usu. considered vulgar.” This phrase is probably the one most frequently used in the dictionary, with “usu. considered offensive” a distant second; the introductory material explains that usu. actually means “almost always, though not inevitably,” since “‘mainstream standards’ are flexible and are primarily based on situation and speaker-to-speaker relationships.” But the exoticizing Urdic or Swahilian symmetry of “usu.” gives it comic authority, as well: it serves up each livid slangwad neatly displayed on a decorative philological doily.

What is not “usu. considered vulgar” is of some interest, too. The word grumper (buttocks) is not considered vulgar, perhaps because it is relatively rare. (The citation, from 1972, reads: “Some chicks lead with the boobs…. This chick leads with the grumper.”) A Knight of the golden grummet, listed under grommet and meaning, according to a 1935 definition quoted by Lighter, “a male sexual pervert whose complex is boys,” does not rate the “usu.” phrase. To deep-throat is not vulgar. A dingleberry (helpfully cross-referenced with the earlier dillberry and fartleberry) and painstakingly defined in a 1938 citation as “Tiny globular pieces of solidified excreta which cling to the hirsute region about the anal passage”—or, if you prefer a pithier 1966 definition, as a “piece of crap hanging on a hair”—is not flagged as vulgar, although eagle shit (“the gold ornamentation on the visor of a senior officer’s cap”) is, and dingleberry cluster, meaning a military decoration, does receive a “used derisively.” The English, who sometimes become confused about such things, used dingle-berries to mean “Female breasts: low and raffish,” according to Partridge, a sense that doesn’t, on Lighter’s evidence, seem to have reached these shores—although other unvulgar American meanings Lighter does record (and which illustrate slang’s resourceful opportunism, its indifference to anatomical inconsistency) are “a doltish or contemptible person,” “the testicles,” “the clitoris or vagina,” and “splattered molten particles around a metallic weld on a pipe or vessel.”

Not only is Lighter choosy (a chooser, incidentally, is a neglected vaudevillism meaning “plagiarist”) about what words are truly vulgar, he is also interestingly selective about what words he includes in the book at all. Butt plug only appears by virtue of its derisive sense, meaning a “stupid or contemptible person.—usu. considered vulgar,” where it is followed by a corroborative quotation from Beavis and Butt-head. (“Nice try,…butt plug.”) The primary, artifactual usage of butt plug does not appear, apparently because it is (to quote the press release that accompanied review copies of the dictionary) “a descriptive term that cannot be said [i.e., expressed] with any other word.” In Lighter’s system, a word, however informal, that has no convenient synonyms probably isn’t slang—butt plug is jargon, perhaps, a “term of art” in some advanced circles. Slang is by definition gratuitous; slang words most commonly travel in loose packs of unnecessary cognates or rhymes. (Viz., breadhooks, cornstealers, daddles, flappers, flippers, grabbers, and grabhooks for “hands”; or, for “sanatorium,” booby hatch, brain college, bughouse, cackle factory, cracker factory, fool farm, foolish factory, funny factory, funny farm, giggle academy, and so on, all chronicled by Lighter; the bucolic “farm” variants are generally predated by the “factory” variants—idiomatic insanity in America seems to begin as an industrial symptom.) Even stand-alone units like cookie-duster (mustache), crotch rocket (motorcycle), dusty butt (short person), drum snuffer (safecracker), blow blood (have a nosebleed), flannel-buzzards (lice), or boom bucket (an aircraft’s ejection seat) are slang by virtue of their appreciable emotional distance from, and yet complete referential synonymy with, a unit of Standard English. Only when our culture evolves at least one other word for a butt plug will the term—if I understand Lighter—merit his definitional attention.

The truth is, though, that I probably don’t understand Lighter and I’m probably not doing justice to the complex algorithms that allow him to discriminate between slang and other kinds of verbal festivity. Why is butt plug out and French tickler in? If a lack of standard English synonyms is one of the tests for exclusion, why is an admittedly fine term like gig-line (meaning “a straight alignment of the buttons of a shirt and jacket, the belt buckle, and the fly of the trousers”) included? Is there really a standard English equivalent for such a disposition of one’s wardrobe? And why is bong, in the sense of a water-filtered pot-smoking mechanism, not to be found, while the related but more recent bong meaning a “device consisting of a funnel attached to a tube for drinking beer quickly” is? Lighter includes fluff (“the usu. passive partner in a lesbian relationship”) and sister words femme and fuckee, and even bender (“a male homosexual who habitually assumes the passive role in anal copulation”—also known as an ankle grabber), but not the related S/M sense of bottom. Fender-bender, in the automotive sense, is in, as is cluster-fuck, fuckhead, and even fenderhead, but gender-bender and genderfuck are out—hardly surprising or scandalous omissions, although both are interesting meldings, part of the steady slanging down of the high-Church word gender, which only a few years ago was esteemed by language-reformers for its lack of connotative raciness, and which is now quietly de-euphemizing, thanks to the work of genderfuck pioneers like Kate (née Albert) Bornstein, lesbian transsexual author of a play called Hidden: A Gender. In the area of lit-crit and genre studies, fuck-book is here (along with dick-book and cunt book), but friction fiction is possibly too recent or too technical.


