Welcome to the twelfth and latest update of the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. It marks the third birthday of the online version of the dictionary, which was launched in October 2016. It is also twelve months since it was decided to make full access free.
As ever, some statistics: research over the last three months has added 212 new slang terms; 311 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and some 2543 new citations – including ante-dates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms – have been uploaded within 1682 terms. In total the database currently offers 55,313 headwords (within which are nested over 135,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by over 650,000 citations). All this material is on offer to every user.
For an overview, with the fruits of the last quarter’s research in chronological order, all users of the dictionary can go here.This uses the same software as the Timelines of Slang. New terms are marked in red, ante-dates in blue. As pioneered in recent updates, the format has been improved: entries now link to the specific part of a database headword, its sense and where pertinent its homonym number. Unfortunately the software does not permit click-through access (this is in development) , but users will be able to see at once which part of an entry has improved.
Last month I was invited to Cokethorpe School in Oxfordshire to talk to the Sixth Form about slang in in the context of the emerging world of identity politics. Can the two co-exist? There is much more to be said on the topic, but this, I would suggest, was a preliminary dip of the lexicographical toe.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT SLANG
I am a lexicographer. I write dictionaries. Of slang in my case, but nonetheless, dictionaries. I’ve been doing it for around 40 years and have every intention of going on until I crash forward into the keyboard, ideally in the midst of dealing with some particularly lubricious term.
Meanwhile I am here to talk. What I want to look it is how, in what we can surely term a new world, a new social and linguistic environment as it were, I and everyone else, are going to deal with slang. Being a lexicographer I have a system. Which means my first port of call is always: tell them what it means.
Let’s start with slang itself.
Slang. I shall be coarse and I make no apologies. Such is the nature of the beast. In the words of the late, and indubitably great rock ’n’ roller Ian Dury, who was quoting something scrawled across a wall: ‘Arseholes, bastards, fucking, cunts and pricks’. That’s right: ‘Dirty words’. ‘Bad language’. That is, is it not, the popular view. And the popular view is half right. Slang is not ‘bad’ but it is language. We, or most of us, use it to communicate. On that basis it is language as much as is standard English, as much as is jargon, as much as is technicality. As much as is any of the variant registers that make up our national speech.
So words, yes, like any others. But ‘dirty’ words? Of course I disagree. How can a word be ‘dirty’. Vowels, consonants, arranged in a certain order, used for a variety of reasons.
Amassing a database – 140,000 words and phrases, 650,000 quotes to back them up – and thence a dictionary from the widest possible sources, I cannot accept this easy dismissal of the topic as ‘dirty words’.
Not only that: it’s not just what the words mean, but what they do. The key word when it comes to slang is subversion. Undermining, denying, mocking, arguing. Slang scores badly when it comes to offering terms for abstract concepts, but if it has a single one, then it must be doubt. Taking the mickey, to use its own vocabulary. By the way, taking the mickey is a euphemism. It comes from taking the mickey bliss, which is rhyming slang. Whether there was a real-life Mr Bliss I haven’t a clue, but you will be able to guess the rhyme.
Slang doesn’t do happy-clappy. Slang offers a vocabulary and a voice to all our negatives. Our inner realities: lusts, fears, hatreds, self-indulgences. It subscribes to nothing but itself – no belief systems, no true believers, no faith, no religion, no politics, no party. It is, for those who follow Freudian psycho-analysis, the linguistic id.
The id, as laid out in the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis of 1933, is:
the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, […] we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations… It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.
Id. The German and before that Latin for ‘it’.
It is voyeuristic, amoral, libertarian and libertine. It is vicious. It is cruel. It is self-indulgent. It treats all theologies – secular as well as spiritual – with the contempt that they deserve. It is funny. It is fun.
It is also resolutely urban.
No city, it has been suggested, and I agree, no slang. Standard dictionary definitions of ‘slang’ make clear what it is that links the city and its language: the over-riding suggestion is of speed, fluidity, movement. The descriptors that recur are ‘casual’, ‘playful’, ‘ephemeral’, ‘racy’, ‘humorous’, ‘irreverent’. These are not the terminology of lengthy, measured consideration. Slang’s words are twisted, turned, snapped off short, re-launched at a skewed angle. Some with their multiple, and often contrasting definitions seem infinitely malleable, shape-shifting: who knows what hides round their syllabic corners. It is not, I suggest, a language that works out of town; it requires the hustle and bustle, the rush, the lights, the excitement and even the muted (sometimes far from muted) sense of impending threat. To use slang confidently one needs that urban cockiness.
