The Big Issue : Edition 463
THE BIG ISSUE 18 – 31 JULY 2014 31 ILLUSTRATIONBYDANNYSNELL;AUTHORPHOTOBYGABRIELGREEN and centuries. At its best, such a source could reveal what Green calls “the lexicographers’ holy grail”: an earlier example of a word’s first use than was previously known. Green doesn’t do fieldwork in his research – “I need something more substantial than someone offering me their favourite slang words” – but instead sifts through books, scripts, lyrics, tweets, blogs and websites. “I have to work out at what stage I dare stop,” he says. “If you have every hip-hop/ rap lyric on tap, every blues and all the rest of modern music, scripts of various sorts, vast numbers of newspapers from across the world, an infinity of online material...I shall continue working, but it does feel like scratching away at an ever- growing granite mountain with a very small plastic spoon.” There’s a definite stamp of time and place embedded in certain slang terms. The over-the-top words favoured by Barry Humphries’ yobbo character Barry McKenzie can’t help but evoke Australia of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Asked why Humphries succeeded in so many enduring coinages, Green believes it’s “because he understands the way language, and slang in particular, work. Slang is very much geared to themes: sex always comes down to ‘man hits woman’, insanity is always ‘not all there’, the penis is a boy’s toy, a gun, knife, club, dagger...the terms that Humphries uses tend to fit that [established] imagery.” For all the robustness of sex-related slang, it is predominately male-coined, quite often demeaning towards women, and seems to be missing any kind of female- coined equivalent. Green points to the Feminist Dictionary published in 1985, but says: “Like any dictionary driven primarily by ideology, the lexical/linguistic use was hugely overshadowed by the authors’ determination to prove a point.” On the other hand, in his 2009 book Slang: The People’s Poetry, Michael Adams locates what he believes to be woman-authored slang in female-directed magazines. Just as rival slang dictionaries have tended to dismiss each other, slang scholars continue to debate various facets of the subject. And, of course, slang as a whole is often looked down upon altogether. “Slang is so often despised; I see myself as its unashamed champion,” says Green. And while the exact parameters of slang itself are also widely debated, he describes it as “a vibrant, creative, ever self-reinventing language without which the larger world of English would be hugely impoverished”. In other words, where would we be without ‘technicolour yawn’? by Doug Wallen » Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue is out now. EVEN IF YOU already know that Barry Humphries coined ‘technicolour yawn’ (meaning ‘vomit’), or that the term ‘yahoo’ started in Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg that is Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue. A sizeable yet snappy history of slang in the English language, it’s the work of slang lexicographer Jonathon Green – the Paris-based English author of many dictionaries on the subject. Green traces slang through the centuries with great panache, relishing its inherent colourfulness and unsavoury origins. He devotes chapters to the specific slang of Australians, African- Americans, teens, soldiers, homosexuals, athletes and American pioneers, and delves into sex-related slang, cockney English and rhyming slang (such as ‘Alan Whickers’ to mean ‘knickers’). He starts off with the criminal speak called ‘cant’ and then the proto-hipster creation ‘flash’, a way of showing off just how in-the-know the speaker is. It’s more history than dictionary, although Green dispenses a lot of funny and fascinating examples along the way. The frankness of the sex chapter might make some readers blush (or giggle), while the Aussie chapter will surprise anyone who didn’t know that ‘chook’ originated in the UK rather than here. He clocks a great many first usages of slang terms, but he’s most interested in how the rise of modern Western civilisation has spurred on slang’s development in tandem – whether via English settlers abroad or the growing voice of teenagers. So does Green have a particular favourite era of slang? “They are all fascinating in their own way,” he says. “But if I were to pick an era, I think it might be the late 18th and early 19th century...it is a very pacey, rakish era, and [a] last breath of fresh air before the suffocating curtain of Victorian evangelical morality came down.” Many words from that era are still in regular use, fuelled in part by writers of today relying on slang dictionaries to colour their characters’ speech. Green published his first book, Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, in 1984, and he still relishes his chosen field today. “Slang and lexicography suit me very well,” he says. “I enjoy the research, which is not just into language but also, because of its nature, into history. History, of course, of a certain type: lowlife, lurid and louche. I can’t imagine myself as a lexicographer of standard language: the words just aren’t that much fun.” The offerings of Green’s first book are now dwarfed by his current database. His most common sources for research are online databases compiling newspapers from past decades I SWEAR ANEWBOOK BY SLANG EXPERT JONATHON GREEN EXPLORES EXPLETIVES, ABBREVIATIONS AND LURID LANGUAGE.