Never get into a slanging match with a lexicographer, because he'll always have the last word. Nick Groom reports.
How do you write a dictionary? Well, Jonathon Green should know. He is an autodidact lexicographer and author of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang. It is a compelling achievement, 75,000 headwords from "a" (a general term of dislike) to "zweideneneer" (a two-shilling piece), and moreover he is now revising that immense compendium into the three-volume Historical Dictionary of Slang. He has already added another 6,000 words to his list and expects between 90,000 and 100,000 entries by the time he publishes the new version in 2004.
Over lunch, Green explains his guiding principle: he wants to describe rather than prescribe the language - and he is passionate about his intellectual freedom to do so.
The question with slang in the world of political correctness, he explains, is "where do you stop putting in derog. (for derogatory)? With slang everything is derogatory. Do you put 'derog. word for homosexual', because, God knows, they all are. Do you put 'derog. word for woman', do you put 'derog. word for fat person'?" Green leans back magnificently. "Slang takes no prisoners," he proclaims. But, he concedes, he does put in derog. under racial insults. It is a pragmatic attitude for a lexicographer. In America they are taking racial insults right out of the dictionary.
"As far as I'm concerned," he says, "the lexicographer's job is to lay out the stall. For example, as a Jew I find the phrase 'oven-dodger' very offensive, but I'm still going to put it in. What is the point of doing dictionaries, what is the point of being a lexicographer, if you are not going to put it all in?" And as for writing a dictionary? Well, Green, with bluff pragmatism, declares that it is "the higher plagiarism". Language, he says, does not reinvent itself every time a dictionary-maker sits down to make a dictionary. Rather, he sees it as a game of Pac-Man, and proceeds to reel off a pedigree of slang lexicographers.
"I've munched everyone else but somebody will munch me eventually. I read Eric Partridge, Partridge based himself on Farmer and Henley (1890), they used Hotten (1859), Hotten based himself on Egan who in turn did an edition of Grose (1785), Grose is reasonably new but you can go back to the New Country Dictionary of 1745, then to B. E. Gent (1690). It then goes back to 1540 and a man called Robert Copland who was a printer and published The Hye Way to the Spytell House."
Green offers another historical sketch, this time of taboo slang. The blasphemies of the 16th and 17th centuries were superseded by taboo language regarding bodily functions and bodily parts -****, for instance, or ****. But he thinks that these too have become very much weakened and that the "racial stuff" will constitute the next wave of taboo words. You will not be able to say "nigger", he says - it will be off limits.
Green does not want to be policed in this department. "I have no doubt I am being very ivory towerish about it, but the people who need to be forced not to use these words are not going to look in my dictionary and say: 'Oh, it's derogatory, sorry.'" In fact, he is rather pleased to be able to be "ivory towerish" about anything at all, as his career is not one that is at all recognisable as academic. But add together the sudden sympathy for the groves of academe, Green's familiar formulation that slang is an oppositional or counter-language, his emphasis on drug-related words in his dictionary, even the faded Carnaby Street scarf he is sporting, and it is no surprise to discover that his background lies in 1960s counterculture.
Green read history at Oxford before joining the underground press and writing for the English edition of Rolling Stone. Then he worked on Frendz, Time Out, Ink and Oz, the last immediately after the notorious trial. He lived with Rosie Boycott when she was starting Spare Rib - by which time he had graduated to soft-porn journalism for top-shelf magazines. And he wrote a novel - Diary of a Masseuse. But by the end of the 1970s he was compiling lists of contemporary quotations, such as an anthology of rock 'n' roll quotes and one of famous last words. It was then that he came across Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.
Green noticed that Partridge only really covered the 20th century by way of the world wars, and that there was very little drug slang - about which Green knew a great deal. He also spotted some Yiddish derivations that Partridge had overlooked. Modestly inspired, Green essayed his own Contemporary Slang in 1984.
This brings us to Green's critical point about slang, and why at the beginning of lunch he rattled off the tradition in which he positions himself, and also why he does not see himself as the culmination of slang lexicography - just the current custodian. He argues that most standard English words were in place by the 18th century, but "the difference is that slang is constantly coming up with new words - the new slang coinage is probably pretty steady year in, year out, whereas there is not going to be a new word for 'love' in standard English because it is not needed."
That is why Green enjoys lecturing, claiming that slang is much more a part of people's lives now than heretofore. "One of my problems is that there is so much slang to gather because it has come into literature in a way it hadn't before the second world war. Slang has become much more mainstream."
Consequently, Green's reading is impressive. I recently caught him in a London library searching for the Early English Text Society, though he shrugs this off: "I have this reverse canon: forget Dostoevsky, I read Donald Goines - Whoreson, Inner City Hoodlum."
He has several related projects on the go. He is compiling a book of 20th-century slang, a book of rhyming slang, a history of London in slang, and a "big book of being rude" - the latter being a follow-up to his Big Book of Filth, published last year as a Christmas stocking-filler:
"Although it's an appalling potboiler, it is underpinned by serious academic and lexicographical research." It has also sold some 30,000 copies.
Effectively, he is compiling a slang corpus from which he can draw different collections in different formats. "I'm lucky. I get paid to read, I've always liked reading; it's a real treat, I'm fortunate."
Which is where this article would end, were it not for Green's other books.
Shortly after finding his stride with slang, Green was commissioned to write a book about the 1960s and reinvented himself as an oral historian. He interviewed more than 100 of "the main players", got 500,000 words on tape, a 400,000-word manuscript, and eventually published a book about half that size called Days in the Life. He then did another oral history called Them, about first-generation immigrants, and one called It, on sex in the 1960s.
But Green was very much a "main player"himself in the 1960s. So about five years ago he was asked to write his own account of that decade. He returned to his interview tapes and undertook much ancillary research, and All Dressed Up was published in August 1998.
In many ways it is Green's most personal book, which makes it ironic that after publication, the book was withdrawn, received a very muted paperback release last year and thus failed to capitalise on its market. When we met, Green explained: "I wrote my book; Caroline Coon objected to what I wrote."
Green had included an anecdote (mentioning no names) that resulted in both Coon and former Beatle George Harrison suing for damages. Harrison's case was rapidly settled out of court after only three months, but at the time we spoke, Coon was still pursuing hers. Green paused: "I don't want to talk about it on tape." He turned off the recorder and I ordered another bottle of wine. He then told me, among other things, that the book was taken out of circulation for 12 months and when it finally reappeared in paperback he had completely rewritten the offending section, yet the case continued.
Now after 21 months, Coon's suit has just been settled - again out of court. Green will be making a mandatory public apology in the High Court in a few days. He will then return to writing dictionaries.
A Dictionary of Slang: www.peevish.co.uk/slang/.