Slang offers long-established themes. We can see them in the slangs of classical Greek and Latin onwards. The first English lists were made in 1532 and the main imagery – sex, food, violence and intoxication – was there then. It remains, even if the lists are far, far longer. It reflects the way that we think of certain topics. One might call it stereotyping since it is often in stereotypes that slang deals but could a better synonym be psychological ‘shorthand’?
Which means to me that while the social backdrop, the environment, undoubtedly changes, slang remains indispensable. It has a job to do.
Why so many terms for the same thing? In this case a sample of ‘drunk’. Because slang was meant to be secret. The first recorded users were criminals. If a word was ‘translated’ by the authorities, then you came up with a new one. We’re still at it, even in this age of digitized transparency.
So what do the similarities tell us? That the basic concerns remain consistent in slang as they do in much that is human: sex, money, intoxication, fear (of others), aggrandizement (of oneself). This – broadbrush, approximate, based on some pretty wide-ranging searches – is the taxonomy, the list of topics that I have found in my database. I am may be a bit behind in the figures but this is how things are:
Crime and Criminals 5012 / Drink, Drinks, Drinking and Drunks 4589 / Drugs 3976 / Money 3342 / Women (of various descriptions, almost none of them complementary) 2480 / Fools and Foolish 2403 / Men (of various descriptions, not invariably, but often self-aggrandising) 2183/ Sexual Intercourse 1740 / Penis: 1351 / Homosexuals/-ity 1238 / Prostitute/-ion 1185 / Vagina 1180 / Policeman / Policing 1034 / Masturbate/-ion 945 / Die, Death, Dead 831 / Beat or Hit 728 / Mad 776 / Anus or Buttocks 634 / Terms of Racial or National abuse: 570 (+ derivations = c. 1000, with blacks and Jews leading the parade) / Defecate/-ion & Urinate/-ion 540 / Kill or Murder 521 / Unattractive 279 / Angry 255 / Fat 247 / Vomiting 219
All concrete. No abstracts. Caring, sharing, selflessness and compassion? To use one of those euphemisms in which slang, trying to be at least vaguely polite, abounds: sweet fanny adams.
Another euphemism, by the way, another backstory: unlike Mr Bliss, the unfortunate Miss Adams definitely existed. She was just eight when in August 1867 she was murdered, then cut to pieces by one Frederick Baker. When he was hanged at Winchester that Christmas Eve, 5000 people watched the execution. The Royal Navy, with brutal humour, used the name to mean tinned mutton.
The current environment is big on safe spaces, on trigger warnings, on the obsessive avoidance of even micro-aggressions. Heaven forfend that anyone should stumble into a world that might worry them. Identity politics has weaponised the group, and seems to have cast off a layer of protective skin when it comes to shrugging off real or perceived insults.
But slang is an unsafe space. It has no time for political correctness, none for true belief. Nor does it turn the other cheek, other, perhaps than shifting a buttock all the better to deliver a noisesome fart.
Racist and nationalist, all-purpose-sexist, variously phobic, if it lacks micro-aggressions then it is because its own aggression is never merely ‘micro’. It is contemptuous of the special snowflakes and their identity politics and if it tosses snowballs, they are lined with stones. It is filled with stereotypes, how else to define the necessary ‘other’ against whom it aims its weaponry, but it lays down no commandments. It is neither naive nor optimistic, it does not demand that things be otherwise, it knows too much. It is, in other words, real. Too real?
I would not pretend that slang’s critics wouldn’t say that yes, it’s far too real, and offer many negatives to back up their opinion. And I, of course, am a special pleader. But I cannot back down: for me slang, with its emphasis on sex, drugs and at least in a figurative sense, all the self-indulgences that can be labelled rock ’n’ roll, represents its users not as they should be, but how they are. As the American comedian Lenny Bruce once noted, everybody wants ‘what should be’, but ‘what should be’ does not exist. There is only ‘what is.’ Might I suggest: slang simply is.
Call me a cynic, but to me slang paints a picture that shows ourselves at our most human. Which doesn’t, unfortunately, mean nice. Slang is an equal-opportunity vilifier.
One last thing: slang, the language of rebellion, is also the language of the young. It works best in the mouths of those who can still delude themselves that rebellion is possible, that utopia is just around the corner, that the new boss will not be just the old boss revisited. The old know better, or should. Form alters but substance does not and we shall see more of the same. Thus slang is the property of the young.
