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How to write a slang dictionary

1.      Cancel your appointments

‘Have you ever thought of writing a slang dictionary,’ an editor asked in 1993 and although I had, a decade earlier, and published it, I said only, ‘Yes.’ And had a publisher. The problem, in these globalizing days, is keeping them. There would be four before the book finally appeared. I managed a single-volume dictionary for this first supporter five years later and on the back of that was commissioned my monster, Green’s Dictionary of Slang. ‘On historical principles’, which, à la OED, means citations. Half a millennium’s slang, culled from the entire anglophone world.

The book came out in the UK last November. Three volumes, 6,200 pages, 110,000 headwords, 415,000 citations. I wept. And the print version in the US, published February 2011, is to be followed by an online e-book version, which will bring it into a world that, when I began, barely existed. Slang, that ever-evolving, ever-inventive vocabulary, will doubtless appreciate the new opportunities provided by technology.

It took 17 years and became a true life’s work. Not in years but as something that like a creature straight out of Hollywood, expanded to take over every aspect of my being. The book became my life. And vice versa. For me, there was nothing else. For my partner and chief researcher, there would be a decade in libraries – the British Library and the NY Public Library among them – truffling out citations. For one colleague, who began as an editorial assistant and stayed to become editor-in-chief, a level of commitment that I didn’t deserve, though we both believed that book certainly did. If I tot up the contributions of everyone who helped, I am looking at at least fifty ‘people-years’ of effort.

2.      Find some headwords

Headwords are what the user looks up first. The A-Z listing. Language, cussedly, does not appear shiny, new and squeaky-clean to adorn each new dictionary. The first job is to gut one’s predecessors. There is a slang dictionary canon. It starts in 1535 and I read them all. And after that, expansion, which meant first my own library, and thence other, greater libraries, and magazines, newspapers, scripts (radio, TV and movies), lyrics of rock and blues and rap, and then, that most mixed of blessings, the Internet with its blogs and tweets, its newspaper and literary databases, its Google Book Search and all the rest.

3.      Define them

Unlike the OED, which takes in the entirety of standard English, the slang dictionary looks at narrower fields. Crime, money, drink, drugs, racist and nationalist slurs, insults, men (self-aggrandizing), women (feared and seemingly loathed), the unattractive, the stupid, the mad. The body, its parts, and what we do with them: sex, violence, defecation, bodily fluids. No abstracts, no caring, sharing nor compassion. One must be accurate: sexual intercourse is just that and you offer that definition 1500 times. Same for the rest. Twenty-four hundred fools, thirteen hundred penises, eleven hundred whores, a thousand policemen, and on it goes. A narrow waterfront, but with its endless re-invention, a very deep one. Slang as a word is hard to define, but it is above all a lexis of synonymy.

4.      Etymologize them

Some of slang is rooted in anecdote (but beware: therein too often lies the false friendship of popular and thus inaccurate etymology), but much is ludic: tweaking, twisting and turning upside down and inside out the words of standard English. Dog, rat, cat, hot, cool, bad. One cannot etymologize such terms other than the succinct ‘SE’. But slang is always eager to learn, to adapt: there are roots drawn from every western European language, roots in classical and vulgar Latin, in Greek, in Romani and Hebrew or in the creoles of the Caribbean. You benefit from the work of those scholars who have had the time to dissect the nuances of a single word or phrase. But you have 110,000 of them: time is not an option. Even over 17 years. And sometimes there is even guesswork; inspired guesswork, accurate guesswork, one hopes, but a marginal language, spoken by the marginal, does not give up its secrets so willingly.

5.      Cite them

And then you prove them. Citations can provide headwords, definitions, shadings of use and meaning. But headwords, the core list of which had been amassed before the cited work was commissioned, have to find citations. Above all, citations prove use. Not all of it, but field work isn’t an option, and what one is looking for is a concrete record. One reads. Others read. And while it’s my name on the cover, I am infinitely grateful for the skills and dedication of the ‘others’ who have been involved. The database expands. There is no slang corpus and these entries offer a term’s development on the basis of chronology – earliest senses first – rather than the popularity of its uses listed in diminishing order. There are 6,000-plus print titles in the bibliography, and many non-print sources. The problem for one’s predecessors was to find examples; now with the Internet the problem is that there are so many potential sources, when exactly one may risk halting the research. And one cannot read everything. Choices are made and citing, with its holy grail: the discovery of a term’s first use, remains essentially serendipitous. One day everything will be online and all will be revealed; but then, dare I suggest, half the pleasure of exploration will have gone.

6.      And when it’s published? Start over.

Lexicography is not a completist pursuit. No dictionary is ever finished. There are only publishers’ deadlines. No dictionary is ever good enough. I am already revising, correcting, amending, and thanks to slang’s infinite inventiveness, expanding. And while I was away for 17 years the world has turned upside down. One reviewer has already suggested that mine may be the last big reference work to appear between hard covers. I agree. And even welcome it. The potential, not least in the possible complexity and sophistication of searches, perfectly illustrated by the recently re-vamped OED, is irresistible. And you can’t do that in print. So next stop: online, with regular updating and even, but carefully mediated, user input.
So there you are. Done, as they say, and dusted, or as the British young prefer, sorted. ‘Why do I do it?’ asked the Bonzo Dog Band in 1969. And answered; ‘I don’t know but I know I do it every day.’ Indeed I do. Trust me, I’m a lexicographer.

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