A lexicographer chronicles the language of the streets.
Green (Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2011, etc.) complements his three-volume compendium of slang terms with this historical overview of slang’s evolution, its recurring themes, and its function “to mock, to undermine, to showcase skepticism and doubt.” Slang, as the author defines it, is a special vocabulary associated with urban life that “resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent…unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies.” Since speech is ephemeral, Green draws on extensive research in literature and the media, as well as specialized dictionaries and lexicons, such as copious notes assembled by Walt Whitman, who admitted to being “an industrious collector” of words, with slang “one of my specialties.” Much of the book follows slang chronologically, finding linguistic evidence in classical Rome; medieval Europe; Elizabethan England; and teeming 18th-century cities riddled with crime. Green devotes a chapter to Australia, where penal settlements were populated with British criminals who brought their own argot. As a young officer wrote in the late 1700s, “[t]he sly dexterity of the pickpocket, the brutal ferocity of the footpad, the more elevated career of the highwayman and the deadly purpose of the midnight ruffian” each resulted in a distinct “unnatural jargon.” Besides crime, sex, the author asserts, “has been the driving force for as long as the vocabulary has been collected,” and he offers abundant examples of words referring to relevant body parts and their functions. Homosexuality has generated its own vocabulary (and its own chapter, “Gayspeak: The Lavender Lexicon”), as has bawdy cockney slang, with its use of rhyming, which still flourishes in London. American slang arose from a desire to distinguish the new country’s language from its British origins, with later contributions from various influxes of immigrants. African-American slang, prominent in hip-hop, has spread internationally and through classes, becoming the dominant slang of the 20th century.
In this abundantly detailed history, Green argues that a counterlanguage will always exist, providing a voice for the marginalized and expressing deep—and sometimes dark—human needs.