You will have noticed that I do not qualify, other perhaps than my recently installed pacemaker, as in any way ‘young’. There is something absurd about me collecting the language of you. I am 71. Next year I should be 72. Slang however, is 17. Slang is always 17. Next year and for ever after. So I cannot deny the absurdity of my job. On the other hand, do I see any takers? I am sure those who use and create the counter-language have too much fun using and creating to sit down and write it down. You may leave it to me.
All of which, dare I suggest, makes for a problem. If I have defined slang, at least as I see it, what about environment, the backdrop to this morning’s talk. I have mentioned it in passing, let us default to every lexicographer’s best friend another dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary, the great fall-back position for all definers, has a number of definitions. The one that seems relevant is number 4:
‘The social, political, or cultural circumstances in which a person lives, esp. with respect to their effect on behaviour, attitudes, etc.; (with modifying word) a particular set of such circumstances.’
And if I am honest, that environment is not especially welcoming to slang.
As my taxonomy should make clear, slang does not really do abstract concepts. Love, for instance, is conspicuous only by its absence. Making it is one thing, feeling it quite another. As I say, it’s all about doubt.
This is not what our current social environment demands. We are living in a period of black and white, of political and other zealotries, of ideological purities, of no-platforming, of the cancel culture, of condemnation by hashtag, the best-known of which is of course #metoo. None of these have much, if any toleration for nuance, for the grey area. Like a traditional Hollywood western, there are goodies and baddies, white hats and black hats. Which is how it should be, say those who promote such beliefs: all the better to identify you with. Grey areas are for wimps, the centrist dad, the slug and the melt.
OK. But they are beliefs which I, and surely I am not alone, find…difficult. Indeed, I have experienced my own micro version. I have a new book out next month (https://amzn.to/2JpW1ug). It concerns the relationship of women and slang. Not in slang, that’s a depressing story as one might expect from what is seen largely as a ‘man-made’ language. But about women as users, creators, exploiters and so on. The book, by the way, was to be entitled Bitching. No longer. That was censored too. I asked a friend, much celebrated in the words business herself, to write an introduction. No problems, until she mailed me: ‘as a woman, I cannot contribute my name to a book written by a man’. Then there was the copy editor who declared herself ‘uncomfortable’ with a couple of my comments, which placed #metoo in a historical context. She demanded their removal. I have written over 60 books. This is the first censorship I have encountered.
As I say, this is the world, the environment in which we, at least the UK and much of the West, are living.
If you look at slang, and particularly the words that have been found unacceptable over the centuries, they fall into three major chunks:
- Parts of the Body and what we do with them (mainly sex and defecation)
- Racism, Sexism, Homphobia and most recently a variety of Gender sensitivities
To put it another way:
BLASPHEMY (up to 18C)
PRUDERY (from late 18c onwards, though eroding)
Blasphemy lasts till around 1700. All those seemingly funny words – oddsbodikins (God’s little body), zounds (God’s wounds), ’slids (God’s eyelids) and many more – really mattered. What was vital was not, as the Ten Commandments put it, to take the name of the word in vain. So no direct swearing about God or Jesus Christ.
Other religions – Judaism, Islam – were not included. They could be, and enthusiastically were treated with scorn and insults. It was open season on any outsider, whether through geography (which included anyone outside England, including the Scots, Welsh and Irish, let alone the French, Dutch and those from more exotic lands) and, inevitably, colour. The word racism has not been found prior to 1903, racialism is slightly earlier in 1880, but the mindset was always there. How could slang, the cradle of insults, resist.
But nothing lasts, not even piety. Blasphemy gradually lost its shock value and was replaced in taboo by what many people would see as the real ‘dirty words’. The physical stuff. Funnily enough many of these words were quite acceptable till around 1800.
If that toleration vanished, the reason was not the words as such, but the larger demands of international rivalries. Across the Channel, the French had a growing empire, and an academy of intellectuals to back it up, and the intellectuals created a dictionary which came out in 1694 and claimed to polish the national language so as to reflect the nation’s self-image. A great power needed a great language. No more sniggering about sex or lavatories. Or not officially. And since the British too had an empire, and the French were the national enemy we had to follow suit. English had to be smartened up as well. Those words for sex and body parts were no longer acceptable. Wandering, exiled, they met the slang dictionaries and have pretty much stayed there ever since.
Last in line, ‘courtesy’. And it is courtesy, under its new names, that forms the underpinning of the current environment.
