Skip to Main Content

(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: Slang and Unconventional English

by Edwin L. Battistella

Slang and Unconventional English

Those who feel that a dictionary should prescribe only the standard language may see a dictionary of unconventional usage as a misnomer. However, historians of language have long recognized the importance of documenting variation and ephemera, and Julie Coleman provides a history of this work in her multivolume A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries. The four volumes that have appeared to date treat 1567–1784, 1785–1858, and 1859–1936, and 1937–84. Coleman’s companion book, The Life of Slang, is a natural history of slang and a survey of English slang, and together with Michael Adams’s Slang: The People’s Poetry and Jonathan Green’s The Vulgar Tongue: Green’s History of Slang, explains, extolls, and illustrates the language that one uses to both stand out and fit in (as Adams put it).

For a starting point, one can turn to J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues, which was first published in London in a seven-volume subscriber edition (1890–1904) and reprinted in 1970 in one volume (reproducing “four original pages on a single page of larger size”). This resource covers British and American slang of the nineteenth century and selected synonyms in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Here one can learn that a “cornerman” was “a loafer; literally a lounger at corners” and that “author-baiting” was a theatrical term that involved calling the author of an unsuccessful play to the stage for boos. And who would not love to reestablish the word “bedoozle,” which Farmer and Henley give as an Americanism meaning “to bewilder”?

The prolific Eric Partridge brought an international perspective to the study of slang. A New Zealander by birth, Partridge became interested in slang as a soldier in World War I, and his interest continued after he immigrated to Britain. His Slang To-day and Yesterday: With a Short Historical Sketch and Vocabularies of English, American, and Australian Slang appeared in 1933, followed four years later by his major work, now titled The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor. The most recent edition of that work (a two-volume collection of about 65,000 entries) devotes equal attention to US slang, British slang, and slang in other English-speaking countries. Jonathon Green’s Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, a single-volume world dictionary of Anglophone slang, includes almost 90,000 headword entries. Included is slang from Australia and New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, the Caribbean, and India as well as the UK and the US. Green provides dates, etymologies, and geographical and usages notes, but he was unable to squeeze in citations. Citations can be found in his three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which includes nearly 100,000 entries and more than 400,000 citations. GDoS, as it is known, is available in an online (and updated) form. It is the OED of slang.

Readers interested in the history of American slang will find Mencken’s The American Language (discussed above) a good source, and they may also want to seek out the journal American Speech (online), which regularly covers slang and other neologies in its “Among the New Words” column. Robert Chapman’s New Dictionary of American Slang has 19,000 entries covering American slang through the 1990s together with citations and etymologies. The first iteration of this volume (published as Dictionary of American Slang and written by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Flexner) included 21,000 entries from all levels of society and walks of life.  Many entries of that earlier edition include citations, date information, and notes about the usage, such as “c. 1930 hobo and soldier use,” “c. 1900 [and] never common,” and “taboo.” The Wentworth and Flexner volume also includes a strong bibliography and a set of word lists that describes the processes by which slang is slung. Those interested in slang used in the US once anticipated the completion of the projected four-volume history begun by editor J. E. Lighter. Originally titled Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS), the project began at Random House, which published the first two volumes, then moved to Oxford University Press (with the title projected as Historical Dictionary of American Slang), but no further volumes have appeared.