Dope and sex and rock ‘n’ roll: slang lexicography with Jonathon Green (part two)
In celebration of the 90th anniversary of the OED’s completed First Edition, slang specialist and lexicographer Jonathon Green sat down with Henry Hitchings, a Consultant Editor for the OED, to discuss all things slang – from Eric Partridge to London’s drill music scene…
Continued from part one:
[HH] I know that you are a huge collector of quite edgy books; what are you actually looking at to get to the cutting edge of slang right now? A lot of websites, I’d imagine?[JG] Well when you say ‘right now’, as of yesterday I was reading something called Fumbler’s Hall, which came out in 1687, and is an attack by a group of women on their impotent husbands. A ‘fumbler’ being an impotent man.
The great change in slang research is of course technological. It’s slightly clichéd but I always say in the old days, which we’ll characterize as Eric Partridge and prior, the problem was: ‘where do you find this stuff?’ Even when I started on my major dictionary, which was 1993 and it took 17 years before it came out, there was still that problem. You could make yourself a reading list if you dropped a stone into the puddle of available printed material, as it were, and you keep following the ripples as they expand. But what you find is that the ripples, at least as regard recorded slang, are kind of finite.
Then, I suppose, in the very late ‘90s, I started to access the Internet, which even then was a relatively tiny database in the context of the databases we have today. You got, I suppose, the Library of Congress, and a few things like that.
But now, the problem is not where to find it, the problem is where do you dare to allow yourself to stop looking when you can go online and you can have every hip-hop lyric, every film, vast swathes of old newspapers… Not to mention social media. There is a huge amount of material, and I still follow those ripples but now those ripples go out into the ocean and keep moving. They are beyond my competence; I’m not going to live long enough to get everything.
I can see where you talk about hip-hop there, that’s one of those areas where a lot of those words will remain niche but some of them will tip over into the mainstream and actually it’s hard to know which, but you could watch an infinity of videos and transcribe what’s being said and all that stuff might be redundant, almost.
Let’s take a major video source: The Wire – which is not hip-hop, of course – I didn’t have the scripts but watched it through, stopping and starting, stopping and starting, and very determinedly not using the subtitle version, but with music, where there are many collections online, I tend to go to the lyrics. But the lyrics are terribly difficult. I mean you wonder sometimes whether one particular hip-hop crew actually knows what the next one means.
I’ve been doing a lot of work that’s probably cutting-edge for the UK at the moment, at this time in 2018, which is drill music. Drill music has come across the Atlantic from Chicago, but it is so niche; I mean there is an anecdote that I have – almost a family anecdote – of my eldest son who was then living in a block, taking me up to the top of the block and saying ‘look at all those tower blocks; they’ve all got their own slang and beat, and you’re not going to get it.’
And this thing with drill, from what I can see, it comes from an area of Brixton, so we’re already in London, subset Brixton, subset somewhere called Angell Town, which is apparently three or four blocks. And I have to say ‘apparently’, and it makes me sound appallingly like one of those old judges who say, ‘what is this? What are those Beatles?’ or whatever, but I’m 50 years older than these people; this has always been the problem. The user and coiner is never the collector.
Presumably one of the functions of this kind of slang is that it creates in-group solidarity but it also keeps outsiders at arm’s length?
Well, as I say, my feeling is that band ‘a’ doesn’t know what band ‘b’ means, but on the other hand since allegedly a lot of this drill stuff is meant to do with inciting your rivals, maybe they’re not meant to. I find it fascinating.
What’s also very interesting, and this is something I find I don’t quite know how to get in there: it was pointed out to me by somebody much younger than myself that with Multi-ethnic London English (MLE), you get a slang formed from a blend of languages, including rap, cockney, and a certain amount of patois from Jamaica. That I can kind of manage. But now you’re getting African languages, you’re getting Arabic languages, and I think that’s going to be very difficult for future slang lexicographers who don’t have those abilities. We haven’t had to deal with that before.
What do you think the road ahead is in terms of slang lexicography generally and in terms of the OED’s coverage of the subject?
I can’t speak, really, for the OED because I don’t know what their plans are. I can see that there is more material. I can see that they have a wider coverage. But then they’ve got so much to deal with, it scares me! I mean I never have to do the sort of words like run and set, which we know are notoriously huge and take months for an editor to make their way through. The nearest thing for me to that would be probably the word hot, which is huge – not an obscenity, just the simple word hot, which is one of slang’s favourites.
I think the future- let’s step back a second. Two or three years ago there was a – as you can imagine – very small conference of slang lexicographers and a few people who were interested parties. We were all terribly excited and were saying ‘gosh’, you know, ‘we’ve got the Internet now; there’s nothing we can’t do’. We started getting into realms of glorious fantasy, which would obviously end up taking over the world, but the reality was that we didn’t know.
In the end, I’m still back there, however much I may be doing my work on drill and whatever follows and trying to keep up with popular culture in one way or another, but at the same time I’m still back there in 1650 and reading about Fumbler’s.
Again, we come back to the word ‘niche’. I guess I’m as much a niche trying to do historical principles slang lexicography, which as we all know is not historical words but is tracing the progress thereof of all slang. The Holy Grail is always, I would suggest, at least the same as one of Oxford’s Holy Grails, which is going backwards and trying to find the early uses.
And one of the things that I have done thanks to the Internet is find thousands, literally, of earlier uses of the slang lexis. My three-volume dictionary came out in print in 2010 and I’m embarrassed by it now because it’s simply not good enough. So I’ve improved it; it’s online now and I improve it every three months. And every three months there’s a crop of goodies, pushing back, pushing back. Plus, of course, a regular shot of neologisms.
There are two things that are exciting: finding the new stuff at, as it were, this end and finding that things are older than you thought at the other end. And there’s a wonderful rule: things are always older than you thought.
Jonathon, thank you very much indeed.
Header image: (from left) Henry Hitchings and Jonathon Green
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