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 a lergy, sweat it out, then, once recovered, go down the pally.

For such words, a new catalog has lately been added. Jonathon Green, noted in his native Britain as the reigning authority on informal English (The Big Book of Filth, The Big Book of Being Rude, and Newspeak: A Dictionary of Jargon are among prominent titles from his thirty years of study), has recently produced, and monumentally, one of the first dictionaries of slang to be based on the same historical principles made famous by James Murray and his predecessors on the Oxford English Dictionary. But the phrase “one of the first” should please be noted: for there has recently appeared another such dictionary, equally large and equally ambitious and which, had life been a little more fair, would have made it to the shelves first. And therein lies a melancholy tale.

But first, what exactly is slang, other than a slang word for a kind of language—a word that itself is probably a clipping from a possessive form, beggars’ language, soldiers’ language? Is it simply and merely the street tongue, the vernacular of the field, the front and the factory, the language that, as Carl Sandburg has it, “rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”? Was Ambrose Bierce right to dismiss it as “the grunt of the human hog”?

Or is it somewhat yet grander, a linguistic invention worthy of G.K. Chesterton’s assertion in his Defence of Slang that “all slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry”? Chesterton adored slang, especially when stacked against what he thought the starchy aridity of conversation in Belgravia drawing rooms. He loved phrases like keep your hair on, or the notion of a conceited person having a swelled head. The world of slang, he wrote, “is a kind of topsy-turvydom of poetry, full of blue moons and white elephants, of men losing their heads and men whose tongues run away with them….” Would the magnificent robustness and flexibility of Standard English tend to ebb away and ossify, he wondered, without the constant jostling and fizz provided by the jokester in his bar and the curser at his anvil? Is the American version of English—or the new language now called simply American—all the brighter and more vivid, as H.L. Mencken argued in his The American Language, because of the enthusiastic incorporation of slang into American literature and journalism? Is slang, in short, a lexical construct that is born of casually low intent while accomplishing an unintentionally high linguistic purpose?


Our undying fascination with slang—a fascination made evident by the vast number of dictionaries devoted to it—derives in part, I suspect, from its essentially fugitive nature, a nature that prompts us to wonder whether any particular word or phrase will ever manage the leap from the informal world of the street to a permanent presence in the standard lexicon.

Words sneak themselves into the vocabulary in all manner of ways. Lexicographers have been long enthralled by the ever-evolving meanings of words that already exist—this is the very basis of Murray’s OED, to be sure. We readily accept that new words are being constantly invented to describe new-made things and concepts: television, boycott, boson; and that foreign imports and loan words—amok, ketchup, anorak, colleen, axolotl, poncho, agitprop—stream into the language. But the reading of slang offers us something rather more satisfying. It is, after all, quite remarkable to be able to gaze into the formation of any future. To examine the speech of the streets closely is to glimpse at new forms of language struggling into life before our very eyes. Metrosexuals are everywhere; sticker shock is seen in the most refined of newspapers; it is now a fully established notion to have a husband chair in a women’s dress shop; and while the concept of santorum—a “byproduct of anal sex”—may die with the political dreams of the candidate for whom it was named, it is a word that could well survive.

If the sheer number of slang dictionaries assembled over the ages is impressive, then their antiquity is even more so—with the first of them appearing to antedate even the first full-dress English dictionaries. For though the earliest true attempt at a lexicon of more-or-less standard English words was Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall of 1604, the first list of slang words—a subset of the whole, admittedly, and so perhaps easier to assemble—appeared almost forty years before, in 1567.

This list was assembled by Thomas Harman, a sickly, well-born, and unusually curious and sympathetic magistrate. It is a modest list indeed—114 words only—and is included in a short book titled A Caveat or Warening for Commen Cursetors. Harman had occasioned his keen and long-standing critical interest in the social life and habits of the “vagabonds”—the Old French–derived term he chose to use—while listening to their pleas as they appeared on charges before him. In line with his interest, and in part to help his mystified colleagues, he decided to note and codify the words he heard these unfortunate loafers speak, and from them build a vade mecum to help improve the workings of the court.

