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June 22, 2011

Slang Bang

Arts journalists whose beat broaches popular culture bear a special relationship to slang. For us it is a vector of transgressive impulses that are often the source of vitality, one of the ways we can measure the influence of outsiders who intrude upon the signifiers of propriety. It announces the alter-identity of an emergent group. Indeed the replacement of black slang with the jargon of the internet is one sign of a shift, not just in the status of minorities but in the authority of tech over the social imagination. Think of it: a medium has replaced a class as the basis of linguistic innovation. Give me a think piece on that by midnight, and keep it to 500 words.

All the more reason why cultural journalists should be drawn to the new and authoritative dictionary of slang by the British scholar Jonathon Green. He happens to be a good friend, but he also knows a fine French cheese when he smells one, and he's a recognized expert on the subject of this book. The fruit of 17 years' work, Green's Dictionary of Slang (Oxford University Press) contains within its three volumes copious discussions of 110,000 words from all across the Anglophone world. Here you will find everything you always wanted to know about language that makes you feel like a badass when you use it, and more than you could have imagined about its endurance.

Take punk. In the 17th Century the word described a young female prostitute, but by the turn of the 20th Century it identified the male sex partner of a prisoner, and then it came to refer to any corrupt weakling. William Burroughs rehabilitated the status of punk in the '50s, bestowing it with a daring that led kids a generation later to associate it with the most recent (and possibly the last) culture of hip rebellion. The word has been leached of its mystique--as much slang eventually is--thanks to Ashton Kutcher's prank show Punk'd.

All of which speaks to Green's thesis, which is that slang is a "counter-language," reflecting the irrepressible human drive to turn standard usage on its respectable head. And there you have it. For a mere $450 (about a year's earnings from writing regularly for the Web) you can own this definitive guide to sparking up your prose. You too can revel in knowing that the word booze predates Shakespeare, and that the phrase verbal diarrhea could be flung around not long after the Bard's demise. Liquor and prolixity have long been the enablers of critics, but how much cooler it is to use the old words, the dear words, for vices that might otherwise seem, well, punk.

June 22, 2011 12:00 AM | | Comments (0)

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