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Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue

Jonathon Green

(Financial Times)

Jonathan Swift believed English needed an academy to stem the use of words such as sham, banter, mob, bully and bamboozle. Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, disliked clever, fun and stingy.

For centuries, English's defenders have decried the language's decline. Looking back, it is hard to understand why they created a fuss about words that are now part of polite speech. Sometimes the words that caused uproar, rather than being in general use, seem quaint and dated. In 1961, the Saturday Evening Post reported on 'the lingo of youth'. Young people were calling their elders 'Big Daddy'. A conventional person was a 'square'. The young were telling those they liked: 'I dig you the most.'

As a solitary, bookish schoolboy, Jonathon Green was tickled by outrageous words. He scoured the library for them. After school and Oxford, he began working for the underground press in late-1960s London. He helped edit the notorious publication Oz while its principals were dragged through the courts. Green then turned his love of slang into a career.

If you want to know the origin of 'Hooray Henry' - 'a rich young man given to much public exhibitionism, drunkenness and similar antisocial activities' - Green’s Dictionary of Slang, published in 2010, is the place to look. In spite of its British associations, the term was coined in the US by Damon Runyon. His dictionary will also tell you that 'lurgy' ('any unspecified but deleterious disease or ailment') was dreamt up by the writers of the 1950s British radio programme The Goon Show.

After a lifetime writing and recording slang, as well as turning out drug histories (Cannabis: The Story of a Weed that Rocked the World), a pseudonymous piece of soft pornography (Diary of a Masseuse) and much more, Green tells us his book-producing days are over. The publishers are no longer interested.

Apparently bowing out, he has now come up with not one but two books: Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue and the autobiographical Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer. Both show his deep love for his subject and his ferreting out of long-lost lexicons, but you have to read both to understand what he is up to. Language! has depth but lacks structure. I waited for a narrative to descend; none did. Odd Job Man has structure (indeed, the first chapter opens with 'What we need now is structure') but has its own short­comings. It may seem odd to complain that an autobiography is solipsistic, but, after the enjoyable growing-up parts, there is too much rumination about how odd it is to be a slang lexicographer.

Green's self-described oddness is, however, the key. Slang, he writes, is the outsider's tongue. It is a private language the rest of the world cannot understand. Green attributes his fascination to being the only Jew at his English prep school and one of only three at his secondary. He encountered no anti-Semitism; indeed, the headmaster suggested he use his study to prepare for his bar mitzvah. But Green felt he wasn't in the right place. Add to the sense of dislocation an adolescent's search for books' rude bits - sex and body parts are prodigious generators of slang – and the budding etymologist was ready to go.

Johnson insisted on keeping unpleasant words out of his dictionary. Fortunately for Green, others went looking for them. There were 19th-century word collectors such as Cornelius Crowe, a Melbourne policeman, who wrote The Australian Slang Dictionary containing the words and phrases of the thieving fraternity, together with the unauthorised, though popular expressions now in vogue with all classes in Australia to ensure his colleagues could understand what the miscreants were saying.

There was much interchange between the English-speaking countries. British criminals took their slang to Australia (although 'cobber', that most Australian expression of mateship, came from the Yiddish 'chaver'). The first world war, and close contact in the trenches, produced more slang than any conflict before or since, including 'banger' (sausage), 'squiz' (look at), 'whacked' (exhausted) and 'put the wind up' (to frighten). After the second world war, the spread of US television, films and music made American slang ubiquitous.

Slang is also the product of youth, which is why its supply is inexhaustible – and why older generations often fear not just for the language, but for society too.

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