Sept/Oct/Nov 2006

Phat Chance

Billy Collins


The one stream of poetry which is continually flowing is slang.
—G. K. Chesterton

One of the many benefits of owning the two-volume New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge), besides the sheer size of the thing up there on a shelf with your other weighty reference books, is that you can dip in just about anywhere and enjoy the exuberant, endless display of human inventiveness with language. Let me demonstrate by flipping open volume 1 to . . . dick, as chance would have it. Besides ten meanings for that word, all familiar to an American speaker such as yourself, we have variations such as dickhead, dick-breath, dickwad, dickwipe, dicknose, and dickless wonder—more proof that the language will never have enough terms to describe "an offensive unlikeable person." But there is always something new to learn. You could guess that a dick doc is a urologist, especially if you've gone to medical school, but did you know that a dickless Tracy is a female police officer? That Dick Emery is Cockney rhyming slang for "memory"? Or that dick mittens are "hands that were not washed after urination"? Well, see?

Occasions will not arise to use most of the 60,000 entries within, but just in case, I have learned that a fly cemetery is a currant pudding, a fun hog is an obsessed enthusiast of thrill sports, pig's bum means "nonsense" in Australia, a lollipop to truckers is a mile marker on the side of the road, in craps mule teeth is a roll of twelve, and six tits in poker is three queens. Just in case. Even less useful but interesting are Green Onion for "a Montreal parking violation officer" and gin and Jaguar bird for "a wealthy, usually married, woman from the upper-class districts surrounding London, especially Surrey, regarded as a worthwhile target for sexual adventuring." Well, you never know.

Strictly speaking, all slang is useless. Instead of filling real holes in the language, slang terms are unnecessary substitutes for common words and phrases. Yet slang is abundant and always on the move, a vital and essential aspect of any language. If somehow you could view the English language through one of those infrared lenses, the violet areas—those showing the most frenetic activity—would indicate the presence of slang. Some linguists explain this volatility by seeing slang as a code, a secret language inside the standard language, invented and used by certain social groups eager to avoid being understood by outsiders. That would account for the major contributions to slang made by criminals, prisoners, drug dealers, and others for whom privacy means survival. And it would explain why slang changes so fast, for once the code is broken, a new encryption must be substituted. Of course, by the time lexicographers have gotten wind of the term, it has lost its original purpose. For some reason, Sixty-fifth Street! used to mean "Here come the cops!" but surely no longer.

In that sense, slang dictionary qualifies as an oxymoron—not as obvious as parent company or office party, but nonetheless a terse contradiction. Slang begins as spoken usage. It belongs in the streets, in prisons and barracks, in bars and hospitals, and wherever serious skateboarders congregate. Once a slang word finds itself trapped in a dictionary next to other slang words, it may be considered dead and buried. I remember once hearing Dan Rather on the evening news say "rip-off." Originally used to describe the wrong end of a bad drug deal, it had now become a weak metaphor for being cheated. I turned to my old lady, who was on the floor rolling a big J at the time, and said, "Bummer, man."

If a slang word has become so feeble as to be easily captured in the net of Partridge, it is safe to say that the word has passed out of circulation. A dictionary of slang, for all its information and nostalgic amusement, is really a mausoleum of words that were once part of a code that has since been broken, a zoo for words that were once wild in the streets. Once caged and alphabetized, the terms tend to sound quaint, dumb, or just plain embarrassing. "Doll, you come on with the straight jazz real cool like" is enough to make the last of the living hepcats cringe.

Another take on slang is that it functions less as code and more as verbal glue to add cohesiveness to the group that speaks it. Truckers, golfers, hip-hoppers, sailors and soldiers, drag racers and stamp collectors—all develop a set of terms (here slang and jargon start overlapping) not just to describe phenomena peculiar to their interests but to bind them together as a group sharing a minority experience, maybe even a worldview. Members of that subgroup literally speak the same language. Slang reminds the subgroup of its exclusivity.

