Legend has it that when Dr Johnson published his celebrated dictionary, a lady remarked that there were no vulgar words in it. "So, madam," he replied, "I see you have been looking for them." The reading public has always had a fascination for taboo expressions and slang, and lexicographers have never ceased attempting to oblige them. Captain Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) drew heavily on Nathan Bailey's Canting Dictionary (1736), which claimed to list words used by "Beggars, Gypsies, Cheats, House-Breakers, Shoplifters, Foot-Pads, Highwaymen etc". Such collections may take a judgmental stance over the terms they contain; thus A Glossary of the Lowlife covers "the Barbary Coast, the French Quarter, New York, Chicago and other havens of the sinful and depraved".
Eric Partridge's successors Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor take a more neutral stance and refuse to "judge words by the ill-regarded company they keep". If the words are in use, then they exist and should therefore be recorded. This latest edition acknowledges with pride and respect the work done by Partridge himself, which covers the world wars and goes well into the 1970s. However, they note that it must have become increasingly difficult for Partridge to collect his material the more distant he became by age and status from his sources. His own war experience (he served in both) gave him clear insights into military jargon and the language of the grunts and tommies that he knew. But times move on, and today's editors note that there is less demand for knowing the nicknames of long-gone regiments (such as the Fly-By-Nights or the Tyneside Tail Twisters) and there is now a greater awareness of the range of English as a global language. In fact, the dictionary is divided evenly 30:30 between the UK and US, and the rest is used to cover the world as reference works are now expected to do, with creole sources adding to the richness of the language.
The dictionary could hardly be more comprehensive: "Beats, hipsters, Teddy Boys, mods and rockers, hippies, pimps, druggies, whores, punks, skinheads, ravers, surfers, Valley Girls, dudes, pill-popping truck drivers, hackers, rappers and more." Yet it is not easy to identify and select terms that may well be ephemeral and may be used by a select few, often as a cant to keep outsiders out.
The sources given are nothing less than remarkable: the popular press and academic journals rub shoulders with popular rags, underground literature and the recollections of veterans from more recent conflicts such as Vietnam and Iraq. This diverse collection records that a word came into existence but it may well then have been short-lived (think of "psychedelic") and there can be no real proof that it was ever used on the street. This is particularly true of sources such as popular novels, where the writer may be imagining what he heard rather than recording a word in current, even fleeting, use. The question really is where to find the genuine vox populi of today, and for that there is ample scope for scanning popular radio, talk shows, blogs and website discussion lists to see how people express themselves spontaneously, the problem then being how to record entries accurately and objectively.
The Dictionary focuses on terms that have been coined in the past 50 to 60 years. Even so, some old favourites are still firmly in place, and it is quite surprising to see how far back some colloquial expressions still in common use go: "shell out" (1801), "bunch of fives" (1821) or "dose of salts" (1837). More contemporary words such as "dork" or "dweeb" seem to have slipped in and out of vogue since the 1960s. It would have been helpful to have seen the first recorded use of a term in more detail, but space is clearly at a premium, even with two 1,000-page volumes to go on.
Given the fluid nature of language, it may be difficult to come up with a correct definition or not realise that more than one version of a word or phrase has cropped up elsewhere. There is a lengthy set of entries for "dutch" ("my old dutch" through to "dutch uncle"). But surely Cockney rhyming slang gives us "china plate" and not "dutch plate" for "mate" and a dutch uncle is someone who is unexpectedly generous, rather than someone who hands out too much good advice. Some terms recur in more than one area of activity. Words as standard as "speed", "tube" or "wheels" have acquired a whole range of unconnected meanings. Some terms that have been collected here could have been extended. So something "on wheels" indicates anything extreme (1943), but "hell on wheels" does not appear. "Hell" predictably gets a full range of entries. However, though "hell's bells" is in, the more extended "hell's bells in a hurricane" is not. Nor is "going to hell in a handcart".
With more than 60,000 entries, the New Partridge is a valuable contribution to the world of words. The public can contribute to the second edition via the website at www.partridge-slang.co.uk/what.html . All that is needed now is a CD with a supplement of hand signals and gestures. That would surely be the ultimate update in an area of language that belongs more to the spoken word than the written page.
Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions, City University London.
The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang
Editor - Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 2,216 (two volumes)
Price - £125.00
ISBN - 0 415 21258 8