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COMMENTARY Celebrating Slang Slang dictionaries have often had rocky receptions, usually because reviewers suspect that there is somediing unworthy about the vocabulary they treat. Rather dian celebrating Jonathan Lighter's accomplishment in bringing die first volume of his dictionary to completion, Sheldon Hackney (Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities) made an off-hand and defensive remark about the public investment in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS) . That was not a worthy or thoughtful act, and those ofus better informed about slang lexicography have an obligation to point out such misleading or wrong-headed evaluations. Readers of Dictionaries will recognize in Lighter's work die first installment ofa life's work; the additional volumes are promised shortly, die second to appear in 1996. The HDAS is an outstanding achievement, and all die more remarkable for having been carried out in all important respects by a scholar working nearly alone in collecting, compiling, interpreting, and presenting vast evidence widi deep insight. Quite simply, diere is nodiing like it in die history of slang lexicography. In reviewing die first volume in Dictionaries (1995, 186-203), Richard A. Spears wasjusdy celebratory: "By any reckoning, this is an extraordinary work." It provides "page after page of revelation after revelation" (186). "Unquestionably , our knowledge of thousands of slang words has been gready extended . . ." (195). These and odier comments could be easily converted to blurbs used in an advertising campaign for the HDAS. Unfortunately, Spears raises questions diat might arouse doubts in supporters ofLighter's work, both at Random House and elsewhere, and diese seem to me to require some contextualizing. In his final paragraph, Spears suggests diat Lighter might have gained "just a litde inspiration from the work of Stuart Berg Flexner" (202), an especially odd comment since Flexner was die sustaining force behind support from Random House even after advances had been spent and deadlines had passed. Flexner's revision and enlargement of Harold Wentworth's dictionary was a fine piece of small-scale lexicography, but Flexner regarded Lighter's work as something far more diorough and insightful dian he had been able to provide, and he sustained support for it for many years, doubdess in die face of opposition from higher levels in the corporation. Among die many regrets of Flexner's friends is that he did not live to see Lighter's work in print. Historical treatments ofslang present many difficulties. All lexical innovation , until recendy at least, begins in speech, but as Spears notes in a slighdy odd personification, "Slang expressions do not strive to get themselves printed" (189). The problem diat Spears describes has been on his mind for a long time. 266Commentary As early as 1987, he complained that "the argot vocabulary will be only partially covered, and it will be lopsided with print examples rather than the oral examples that come from the natural spoken setting of argot" (Spears 1987, 128). While an entirely valid point, this idea puts historical lexicographers in a methodological impossibility. How can "oral examples" be collected when the "natural spoken setting" is in the distant past? In his review, Spears suggests that Lighter might at least have done more to cite oral use over the years of his collecting to counterbalance the emphasis on printed sources; would that he had had the resources to do so. But is it reasonable to expect that a scholar working alone could do more than Lighter has done? In fact, there is a great deal of oral evidence presented in HDAS. On p. 283, a page chosen at random, there are citations from radio, television, and "Univ. Tenn. student" (a recurring figure in Lighter's work). Given the fact that the page contains words attested in the 19th century, the citation of these recent oral uses seemsjudicious and in the correct proportion. Spears applies his own ideas of slang lexicography to Lighter's project, views expressed in an important article he published in Dictionaries in 1989. There is no space here to reiterate the nine points Spears provided toward a "theory or philosophy of nonstandard vocabularies," nor to argue that Lighter should or should not have adopted them. Spears does not much...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 265-267
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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