“Clatterdevengeance” is Jonathon Green’s favorite slang word, and he is in a position to have one.
Green, known on Twitter as Mister Slang, is the world’s foremost English slang lexicographer and the writer of multiple slang dictionaries, including the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as a memoir, Odd Job Man, and a history of dictionary-makers, Chasing the Sun—as well as a dozen or so other books. This summer, Green, who lives sometimes in London and sometimes in Paris, will take his dictionary to the internet. Green’s Online Slang Dictionary, live in July, will offer free basic access to its approximately 130,000 slang words and phrases; subscribers will get access to the 550,000 Oxford English Dictionary-style citations. It’s a boon to historians, English Literature students, writers, logophiles, and pervs.
I interviewed Green about the process of writing dictionaries, what sets Green’s Online Dictionary of Slang apart from its competitors, why age matters, and how a lexicographer’s work is never done. Aside from his work on his multiple slang dictionaries, both in print and online, Green has created a series of timelines that put slang terms for intercourse (“pierce the hogshead,” “Molly Peatley’s jig,” or “poop”), vagina (“ringerangeroo,” “mother of all masons,” “monosyllable”), drunk (“pixilated,” “ramsquaddled,” “bowsie”) and more within a historical context.
As for Green’s reluctantly chosen pet word, “clatterdevengeance,” his dictionary tells us it means “the penis,” and its usage dates to 1659 and 1660. Feel free to update your slang wardrobe accordingly.
CGS: How do you pick one favorite slang word?
JG: There are 130,000 English slang words and phrases [in the dictionary]; they come from 600 years; and they spread over a number of continents. To me, what’s important is themes, not individual words. So I can’t say that word that comes out of criminal slang of the 1560s is more favorite than a word that comes out of the prize-fighting slang of the 1860s, or, indeed, a word that comes out of Black slang in the 1960s, because they all have their charms, and those charms don’t play off against each other.
There are themes—and there’s no doubt about it, themes have a hierarchy that you see in the synonyms—be it crime, be it drinking, be it drugs, be it fucking, be it parts of the body, be it calling people “dumb.” But there’s no favorites in that. If you accept my theory that slang is us at our most human, who’s to play favorites.
Talk a little bit about how you do what you do because lots of people have no clue how one goes about writing a dictionary, much less writing a slang dictionary.
The great writer of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, was commissioned by Penguin Books in London to write a slang dictionary in 1965. Burgess sat down and he started doing some letters. What he did no lexicographer, as far I know, has ever done in real life. He thought, “I'll do A, when I finish A I'll do B, I'll do C,” and so on. He got to the end of B and he thought, that's great I'm doing really well. Someone said have you got “bovver boots,” as worn by skinheads in those days? Big, heavy workman's boots—Doc Martens. Burgess said, “Oh God, I haven't got it,” and he gave up.
It's amazing that somebody of Burgess' literary skills—and he was one of the best writers on dictionary making that I've ever encountered—didn’t realize that the way you do it is you gather the information and the alphabetical side of things is irrelevant. The way I've always done it, and I talk about it in my little memoir, Odd Job Man, it's basically to read a lot. A problem is that the "a lot" has become a fuck of a lot.
Yeah. I don't know how you would stop.
I wrote a very small slang dictionary in 1981; it came out in 1984. The area it covered was from 1945 through 1984—exciting dates but purely coincidental. It ran to 11,500 entries, and 11,500 would now fit into the letter “S” in my big dictionary with room to swing large amounts of cats.
I have this mass of information that I add to everyday, running very, very fast to keep up with the available sources, which are much, much more than they used to be. My great predecessor, [slang lexicographer] Eric Partridge was like me in the twentieth century, or I'm like him in twenty-first. Partridge’s problem was finding the sources. My problem is knowing when I dare stop looking at a source. It's things like the entirety of hip-hop lyrics, entirety of rock and roll lyrics, or movie scripts. I'm one person, and I'm 68.
What does age have to do with it?
My story's always been I'm in my 60s, slang's in its teens, I will eventually be in my 70s, and maybe even my 80s, but slang will always be in its teens. The gap between me and slang gets bigger all the time, but the young people who use it and coin it certainly can't be bothered to collect it. It’s down to old farts like me to collect it, but I'm enormously aware that this gap is there. I want an apprentice, but I don’t see any coming up.
The internet must be kind of a boon to lexicographers because you don’t ever have to stop—you can always add to it or edit it. How did you come to put your dictionary online?
One day, almost literally two years ago, I get a Tweet, and it just says, “Have you got your dictionary online?” I reply not yet. “Do you want to get your dictionary online?” “Very much so.” “Would you like me to put your dictionary online?" "Yes. Possibly. Where are you?” “Here's a link to my website.”
I go to his website and it says my name is David Kendal; I am a young programmer. There’s a click-through on the hyperlink and I click on it. The number 20 comes up on the screen. He was 20 years old. Now he’s 22, and we're nearly there. It’s remarkable, and to me, he's a genius.
How does Green’s Online Dictionary of Slang compare with the slang dictionary most people turn to, the Urban Dictionary?
When I talked to the guy who set up the Urban Dictionary, he came out with a great ‘60s line: “We did it because we didn't like people like you,” old people, "telling us," young people, “what the words we use meant.” That’s absolutely true, but there is a huge constituency for whom I am useful and for whom my slang dictionary is useful.
In a way the Urban Dictionary is brilliant because it has got this massive input, but it has no editing. It's no good if a thousand people put their thumb up, and say, yes, [a word] does mean that but 999 put a thumb down—because which of them really are right? You've got to have 1,000 and 0, and that's what I offer, 1000 and 0. If you come to me, I will do my best to give you information that is pertinent and is accurate, but the beauty again is having it online so if I find it's not accurate I can change it.
Slang is such a slippery term. How do you define it?
You know it when you see it or it gives an elderly judge an erection, whichever one you like. The potential, as I say, is kind of limitless.
A former academic, Chelsea G. Summers writes almost exclusively about sex. Her writing has appeared in Hazlitt, VICE, The New Republic, Adult Magazine, and The Guardian US, among other sites. You can follow her on Twitter @chelseagsummers.