Julie Coleman, a historical lexicographer at the University of Leicester who has for the past fifteen years been assembling a comprehensive analysis of the scores of slang and cant dictionaries (and is shortly to publish The Life of Slang), reckons Harman to be “the father of canting lexicography.” His book’s value to collectors is immense, naturally; but it also happens to be of great significance to linguists, for its collection of words, when read today, illustrates the tendency that fascinates us so—that such a good proportion of the casual and vulgar discourse of old is amusing, clever, useful, or sonorously attractive enough to make it, eventually, all the way across the fields of usage into the formal and proper reaches of the language.

Most of the words and phrases Harman listed have long since vanished. To towre was to see, to dup the gyger was to open the door, to prygge was to ride, and the verb nygle was the way one crudely spoke, in Harman’s corner of sixteenth-century Kent, about having sex. Ugly words all, and deservedly done with. But the better ones remain. Cove, meaning a fellow, a chap, is still listed in the OED as a slang word (and appears, I see, in a current issue of Private Eye as I write this: a just-sacked British government official was described as “a shifty cove”). Booty and filch are there too—yet not as slang, but fully accepted into the mainstream. Such progress is noteworthy: from a private code peculiar to sixteenth-century Kentish vagabondage has come linguistic respectability today. By such illustration does Harman’s Warening, and a thousand other later dictionaries, display the struggle of language birth in something like real time.


It can be both instructive and amusing to trawl through these old slang word-lists to observe the varied fates of the entries. For example: in 1698 the word collector known only as “B.E. Gent” listed the charmingly evocative term beard-splitter for a man overeagerly interested in bedding women. Its use is minimal today, but from B.E.’s same list boglander survives as a rude word for an Irishman, numbskull is now a more-or-less acceptably standard word for someone pathologically stupid, and cluck, back in the seventeenth century a slang onomatopoeia for the noise made by a chicken, is just about the only word one would ever use for the sound today.

The success rate—the street-to-pulpit ratio, one might call it—remains more or less constant down the years. Most words vanish, some stay as slang, some become standard. So, a century after B.E., we see from the famous Classical Dictionary of Francis Grose that the naval punishment called Abel-Wackets is long forgotten, as well it might be; the whole kit and caboodle stays, though for now usually described as slang; and tantrum, once highly informal, is now made entirely good, utterable by parsons everywhere.

Then again, a hundred years later still, salt-water vegetables, listed in a Victorian catalog of New York slang, no longer means oysters (nor anything else, unless perhaps dulse—red seaweed—and carageenan—its extract); copper is today recognizably slang for police now almost always shortened to cop, as is jug for prison; and whiff—though informal slang back then—is a word quite properly standard nowadays, for inhaling or exhaling smoke, or a missed stroke in golf.

Existing words often become subsumed into the slang lexicon, and then released after they have served their term. Occupy is a fine example: today, its newest meaning (in Wall Street and all over) is political. Three centuries ago, it was entirely sexual, a term once listed, but seldom used in polite society. Shakespeare grumbled about it in Henry IV:

A captaine! God’s light, these villains will make the word as odious as the word “occupy,” which was an excellent good word before it was ill sorted….

Such list-making involved legions. Collectors were everywhere, welcome at dinner parties and often found amusing (mainly because they knew all the forbidden words, and as soi-disant scholars could employ them without demur). Shaw’s Professor Higgins, the young Gilbert in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Billy Wilder’s dashing Professor Potts (made especially dashing by Gary Cooper) in Ball of Fire, all made fun of the dottiness of the calling. But when two truly enormous slang catalogs were finally made—the first in England by Eric Partridge in 1937, the second in America by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Flexner in 1960—it was supposed that ever-newer editions of those two monumental books would henceforward act as catchalls for such new words as might appear, and that the amateur pamphleteers might shrivel away, and something would finally still the word-list madness.

