Dope and sex and rock ‘n’ roll: slang lexicography with Jonathon Green (part one)

Dope and sex and rock ‘n’ roll: slang lexicography with Jonathon Green (part one)

In celebration of the 90th anniversary of the OED’s completed First Edition, slang specialist and lexicographer Jonathon Green sat down with Henry Hitchings, Consultant Editor for the OED, to discuss all things slang – from Eric Partridge to London’s drill music scene…

Hello! I’m Henry Hitchings, Consultant Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and I’m talking today to Jonathon Green, the Anglophone world’s foremost lexicographer of slang.

Jonathon, you have been researching slang for approximately forty years, is that right?

That is right.

And how did you get into it?

I think, essentially, it was slightly a marketing idea, slightly a generational thing. Realistically, my predecessor, as people will know, was Eric Partridge and – to cut a long story short – Mr Partridge was born in 1894 and I was born in 1948 and around 1980, when Partridge was dead a year, it was very obvious to me that his dictionary – while wonderful in itself – was focused on a rather older era.

He’d fought in the First World War – he was a New Zealander, that’s why he had come to Europe – and fought on the Somme at Pozières. He was fascinated by the Cockneys, fascinated by their language, and so spent his life doing slang lexicography.

But he didn’t get that happy slang triumvirate of dope and sex and rock ‘n’ roll. And I, having been born somewhat later, having been part of the ‘60s, did get that stuff, was to an extent involved in it, and thought – and this is what I mean by marketing – ‘there is a gap’.

I wrote a book called Contemporary Dictionary of Slang; it started in 1945 and went on to what would then have been 1982 or -3. It was eleven-and-a-half-thousand entries long and would now fit into my letter ‘S’ – you could swing a very large cat and have plenty of room!

Let’s just wind back a bit and ask what I suppose is really the fundamental question here: what is slang?

There are – I won’t say an infinity – but there are many definitions. There are academic definitions, there are lexicographical definitions, there are definitions that depend on a term ticking certain linguistic boxes, there are amateur definitions, there are concerned litterateur definitions…

My feeling is that I don’t subscribe to a specific definition, rather the sense that slang has a pervasive state of mind. I would suggest that there is an underlying strain that goes through the entire slang lexis, which is sedition. It’s taking the mickey, it’s overturning. I have christened slang – and I am sure, quite consciously, that this is to do with that world of the ‘60s, which was known as the ‘counter-culture’ – for me, I call it ‘the counter-language’. I don’t think I even originated this, but for me it was a first.

So that’s how I see it. It’s always taking the mickey; it’s always in some way wanting to overthrow, to blow up – however you want to see it. That’s its essence. You may say, ‘Well, what about all these obscenities? Surely they’re not seditious, they’re not revolutionary?’ but within their context, the context being the standard English language, I would suggest that they are.

Slang clusters around certain subjects – you’ve obviously spent a lot of time in the wilds looking for this. What are those subjects? What are the big ones?

I mean if one short-hands it as ‘dope, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll’ or ‘drugs, sex, and rock and roll’…

I’ve long-since created a very broad-brush taxonomy from the entries in my dictionary, and crime obviously comes top of the list, followed pretty smartly by drink and drunkenness, then, I suppose, by drugs. You’ve got sex, as in actual physical sexual intercourse, and then you’ve got the parts of the body that perform it. You’ve got a load of words which are essentially to do with men, all of which are self-aggrandizing; you’ve got a load of words to do with women, which either view them as sex objects or hate them. Then there are insults: mad people, fat people, stupid people, so on and so forth. On it goes! And one shouldn’t forget nationalism and racism.

Of all of those categories, ‘crime’ is upwards of five thousand words [in my dictionary], but of course you break it down and there are words for burglars, robbers, bank robbers, counterfeiters – or if you push it out a little there’s commercial sex, which is considered criminal in some cultures, so on and so forth. As a very, very broad-brush taxonomy, these are all themes that slang has loved since day one. And by ‘day one’ what I mean is approximately the mid-sixteenth century.

If you look at the first- it’s not even a dictionary, it’s a glossary. It’s a book called The Highway to the Spital house, and the creation myth is that Robert Copland, who was a printer who claimed to have worked for [William] Caxton – however it’s been argued whether they were actually alive at the same time – is hanging around outside a spital, which is a charity hospital and which as far as we know is Bart’s [St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London]. There are a load of beggars outside and Copland positions himself as saying to the porter, ‘Who are these people and what’s this funny language they’re talking?’ and the porter gives him a few words, and that’s how we start.

Then we start getting throughout the sixteenth century – from people like Thomas Harman, John Awdeley, later the playwright Robert Greene, Thomas Dekker – lists of criminal slang. If you look at those lists, you’re seeing words for having sex, you’re seeing words for various forms of crime, you’re seeing words for stupid, for mad, etcetera and so on. And although you’re only seeing in the entirety of these little glossaries 150-200 words, you are seeing these themes repeat and repeat and repeat. Which leads us to the feeling that slang is not a language, but more of a huge cupboard full of synonyms.

Read part two of Jonathon Green’s interview with Henry Hitchings.

Header image: (from left) Henry Hitchings and Jonathon Green

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