Further, slang can be seen as an act of defiance, a verbal uprising against the control of orthodox usage in the same way that spray-painted graffiti can be seen as a revolt against conventional signage. Behind slang often lie grievances and unrest. Along with willful deviations from standard grammar, slang can come off as in-your-face (make that in-your-grill) verbal aggression. Some slang words are diametrically opposed to the words they replace. Bad, sick, and phat all mean "good stuff." By displacing accepted words, slang is a standing insult to a teacher's dictionary and the strictures of Strunk, White, and every other usage maven. Dr. Johnson located the origins of slang in coffeehouses frequented by fops, and these days slang still originates on the social fringes and in what little remains of the underground. Neologisms arising from those areas are expropriations of normal speech, assaults on correctness, attacks on the conventional understanding of "well spoken." Finishing school? Right, finish this.

Speaking of Dr. Johnson, here's a short history lesson. Slang has no doubt been a feature of every human language. If the guy who discovered fire called it "fire," he wouldn't have to wait long before the next guy called it "this hot stuff" or "the flame thing." But the first systematic collection of slang did not come until way later. One of the first gatherers of English slang was Thomas Harman, an Elizabethan whose A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursetors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1567) focuses on the language of thieves, rogues, vagabonds, swadders, whipjacks, rufflers, and doxies—each specializing in a specific crime. Thanks to Harman, readers could get the inside track on criminal talk. If you heard two men discussing how they planned to "ruggle your guffy," for example, it was time to make tracks. More than two centuries later, Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) appeared, followed by his posthumous Lexicon Balatronicum: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence (1811). These early collections appealed less to philologists than to a literate public curious to peek into the off-limits world of criminals and lowlifes, whose back-alley talk formed the core of vulgar speech. What never was meant to be written down was written down; the speech style of the few became printed lists for the many. Later, the poet William Ernest ("I am the master of my fate") Henley coedited a slang dictionary of seven volumes (1890–1904). And rushing toward the present, we see that the assemblage of rough talk in this new Partridge supplants the dictionary of Harold Wentworth and slangmeister Stuart Berg Flexner (1960, 1967, 1975). Random House published its own two volumes of a historical dictionary of American slang in 1994 and 1997, edited by J. E. Lighter. Like the OED, the Random House collection includes extensive citations listed chronologically; shifts in meaning and connotation over time can be noted. Oxford University Press has taken over the project, but until the next volume appears, we have to make do with volume 2 (H–O), which takes us from H, shorthand for "heroin," and leaves us hanging with Ozzie, "an Australian."

The colorful language gathered in a slang dictionary can provide access to bygone eras. Insofar as slang arises out of a particular time and place and remains fashionable for only a brief period, looking at a get-together of slang can revive the sounds and talk of the past as well as the speech flavors and verbal novelties of certain groups and classes. "I like the cut of his jib" resonates a lot differently than "shizzle my mizzle fizzle dizzle!" Cockney rhyming slang (apples and pears for "stairs" and Somerset Maugham for "warm") transports us into a distinct environment, as does Australian slang, which seems to feature a lot of terms for bathing suits—sluggos is one—and unusual musical instruments.

Because slang changes so rapidly, on-line slang collections, of which there are many, are better equipped than printed ones to keep au courant. New words can be added as they appear on the scene, often Wikipedia-style by Internet users themselves. A few lively sites are the Online Slang Dictionary, Slang City, and Slanguage. For the connoisseur, World Wide Wank boasts "the world's largest collection of masturbation synonyms."

So, the wonders of a slang dictionary are many, limited only by your own curiosity about the outskirts of language. I should mention that one drawback of meandering through such works is that you sometimes come across slang you wish you had never heard. I would have preferred to live in ignorance of prune and plum for "buttocks," talk to the canoe driver for "performing oral sex on a woman," and Canadian bacon for "an uncircumcised penis." But maybe that's just me. On the other hand, I am actively looking for any excuse to use mimbo (a dumb male), ride and a rasher (sex followed by breakfast), and Monet, someone who is attractive from a distance, like Impressionism, but up close, not so much.

Billy Collins is the author, most recently, of The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (Random House, 2005) and editor of The Best American Poetry 2006 (Scribner). From 2001 to 2003, he served as the US poet laureate.

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