And in some ways, if we don’t like the new, sensitive world, we’ve only ourselves to blame. ‘Do you like it, do you hate it’ as the song went back then, ‘there it is the way you made it!’ Honest, we really meant well.
I would suggest this desire not to offend was very much a Sixties creation. Linguistic racism – slang terms like nigger, jewboy, paki, dago, slant-eye – was no longer acceptable, and became ever less so. Sexual slurs – queer, lezzy, tranny – joined them on the blacklist. No-one would pretend that such slurs haven’t carried on, but no-one would continue to pretend, or not successfully, that they were remotely acceptable.
Of course nothing’s quite so simple. One taboo didn’t stand smartly aside just because a new one had entered the room. For some people blasphemy remains vitally important, and while ‘courtesy’ is replacing ‘prudery’ to a greater extent as each generation follows its predecessor, it would be foolish to suggest that the classic ‘dirty words’ had some been washed squeaky clean. It is, dare I suggest, a grey area. On the one hand the classic four-letter words (even if the grossest of all, the ‘Oedipal polysyllable’, requires a dozen of them) have simultaneously emerged into far more open use, typically in movie or TV scripts, in rap lyrics or the pages of fiction, not to mention everyday conversations. But at the same time newspapers still opt for asterisks (and is there anything less secret than these coy punctuations?) and the terms themselves are reduced to ‘bombs’ – the ‘F-bomb’ – or ‘words’ – the ‘N-word’. Again no secrecy there, but the environment is, at least on the surface, satisfied.
At the same time, some of those who were once the subject of racial or sexual abuse, have now re-appropriated those same slurs and now brandish them as flags of pride. Nigger and queer assume a completely new life when used by men and women of colour or by homosexuals. This is interesting but the problems remain when those who lack the right still use the terms.
One group, you may have noticed, did not even then really make the cut. The slang database offers around 2500 words for women, and that’s not including those for sex workers (another 1000) and the parts of the female body. These, it appeared, could carry on unprotected. Feminists complained but there was no widespread take-up.
Now, of course, women stand very much centre stage. There is, among much else, a campaign to excise some of the many terms for woman or girl that, almost always slang, have entered the mainstream dictionaries. My own take, of course, is that dictionaries are there to describe, to show what is going on in the language, and not to prescribe, to say what is good and thus in addition what is ‘bad’.
This is an old argument. And to me lexicography must fight the censor, however well-intentioned: it isn’t up to the dictionary maker to act as language controller. Knowledge does not equal support. As they say on Twitter, a retweet does not imply agreement.
And if, as I believe, slang – coarse, low on optimism, accentuating the negative, is the language of what we can term ‘real life’, then how can we possibly leave out the words that reflect it?
The current environment would reject my argument. Real life is irrelevant. Each and every individual, and even more so when banded under the flag of a given identity, must be respected. You, like me, may see this as excessively keen on presenting oneself as a victim. You may, alternatively, see me as the worst type of old, privileged, white, heterosexual, Oxbridge-educated Western male. And a Jew to boot.
People enjoy slang. They love a good insult. Earlier this week, when the old lady in the Prime Minister’s constituency was vox-popped and declared him to be ‘a filthy piece of toe-rag’ there was a substantial Twitter breeze (a full-on storm would be over-egging it). Hundreds of thousands retweeted the clip, the likes of me weighed in to argue its origins (was it rags used by tramps to wrap their dirty feet or a rag used by sailors as a loo-paper substitute in sordid on-board lavatories?) Everyone had a great time. Then it blew away.
But slang continues to give pleasure. Which particular words or phrases score best is surprising, but it keeps on happening. My Timelines of Slang are available on line and I am amazed at their popularity. They may be a guilty pleasure, but they are a pleasure that people continue to indulge.
So what are we going to do about slang in the current environment? This irresistible pleasure, language’s inescapable exemplar of the naughty but still nice. But in truth I do not know. I suspect that for all the sounds and furies, with the amplification of social media, most people will pick and choose as they wish. If it ain’t broke, why fix it. If the slang word works best, then use it. Why opt for the standard when we have so many alternatives. This doesn’t mean that racial or sexual insults get a free pass. As I suggested, since the tide turned against them in the 1960s, they have very much entered the world of taboo, and are such found less and less in what one might term civilized society. And those who do exult in using them simply underline their own personality.
Slang, I say again, is the language of the young. So too is the current environment. How you position the former within the latter is very much up to you. I continue to watch but I leave the action to those who are best qualified to carry it out.