Lighter is at his most severely exclusive regarding authorial or journalistic neologisms. For instance, his entries for bush, crank, and fudge-packer quote lines from a book of my own, being pre-existent words, whereas none of the A-through-G novelties in that same book (bobolinks, candy-corn, clit-cloister, cream horns, frans, etc .)—novelties, may I say, on which I expensed some spirit and wasted some shame—were allowed in. Coinages, Lighter explains, “owe their birth partly to high spirits but chiefly to the coiner’s forgivable desire to impress the public with his or her wit.” He censures earlier works of reference such as Berrey and Van den Bark’s The American Thesaurus of Slang (1942) for including such “ephemera,” contending that

slang differs…from idiosyncratic wordplay and other nonce figuration in that it maintains a currency independent of its creator, the individual writer or speaker.

Lighter’s experience tells him that

Most words and phrases claimed as “slang” are nonce terms or “oncers,” never to be seen or heard of again. Some become true “ghost words,” recorded in slang dictionaries for many years but never encountered in actual usage. We have attempted to exclude such expressions from this dictionary.

(“Ghost words” must never be confused with ghost turds—“accumulations of lint found under furniture.—usu. considered vulgar.”) Occasionally a fetching journalistic invention will prosper—notably the creative work of writers at Variety in the Twenties and Thirties, who brought us such necessities as turkey, lay an egg, and flop. But Lighter plays down the importance of print in slang’s genesis and dissemination: “although journalism has often encouraged the spread of slang, the chief method of popularization has always been the shifting associational networks among individuals”—particularly, he convincingly asserts, the associational networks within the US armed services. (Lighter’s command of the history of military slang is stunning: the entry for gook has over fifty citations; it is three times longer than the entry for chick.) Real slang just happens: “lexical innovations are traceable only rarely to specific persons; the proportion of slang actually created by identifiable individuals is minute.”

Despite slang’s usually anonymous and often paramilitary origins, hundreds of identifiable individuals have a place in the Dictionary, doing their bit to substantiate the existence of a given piece of loose language. Perhaps the most cheering thing about this awesome project is how seriously it takes the trade paperback. As one would expect, there are crumbs collected from movies, newspapers, TV series, linguistic research interviews, and celebrity profiles—as when Steve McQueen is quoted as saying, “I chickenshitted on the second turn”—but there are also innumerable illustrative quotations drawn from the work of novelists and litterateurs and even poets. Lighter and his colleagues really read books. It is a delight to encounter so many writers through their passing use of some regionalism, obscenity, or malediction. In this snickerer’s OED, William Faulkner appears not for some high-flown word like endure, but for ass-scratcher. Sandburg is immortalized as a user of arky malarky. I also ran into (in alphabetical order by term) Thomas Berger (ass-wipe, dinkum), Cheever (asshole used adjectivally), Sorrentino (banana nose), Eudora Welty (bohunkus), John Sayles (boot in the sense of vomit, dead presidents), Woody Allen (bowels in an uproar), Camille Paglia (breeders), Joseph Mitchell (bums), A.J. Liebling (pain in the butt), Philip Roth (circle-jerker), Harlan Ellison (clock and greaseburger), Northrop Frye (clueless), Barry Hannah (cockhead, dicking off), Henry Miller (crap), Kerouac (crockashit), and Erica Jong (crotch rot).

And there is Joseph Wambaugh (cumbucket, don’t know my dick from a dumplin), Saul Bellow (candy kid, cunt-struck), Bernard Malamud (dead-to-the-neck), Maya Angelou (dick-teaser), William Burroughs (doodle, glory hole), Danielle Steele (dumb cunt), Stephen King (el birdo, cock-knocker), Bellow (fart-blossom), Hunter Thompson (big spit), Coover (flagpole meaning penis), Grace Metalious (frig you), John O’Hara (frig), S.J. Perelman (frigged), Edmund Wilson (friggin’), H.L. Mencken (frigging, crap), Dos Passos (frigging, gash), Larry Heinemann (fuck the duck, crapola), Mailer (fuck yourself, cream), Tom Wolfe (go-to-hell as an adj.), Donald Barthelme (grog), and Robert Heinlein (grok, of course, but also go cart for “car”).

