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Gendered Aspects of Lexicographic Labeling1 Ii Katherine Connor Martin "n his preface to the Dictionary of American Slang, Stuart .Flexner remarked that "most American slang is created and used by males" (1960, xii). While efforts have been made to evaluate the accuracy of this often repeated assertion (see, for example, Grossman and Tucker [1997]), the possibility of doing so is complicated by the subjective nature of the slang category, which has historically excluded speech associated with women. Since a sense of masculinity permeates the slang concept, the conclusion that women use slang less than men is circular. As Dale Spender has noted, this sort of circular reasoning, in which assumptions about gendered language use are built into the foundations of the very methodologies intended to test them, has frequently plagued studies seeking to compare men's and women's speech (Spender 1980/1998, 32). This paper explores the ways in which lexicographic practice engages with assumptions about gendered language difference, specifically concerning the application of slang as a register label or organizational criterion. In contrast to formal attributes of lexical items, like the transitivity of a verb, register and otiier usage labeling is necessarily subjective . For that reason, die accuracy of statements like "men use more 1An earlier version of this paper was presented in January 2005 at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society. I am very grateful for the comments and suggestions of the conference attendees. Dictionaries:Journal oftheDictionary Society ofNorth America 26 (2005) _____________Gendered Aspects of Lexicographic Labeling__________161 slang than women" or "slang is misogynist" cannot be evaluated convincingly ; they depend upon definitions of the slang concept that themselves are inextricable from assumptions about gender and language. Because the slang concept is associated with vitality, creativity, and novelty—qualities generally regarded as positive and exciting— recognition of its association with masculinity initially seems troubling; one would not want to suggest mat women are less likely than men to engage with and contribute to English in this inspired, creative way. But such a conclusion is not inevitable: in fact, acknowledgement of the integrally masculine aspects of the slang category should serve as a catalyst for recognizing historical contributions to the lexicon from the domain of femininity. Cultural developments over the course of the twentieth century have caused the relationship between slang and masculinity to soften somewhat; one need only think of the speech of teenaged girls as it has been presented in, say, the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the film Clueless to see a high correlation between femininity and slang. Nonetheless, recognition of slang's legacy of masculinity is important, in particular for historical dictionaries, which are in many ways constrained by the priorities and assumptions of the (primarily male) lexicographers of generations past. It is a commonplace that slang is impossible to define, though most people have a common sense understanding of the concept. Bethany Dumas andJonathan Lighter, noting the wide variability with which lexicographers had applied slang as a label, and the vagueness with which it was invoked in scholarlyjournals, sought a more rigorous definition of the term. They stressed the importance of the speaker's intent, concluding that slang usages were characterized by "their undeniable lack of dignity and their deliberate, widespread use within a social group (or many social groups) to defy social or linguistic convention ," and stating that an awareness of mis special lexical category was a basic concept informing tiieir own linguistic behavior (Dumas and Lighter 1978, 16) . The years since have seen me publication of the first two volumes of Lighter's pioneering Historical Dictionary ofAmerican Slang (HDAS) , the most comprehensive resource on the American slang lexicon. In the introduction to HDAS, Lighter expands and refines his earlier definition, stressing the social context of slang, its function in expressing speakers' relationships with both their interlocutors and the concepts under discussion. The importance of social context to the concept of slang, however, contributes to what Sidney Landau has called the "circularity" of the slang label, application of 162Katherine Connor Martin which often depends more upon the context in which a term is used than the attributes of the lexical item itself (Landau 2001, 239). Social context is also...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 160-173
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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