Yet of course it did not. Technology, fashion, brand-new crimes, exotic drugs from hitherto unexplored corners of the world, ever-innovative sexual habits, hip lingo—all of these further accelerated the production of ever-newer and more specialized lists (of, for example, surfer slang, masturbatory jargon, drinking argot, rhyming slang, Valley Talk). And then finally, during the mid-1990s, and quite independently, two lexicographers christened Jonathan (though with different spellings), one in London and the other in eastern Tennessee, embarked on what each believed to be the definitive and yet ever-expandable multivolume historical dictionary of slang, each intended to become the OED, the durable classic, of linguistic informality.

And it is here that the melancholy tale unfolds.

Jonathan Lighter was a high school student in New York when he first became fascinated by slang, and embarked on an obsessive hobby of recording, storing, and listing any word or phrase that caught his fancy. He watched endless episodes of popular TV shows, spent hours at the movies, pored over books and magazines and comics, and listened to chatter in cafés and bus stations and street corners. By 1971, and now at NYU, he had a determined lexicographic ambition, and published a paper in American Speech on the military slang of World War I. In 1980 came his doctoral thesis: A Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume 1, the Letter A, and with 1,800 definitions (from A as a euphemism for ass in 1941 soldier-speak, and aardvark—a dolt, from the oafish captain in Catch-22—up to the digestive complaint known since 1953 as the Aztec two-step).

The response to the thesis led Random House to commission Lighter to assemble a great dictionary. It would run, they agreed, to four volumes. It would be like the OED, based on the history of each chosen word. It took the better part of a decade for Lighter to accomplish the necessary research, but the first volume (A–G, ending with a 1956 word gytch, meaning to steal) eventually came out in 1994, to widespread critical praise. It was followed three years later by the second, running from haba-haba (for look alive!) to Ozzie (for Australian).

Each volume of what came to be known as HDAS sold 15,000 copies—enough, one would have supposed, for at least a modest commercial reward. But it was apparently too modest for Random House—or rather, for Bertelsmann AG, which by now had bought Bennett Cerf’s sixty-year-old publishing house. The accountants in Gütersloh warned Lighter that his project was not making economic sense. He would have to halve his pay, they said. They would brook no argument. And after Lighter not unreasonably balked, they promptly closed the project down.

There then followed a lingering purgatory. The dictionary’s editor moved to Oxford University Press, and managed to negotiate a deal with Random House that might have saved the project: OUP would republish the existing two volumes and complete the set by producing the final two on their own. But just four years ago, in what seemed to many (not the least of them Jonathan Lighter) a surprising and deeply dismaying cop-out (“an escape, a cowardly compromise or evasion, a retreat from reality”: Hunter S. Thompson, 1964), Oxford decided to stop publication as well. Despite ample funds (some of which were used to compensate Lighter and purchase his remaining database) and despite more than a century and half of commitment to lexical scholarship, OUP would not allow the publication of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. When I first approached Lighter to ask how he felt about this turn of events, he responded bleakly: “Recalling the years I put in on HDAS has become so distasteful that it is hard for me to discuss the subject with equanimity or even maturity.”

Soon afterward he left lexicography to teach a course at the University of Tennessee on the literature of war. Much war literature is necessarily antiwar. After the invasion of Iraq, he told me, the course was canceled.

Life has been much kinder to Jonathon Green, an Englishman now living in London but who, thanks to an unexpected legacy from an uncle he hardly knew, and to whom his new dictionary is dedicated, now spends much of his time in Paris. His fascination with English slang also dates from his youth; but unlike Lighter, he is not a scholar attached to an academy. Instead, he is still very much and publicly a child of Sixties counterculture. If he is known in Britain for popular volumes and journalism devoted to sex, cannabis, restaurants, clothing, and the vernacular of cynicism, of immigration, and of prejudice, it is because he has learned it all from personal, streetwise experience.