Parnassian sources such as The New York Review of Books are not neglected either—corn-holed and do (in the sexual sense) appeared in these pages, per Lighter. The Atlantic Monthly supplies the first citation for doghouse, musician’s slang for “double-bass” (1920). Esquire pops up as a locus for a rare 1976 use of dog water, which, Lighter informs us, means “clear drops of seminal fluid.” The New Yorker makes many appearances, some for nice old words like brads (“cash”), cluckhead, and cheesy. (Lighter’s crew has, by the way, come up with a sentence employing cheesy that predates by over thirty years the first cheesy citation in the Supplement to the OED. In 1863 someone named Massett wrote: “The orchestra consisting of the fiddle—a very cheezy flageolet, played by a gentleman with one eye—a big drum, and a triangle.”) The New Yorker also substantiates the word fucking used adverbially, thanks to its recent explosion of profanity, and it furnishes two separate nuances of asshole dating from 1993.

For obvious reasons, though, the magazine that is most often quoted in The Historical Dictionary of American Slang is The National Lampoon. Lighter and his crew have combed its back issues carefully in quest of elusive flannel buzzards, and they have not gone unrewarded. Yet here the editors must have had difficulty at times deciding which words were merely “nonce figuration,” to be excluded from the dictionary, and which words had obtained a “currency independent of the speaker.” The fact that The National Lampoon uses cock-locker or flog the dolphin or get your bananas peeled (all with sexual meanings) is taken to be an indication that this recherché vocabulary enjoyed a currency independent of the humorist during the period in question. It may have; Lampoon writers were expert listeners and diligent field-workers. But they were, as well, habitués of the reference room; in some cases at least, one suspects that they simply pulled down a few slang tomes, found a “ghost word” they thought was funny, and resurrected it for the greater good. P.J. O’Rourke recently told a lunch-table that he owns a whole shelf of unconventional lexicography; he and Michael O’Donohue, another Lampoon contributor and professional slangfarber, were particularly fond of one major thesaurus dating from (he thought) the Thirties—by which he surely meant Berrey and Van den Bark’s huge “ephemera”-filled collection from the Forties. In this way, out of the dried mud-flats of old reference books, to one-time creative placement in a humor magazine, to further climate-controlled stasis in Lighter’s Dictionary, are some words blessed with “currency” after a single recycling. And the language is happier for it.

Using The Historical Dictionary of American Slang will probably have long-term side-effects. Athree-week self-immersion in Lighter’s initial volume significantly altered this suggestible reader’s curse-patterns. I swore more often and more incomprehensibly while reading it than ever before; the “Captain Haddock syndrome” was especially noticeable while driving. (Captain Haddock is the character in the Tintin series who, when drunk, showers puzzling nonce-abuse on people: Poltroons! Iconoclasts!Bashi-bazouks!) To a slow motorist (with windows closed, of course, so he couldn’t hear), Iwould call out, “Go, you little scum-jockey!”—or “corn-pad” or “dirt-bonnet.” None of these formulae is to be found in Lighter (at least, there is no reason to expect scum-jockey to appear in Volume III), but reading Volume I made me say them. Furthermore, under Lighter’s fluid spell I spent several hours working on a matrix of related insults:

You   bag! ball! bomb! wad! wipe! loaf!
  cheese-   x   ? ? ?
  corn-   x   ? ? ?
  dirt- x x x      
  grease-   x        
  hose- ?     x ?  
  jiz- x     x x ?
  scum- x x   x    
  scuzz- x x     x ?
  sleaze- x x x x    
  slime-   x   x    

(An x indicates an existing piece of slang; a question mark indicates a plausible compound, which may or may not appear in the future. Whether there is any linguistic point to building such a predictive matrix is an open question.)

Some of these behavioral aberrations will pass in time, but it is at least possible that by the spring of 1997, when the final installment of this mighty triptych assumes its place in the library, those of us who have been diligently reading and waiting will discover ourselves to be marginally better people, or at least more cheerful and enlightened and tolerant swearers, as a result of what Jonathan Lighter and his cohorts have done for the massive and heretofore unmanageable dirtball of American slang.

This Issue

August 11, 1994