Words & Stuff

QQ: Drongos, Droobs, and Droogs

(25 October 1998)

Have you been looking for a good slang dictionary? Me too. It can be hard to tell, on a cursory inspection, which are reasonably accurate and which are outdated, miss shades of meaning, or are just plain wrong.

I've taken to checking a few particular words that I feel reasonably confident I know the current usage of; I figure if a given dictionary gets those words right, including connotation, it's likely to be reasonably current on other words.

For instance, some slang dictionaries define "queen" as a refined, gracious woman. If a dictionary fails to list the homosexual sense of the word, you can bet the dictionary is outdated. A further refinement of this test is to check "queer"; most slang dictionaries list "homosexual" as a derogatory meaning, but few note that the word has been reclaimed as a positive term by the queer community in recent years.

One could argue that such distinctions should be left out of a slang dictionary if they're part of the specialized vocabulary of a particular group; but these terms aren't so far out of the mainstream that people outside the given group never hear them, so I think it's important for slang dictionaries to get the connotations right. Another example: any slang dictionary that lists "nigger" as extremely derogatory has only half the story if it fails to mention that in some contexts (usually only when said by one black person to another, and not always even then), the term has no negative connotations.

Regionalisms are less likely to show up in slang dictionaries, and I can understand leaving them out to keep to a manageable size. Still, I think some regional slang deserves a wider usage, and it's always helpful for visitors to a region to have some idea what the locals are saying. Unfortunately, none of the dictionaries I checked list "spendy," Portland's term for "expensive."

Drug terms are another good litmus test of the accuracy of a slang dictionary. Most dictionaries include such standbys as heroin terms (like horse, smack, shit, and H), but not all list more recent additions to the lexicon like E and X for ecstacy (MDMA).

Youth and gang vocabulary, like that of other subcultures, gradually percolates into mainstream use. Just look at "diss" for an example. I gather "phat" is now entering the mainstream lexicon in much the same way "diss" did ten years ago. Of course, by the time the inevitable article in Time appears discussing the latest youth slang, the terms used in the article have been replaced by new ones.

There are other measures of a slang dictionary besides accuracy and completeness. For instance, a good slang dictionary should list derivations wherever possible, and should provide some indication of the degree of offensiveness of pejorative terms. Also, the dictionary should indicate what subculture, if any, uses the term.

I can't find the really bad slang dictionaries that were haunting bookstores a few years back, but here are comments on a few specific still-available dictionaries:

Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, ed. Paul Beale, 1989.
Mostly an abridgement of Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th edition, plus some new material. The concise version lists only terms that entered use in the 20th century, which means it intentionally leaves out a lot of current slang that originated in previous centuries (such as "grub" for food), while including slang no longer in use that did arise since 1900. The focus is largely British ("n.o.c." for "Not Our Class" is included, but not "NOKD" for "Not Our Kind, Dear"), so some definitions sound odd to the American ear. The scope is extensive, but it can be difficult to get through the morass of abbreviations used in definitions, and the book is a little snooty in places. Like the OED, this book is more useful for historical purposes than in decoding modern slang.

American Slang, Robert L. Chapman, 1987 (new edition 1998).
A physically unattractive volume which nonetheless contains a great deal of good and useful material. The focus is, as one would expect from the title, American; presumably that makes the book less useful to British and other non-American audiences. Like most slang dictionaries, contains an impressive number of sexual terms, including dozens of terms for sexual intercourse. (I hear that Americans have a hundred words for sex...) The new edition passes most of my litmus tests with flying colors; the only term on my list that it leaves out is "E." (The older edition is somewhat lacking in many respects, but I think most of its problems can be chalked up to age.) Apparently this book too is an abridgement of a more comprehensive (and expensive) edition.

The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, Tony Thorne, 1990.
A well-designed, fairly accurate, fairly thorough book; you could do worse. It contains a few minor inaccuracies, and of course suffers from being most of a decade old (it doesn't include the computer- and science-related meanings of "geek," for instance), but it won't steer you too far wrong.

Slang, Paul Dickson, 1998.
Unlike the others listed here, this dictionary is organized by topic (though it also contains an alphabetical index in the back). Each chapter covers a different subculture or topic area; very useful if you want to get a general feel for a particular subculture's slang, but not much use for general lookup purposes. Weirdly incomplete. There's little gay slang included, but there's an entire chapter devoted mostly to cyberpunk terms (which is to say, fictional slang). The computer chapter is very incomplete, and the book seems fairly inaccurate, as if his sources weren't very precise. It does contain amusing and informative sidebars on various slang topics, though.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>