There was something both inevitable and understandable about Green’s mid-1990s decision to create—largely from his own existing slang database, and the various computer-based listings that have since become available—his new Dictionary of Slang. With Lighter’s book now permanently shelved, there was effectively no competition, and there can be no doubt that Green’s volumes, which can easily be brought up to date as the informal English language continues to expand and multiply, will dominate the field. (Lighter finds it cruelly ironic—as will others—that the distributor of the three-volume work in the United States is Oxford University Press.)

It is perhaps not entirely fair to attempt a comparison between a fully formed three-volume dictionary of English slang and a half-completed four-volume dictionary of American slang. Some might suggest that the introductions set the tone: Green’s is a breezy nine pages, fun to read; Lighter’s runs to an excessive twenty-six pages, and has a more sober and authoritative tone. Green, one might say, seems not to take slang quite so seriously.

But introductions are of less importance than the work itself; and here a close study of sample pages shows the real variance, that between a good dictionary on the one hand, and a truly great one on the other. The difference becomes clear from page one, even line one. Both dictionaries begin with a discussion of the slang usages of the letter “A,” as an informal abbreviation. And here, crucially, Lighter stumbles—for despite his being a compendium of American slang only, the first entry in Green for the letter A is an American usage that doesn’t appear in Lighter at all.

Lighter offers just two usages—a military shorthand for ass and a Sixties term for amphetamine. Green, by contrast, offers five meanings—American shorthand for the Model-A Ford, for the drug LSD, and then for amphetamine; a West Indian term of dislike; and finally the usage with which Lighter begins, and that is as shorthand for ass. (To be fair to Lighter, he offers up an earlier example of this particular usage, from wartime in 1941, while Green’s is later, from a 1964 novel that was set in World War II.)

The superiority of Green remains evident on every page, in every line, in almost every illustrated quotation—even though frequently the ever-assiduous Lighter does manage to find an earlier citation. Take felony shoes, a police term that Lighter managed to discover in a 1979 issue of National Lampoon. His entry simply offers the synonym—sneakers—and three quotations; Green, on the other hand, gives us six citations, from 1989 to 2005, and explains very usefully that the term “is implicitly racist, suggesting that the (orig. black) teenagers who particularly favour such footwear are automatically up to no good.”

And if such random choice is not convincing, look at the word for which I was searching when I came across felony shoes. This was the sexually supercharged verb to felch. It is a term that goes quite unexplained by Lighter, who is evidently so squeamish that he advises readers merely to gather the meaning of this “vulgar” term by reading his five chosen quotations. Green, however, has no such qualms: he gives us a lengthy explanation and then ruminates on the possible linguistic associations with the old verb of thievery, to filch. Both editors offer up the same first appearance of the verb to felch in Bruce Rodgers’s 1972 lexicon of homosexual terms, The Queens’ Vernacular.

There is, sad to say, no real comparison between the two books. It pains me to judge Jonathan Lighter so harshly, for he has labored mightily, and for half a lifetime. But he did not use the computerized word-sifting methods that so assisted Jonathon Green. Nor, I suspect, did he have quite the brio, the enthusiasm, and the sense of fun of the Englishman. Jonathon Green’s is a dictionary for the ages, as special a catalog of word-biographies as James Murray himself might have created, and likely to endure as long as the OED, to which it is a most wonderful appendix. To praise another way: Green’s dictionary is, in short, the dog’s bollocks.

Back on Perry Street, Madeline Kripke has, of course, mint copies of both dictionaries. But about which one she, with all her accumulated knowledge of slang lexicography, supposes to be the better: she merely gives a Delphic grin and keeps her own counsel. Bravo to both men is all she allows, for each tackling, as best he can, the ever-changing, ever-expanding mongrel tongue that is, in all its manifestations, the English language.