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Reviewed by:
  • Chambers Slang Dictionary
  • Jesse Sheidlower (bio)
Jonathon Green . Chambers Slang Dictionary. 2008. Edinburgh: Chambers. Pp. xxxvi + 1477.

Traditionally, the most prominent slang dictionaries have been written by what are often called "amateurs," which is to say people outside of the academy who rely primarily on book sales, rather than university appointments, for their income. This is no criticism; until recently the academy had little interest in slang, and it was up to diligent enthusiasts, rather than linguistically trained scholars, to study this lexis. For the middle part of the last century, it was the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, (1937 and later editions) by the New Zealand-born Eric Partridge, that was the representative of the comprehensive one-volume slang dictionary; now, it is Jonathon Green's Chambers Slang Dictionary.

Green, a highly prolific journalist and author of many books, often about language, produced his first slang dictionary in 1984, but it was the Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (1998; second edition, 2005) that truly established him as a serious presence. Including slang from all English-speaking countries, dated entries, and historical as well as modern terms, the Cassell's dictionary became the one-volume dictionary of choice for the serious student of slang. The Chambers Slang Dictionary is in many ways a third edition of the Cassell's (though is not so declared), from a new publisher, but there are enough major differences to merit a new look.

Most prominently, the Chambers book features an entirely new, and much more helpful and sophisticated, way of structuring the entries. Previous editions had presented every lemma, regardless of type (single words, compounds, phrases) or origin, as a main entry, in alphabetical order. This may have increased the main-entry count of the volume, but it also made the volume look amateurishly glossarial. It also made it rather more difficult to correlate entries; though the etymologies referred each lemma to its source, the monolithic structure obscured these connections. The new volume adopts a more traditional lexicographic treatment, with various types of derived forms (affixed terms, compounds, phrases, etc.) presented in sections underneath the main lemma to which they are associated.

For example, take the entries around chuck. (Green divides these into a number of homographs for both the noun and the verb.) In each [End Page 140] volume, these take up over three columns of type. In the 2005 Cassell's, after the various entries for bare forms of the word come a variety of undifferentiated phrases and compounds in alphabetical order: first a number of phrases having the form chuck a —, e.g. chuck a fit or chuck a tread, connected to his chuck v.(1), and then compounds such as "chuck bread," derived forms such as chucked adj. (with two homographs), and so on.

In the Chambers, these are all reordered and placed under their respective headwords, with headers indicating the type of form is being shown. So chuck n.(3), the 'food' sense, includes in one section the compounds chuck horrors 'a craving for food' and 'a craving or loathing for food accompanying heroin withdrawal', chuck wagon, and more; and in a phrase section, wrestle one's chuck. Some forms, for example the phrasal verb chuck in, are themselves elevated to main-entry status (often having their own subsections), but in such cases there are cross references in both directions to ensure that the reader can find the connections.

Overall, this structural change is overwhelmingly helpful, while also making the book look more like the serious reference work that it is, and less like a simple, if large, glossary.

The content has also been significantly improved. While editing the Chambers book, Green was also finalizing the text of the Green Dictionary of Slang, a very large multivolume dictionary of slang on historical principles, which was being published as this review was itself being written. The citations supporting GDoS, as it will be known, were incorporated into the dating of the entries in the Chambers book, which, though not providing any citations, does supply dates for each sense of each word defined. Unlike the guesstimated dates in Eric Partridge's dictionaries, Green's are based on the...


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