Word Up

Lowbrow language gets a highbrow dictionary

  • Green's Dictionary of Slang (Chambers; Oxford University Press; 6,085 pages; $450)

    The idea of a Slang dictionary is in many ways counterintuitive — or, one might say, a bit bonkers. Slang by nature is cool, and dictionaries are uncool. Slang subverts authority; dictionaries exist to be authoritative. Dictionaries take decades to compile, while slang terms come in and out of fashion faster than you can say etymology .

    But the strange marriage of academia and irreverence is what makes Jonathon Green's monster work, Green's Dictionary of Slang , so fun to flip through. It provides the same surreal, anachronistic delight one might have gotten from hearing Freud lecture on Charlie Sheen's recent verbal diarrhea (a term that, FYI, has been used since the 1600s to refer to "an excessive flow of words").

    Green's three-volume work, priced at $450, is the product of 17 years of collecting and editing. With roughly 110,000 words and phrases (more than twice as many as Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary ) and encompassing the entire anglophone world, it is the most complete dictionary of English slang ever published. Its words date back to 1500, which is helpful for brushing up on Shakespeare-era lingo like condog, a verb traced to 1592 that means "to agree." As in, "That's really not her color." "Oh, I totally condog ."

    What qualifies as slang? Green, 62, takes a simple approach: knowing it when he sees it. "You can set up a lot of rules, but slang is a tricky bastard and doesn't want to play by the rules," he says. Still, he does offer go-to topics for research — crime, sex, drugs and booze, all fertile ground for language of ill repute since Francis Grose published his seminal Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785.

    What Green's slang definition lacks in precision is made up for by his careful presentation. Each item is soberly defined and backed up by citations, Oxford English Dictionary –style. So you not only find a meaning for right on, in the "absolutely correct" sense, but also learn that the phrase has been around since a reader wrote to TIME in March 1970: "Your 'Catholic Exodus' article was right on."

    Green says his next step is to turn his work into an online project, like the modern OED , and seek help from the foulmouthed hoi polloi to keep it up to date. (Terms in the bound version stop around 2009, which is why you won't find an entry for cray-cray , the latest take on crazy .)

    "Slang has come to occupy every fiber of my being," Green says. "It is the work of my life." He's being figurative, of course, but that's how he likes it.