Slang dictionaries perform a playful if sometimes unproductive role in the reference book section. While the slang thesaurus offers a proactive source for expanding one’s slang vocabulary, the dictionary is a reactive volume, requiring you to know the word before you can investigate it. (For instance, when then-unknown singer Susan Boyle spoke of being gobsmacked by her sudden television fame, the meaning of the word was missing from Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, but available from The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.)
Compounding any attempt at reference relevance is the sheer breadth of the subject matter. While traditional dictionaries offer a standard list of words, expanded or contracted to fit the desired volume size (with occasional proprietary faux-words), slang dictionaries have a much greater challenge to achieve comprehensiveness. With so many regions, so many subcultures, so many dialects occupying pockets of real estate large and small across America, how could one volume accurately transcribe the colloquialisms of everyone from Maine’s coastal fisherman to Southern California’s surfers? (Thought the phonics of “ayuh” and “brah” are much closer than their geography would imply.)
Yet for fans of the genre, it’s wonderful when a publisher tries. The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English, an impressive entry into the field of slang documentation, defies the difficulty of corralling this massive subset of English. According to the foreword, the book seeks to offer “high standards of lexicography while producing an accessible work informed by, and infused with, the humor, mischief, and energy that are endemic to slang.” That humor, mischief, and energy shine in this book.
The most notable delight is the format of the information: Words include a short definition followed by, in most cases, up to three contextual cultural references that illuminate the word’s meaning and color. Examples are cited from journalism (from Tallahassee to Honolulu, Ebony to Life), popular culture (from Abbie Hoffman to Captain Kangaroo to Eldridge Cleaver), literature (Mickey Spillane to Elmore Leonard), movies (hyper-verbal Quentin Tarrantino gets multiple references), media personalities (from Howard Stern to Tim Russert) music (from Tone Loc to the Wu Tang Clan), and a wide range of dictionaries of hackers, convicts, chefs, gamblers, gamers and most every other subcategory you can imagine.
What the rich array of sources reveals is slang’s ubiquitous role in our language. Whether you view slang as a bastardization of English, words to be challenged the moment they appear on the Scrabble board, or side with Carl Sandburg’s assertion that “slang is the language that takes off its coat, spits on its hands, and goes to work,” language is a constantly evolving form, and slang is as essential to communication as anything Mr. Webster officially documented. (Of course, the venerable O.E.D. is replete with so-called slang terms that have earned their pedigree by virtue of common usage.)
The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English embraces the gamut of possible contents without pulling punches for the sake of political correctness: the F-word gets most of five full pages for its various forms (noun, verb, adjective, interjection), not counting its reprisal as part of other words; racial and ethnic slurs abound; drug terminology is fully represented. In fact, every word which I searched was represented, with one exception: gobsmacked. Hardly an oversight, however—it’s British slang, and thus outside the scope of the book’s title. (Though thanks to Miss Boyle, it may well appear in the next edition.)
While the convenience of Internet search engines threaten to make reference books an erstwhile delight, the pleasure of flipping through the pages of this smartly conceived, well-researched book extend far beyond acquiring the mere meaning of the word: The definition may be available elsewhere, but the humor, mischief, and energy of the words are on full display here.