18 December 2010

Like a boiled owl

Green’s Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green (Chambers)
Guardian Style, by David Marsh & Amelia Hodsdon (Guardian Books)

After more than a decade’s labour, Jonathon Green, lexicographer of the subversive, has produced as fine a three-volume dictionary of slang as you would desire to piss upon. (1700: “excellent, first-rate.”) Like the OED, it is built on “historical principles”, with dates for citations, one of whose effects is to impress upon us the boisterous demotic creativity of our forebears, who were no less interested than we are in making up new ways to describe getting drunk. (1650: “Go to the scriveners and learn to make indentures.”)

It is surprising to learn how old some current slang is: you could keep someone posted in 1864, and “put up or shut up!” goes back at least to 1873 gambling dens. The boys who admired my “hard” jacket on the Tube the other day were probably no more aware than I was that this usage to mean “excellent” or “fashionable” dates from at least 1936. Contrarily, we can discover how recently coined are words we don’t even think of as slang: that old thriller reviewer’s standby “riveting” to mean fascinating, for example, was not available until the early 1980s.

Slang, Green argues in his introduction, is a language “of marginality and rebellion, of dispossession and frustration”, a “counter-language”. The great themes here are sex, death, religion, alcohol, and intense dislike of other people, which is to say the great themes of all literature. It can be faintly disheartening, paging through these volumes, to come across yet another word bigging up the penis as a weapon of violence (there are 1,000 of them, Green says), but there are also many obscure beauties of linguistic invention: exflunct (“to destroy or overwhelm”), taradiddler (“a petty liar”), puddlejumper (“an excitable person”), or the wonderfully evocative possible sack (“a bag for personal belongings”).

Marvel, too, at the different usages to which a single word has been put: a “growler” has been a dog, a four-wheeled cab, a whisky-flask, a lavatory (“usu. in a prison cell”), the vagina, and food. Some words are ripe for a dizzying number of combinations: “rum” in old British gangster slang can qualify just about anything (rum nadb, “a well-made, fashionable hat”; rum quids, “a large amount of stolen money”; rum snitch, “a hard blow on one’s nose”). And consider the nuanced variety of “get” phrases including get off, get off with, get off on, get off the nickel (“to move, or stop doing/talking in a particular manner”), tell someone where to get off, get her!, get you!, get down with your bad self, and, of course, get fucked. (The last to be pronounced while giving someone the hairy eyeball.)

Such a mammoth work must inevitably contain slips, and occasionally Green’s definitions don’t quite agree with his citations: I doubt that “geeky”, in a newspaper article’s description of “a geeky guy with silly facial hair”, was meant to mean “unattractive” exactly; and Green has “bare” in modern yoofspeak meaning “many, lots of”, though it can also mean simply “very” (I overheard a girl at the coffee shop last week admitting sweetly: “My mum’s bare nice to me”). Meanwhile, “long” in the sense of boring or unpleasant seems to have been missed altogether.

Of course all this is forgivable since slang is such a fast-moving target, of which any snapshot will be instantly out of date. And in this day and age, perhaps the business of producing printed reference books is, finally, all holiday at Peckham (1788: “all over, finished, hopeless”), as Green himself suggests in the introduction, signalling that he intends “to render the material available electronically”. That would be very useful for performing the kind of reverse lookup which is impossible here: once one has found “to feel like a boiled owl”, one instantly wants to collect other similarly vivid phrases for being hungover, just in case they come in useful one day.

Nowhere in Green’s pages will you be shown a word only to be told it “doesn’t exist”, which paradoxical judgment is the domain of language police rather than language herders. As cant cops go, the guardians of the Guardian‘s own style guide are more forgiving and much wittier than most (with a charmingly wistful habit of quoting mistakes from this very paper), though they do veer somewhat unpredictably between two flavours of normativity: the pragmatic and local (what is right for the Guardian), and the universal (what is right tout court), which reflects the dual nature of the publication: an internal rulebook for working hacks, and a writing guide for the general reader.

Many entries in this third edition are simply helpful facts for the toiling sub-editor (spellings of placenames; names of Spice Girls or Tory prime ministers; which celebrity Steves are spelled Steven and which Stephen). On the other hand, there is an excellent section of very nicely turned grammar and punctuation heuristics, so for the price of the style guide you are essentially getting a less annoying Lynne Truss in a bottle for free. Of universal interest, too, ought to be the admirable thread of caution about the political implications of vocabulary choice (eg: “We should not take […] use of the word [reform] at face value”), with coolly sensible entries for “terrorism” or the language of illness. In turn, some might object to the use here of “mainland China”, which just goes to show that the price of such sensitivity is eternal vigilance.

If consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, the nanobrained will pounce with glee on a few things: the plural of court martial is given as “courts martial” yet “attorneys general” is not only disallowed but ridiculed; and anyone trying to understand the Guardian‘s rules for capitalization (“Nazi but nazism”; “information commissioner but Information Commissioner’s Office”) will, I fear, end up not knowing whether to shit or buy gas (1973: “an expression of total confusion”). It’s all very well to strip accents from anglicized foreign words, meanwhile, but some cheese-eating pedant is bound to point out that if you withhold the acute accent from either “outré” or “coupé”, as suggested here, you will end up writing another French word altogether. (Heaven and the Guardian forbid, though, that Beyoncé should be so roughly handled.)

As for new-minted words or usages, it is the rare style guide that can resist an absolutist urge to put its foot down. And so it is written here that “there is no such word as ‘denialist'”, though evidently there is now such a word (80,000 pages on google at the time of this writing): it’s just that we at the Guardian don’t approve of it. Meanwhile, you are also instructed that “gift” is “not a verb”, though at my local Starbucks there is an exciting poster informing me that their coffee is “perfect for gifting”. I’m pretty sure that means “gift” now is a verb, whatever anyone thinks about it. ((As a Guardian commenter swiftly pointed out, “gift” has actually been used as a verb since at least the 16th century.)) Does common usage, the vital urge to slangify so majestically celebrated in Jonathon Green’s dictionary, eventually steamroller even the most well-founded objections of style guardians? Do beavers piss on flat rocks?