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From AOK to Oz

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang

By Jessica Weintraub | HUMANITIES, March/April 2004 | Volume 25, Number 2

“It is too late to be studying Hebrew; it is more important to understand even the slang of to-day,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1862.

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the first comprehensive dictionary of its kind, is under way. From Civil War diaries and pulp fiction to the film When Harry Met Sally and the television series Melrose Place, written and spoken sources are being scoured for slang words and phrases to include in the dictionary. Its thirty-five thousand entries will provide definitions of words used by teenagers, athletes, jazz, swing, and rock musicians, blue-collar workers, students, criminals, drug users, law enforcement officers, and armed forces personnel. It is the first historical slang dictionary to include citations from television, film, and the Internet.

Throughout the centuries, writers have taken opposing stands on the slang question. Samuel Johnson thought it would destroy the English language, and Daniel Defoe and Noah Webster condemned it; whereas Chaucer uses two hundred epithets in The Canterbury Tales, and Walt Whitman defends it in his 1888 essay “Slang in America.”

Two language scholars, Jonathan Lighter and Jesse Sheidlower, have taken on the task of championing the muchmaligned idiom. The editors are tracing the history of American slang from colonial days to the present. With NEH support, they have published the first two volumes of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, through Oz--the slang name for Australia--and will finish the third volume, which covers P through the middle of S, by 2006, and the fourth and final volume by 2009.

Sheidlower says slang’s existence is dependent upon that of a standard language: because slang arises in opposition to formal speech, there must be a norm for it to violate. “People have a choice of what kind of language they use,” he says. “It’s not so much that people don’t know the standard usages. There are situations that require standard discourse, but those represent a small part of everyday discourse.”

“The standard is important because it gives us a set of expectations,” Lighter says. For slang to stick there has to be a society that thinks about words as words: a mostly literate, modern, industrial society with permeable social boundaries.

Slang is often created as an in-group language. It differentiates the group from outsiders, creates a sense of commonality, and puts distance between the group and mainstream culture. Like the language of teenagers, it is informal, irreverent, and flouts convention; and it provides secrecy and status, Lighter says. It is a “nonstandard popular vocabulary that carries connotations and overtones of irreverence, cynicism, and humor.”

“All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in his 1901 “Defence of Slang.” Slang offers synonyms--often figurative--for standard English words and expressions. Most are terms for “good,” “bad,” “sex,” and “drunkenness,” as Lighter notes. In the Atlantic Monthly, he writes, “One rule of thumb about slang is that the more prevalent the object, activity, or behavior being described, and the more intense its psychological salience, the more numerous and diverse the slang terms available to describe it.”

Some terms are vivid and humorous, such as No-Tell Motel--a place for trysts on the cheap--or an Oklahoma credit card, which is a siphon tube used for stealing gasoline. Others are taken from foreign languages, such as gung ho, which means work together in Chinese, and boondock, which means mountain in Tagalog.

Others derive from proper names, such as to hoover, which means to vacuum or to eat rapidly; to John Wayne, to attack vigorously; and Joe, whose entries fill three pages in the dictionary, ranging from Joe Average and Joe College to Joe Tentpeg, an Army term for “an ordinary enlisted solider.”

Slang is offbeat, catchy, and non-technical. The verb to google, which replaces to search for something on the Web, is not slang, because of its intrinsic technicality.

Although many dictionaries consider slang too ephemeral to document, the HDAS editors believe that once a slang term is established, it is likely to persist in the language.

The first two volumes of the dictionary show the longevity of several ostensibly new terms: the use of bad to mean good has been around since 1897. Not, an interjection that acts “to jocularly contradict one’s own ironic assertion or another person’s statement,” according to the dictionary, was popularized by the 1992 film Wayne’s World but actually dates to the 1890s--and is found in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, and Theodore Dreiser. Dude first appears in an 1877 letter from Frederick Remington, referring to his correspondent’s drawings: “Don’t send me any more women or any more dudes.”

“’Okay’ is used constantly; the more frequently and the longer it is used, the less likely it seems dated,” Lighter says. “In the 50s ‘cool’ was associated with jazz and beatniks, but after fifty years it is used even more. Soon the meaning will crystallize and it will become part of standard English.”

The dictionary project staff is studying linguistic links to culture, social psychology, and history through how people actually speak to one another. “Language and culture are inextricably connected,”

Lighter says. “If there weren’t any language, there wouldn’t be much culture, or any way to pass on mythology and religious beliefs. Language helps us communicate, which helps to engender innovations and change within culture.” Lighter calls the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) “pioneers for inclusion.” By treating all words used in writing as equally important, the OED paved the way for the Historical Dictionary of American Slang as a historical and linguistic record. William Safire, the language columnist for the New York Times, believes the slang dictionary will follow the OED’s lead and do for non-standard language what the OED does for the whole language.

Sheidlower, the principal editor of the OED for North America, has long had an interest in slang. He discovered volumes I and II of HDAS while working as a senior editor for Random House. He made it his goal to work with Lighter to finish the series and reach wider audiences. Volume III marks the first time the dictionary will be under the auspices of the Oxford University Press.

Lighter, the project’s senior editor, began collecting slang expressions when he was in high school. His chief interest at the time was to become a novelist. He bought the singlevolume OED, both available slang dictionaries--Partridge’s and Wentworth and Fletcher’s--and began to write down snappy words and phrases for use in dialog. He says, “It became clear that those ‘snappy words’ were more interesting than anything I had to say as a novelist.” He was surprised that most of the quotes he found in movies, television shows, and conversation were not listed in slang dictionaries. “I thought I could put together my own dictionary in five years.”

More than twenty-five years later, Lighter has amassed hundreds of thousands of slang expressions, written on note cards and then digitized. “There is the undeniable satisfaction of collecting. Plus, it’s done cheaply--all you need is a library card and cable,” he says. When a character uses an expression on a popular television show, millions of people are exposed to it. “The first time this probably happened was in 1961. Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight was shown live on TV. In Shepard’s communication with Shorty Powers, one or both of them said ‘AOK,’ a phrase that was probably coined in NASA. Forty years later we’re still using it.”

The slang expression okay was probably created in 1839 as a “ridiculous” synonym for “all correct,” Lighter says. “Controversy about that origin continues, but our evidence is surprisingly good--no one has come up with a certifiable example to disprove it. It probably wasn’t spelled as a word ‘okay’ until the early part of the twentieth century, after its origin had been forgotten.”

Slang is often confused with other language variations: regional dialects, jargon, and cant. Informal expressions such as reckon or y’all are not slang; they were once regional and are now colloquial. Jargon refers to technical terms within an industry or profession, such as quark, the word physicist Murray Gell-Mann used to describe the subatomic particle with unpredictable characteristics. The story is that Gell-Mann lifted quark from a phrase in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “three quarks for Muster Mark.” The scientific term quark does not classify as slang because it is a standard word used in formal contexts.

In the Dictionary, Sheidlower explains, semantic development is emphasized, not etymology. “We’re interested in why ‘cool’ has grown to mean ‘new, ingenious,’ not the opposite of ‘warm.’ Instead of tracing words back to their Indo-European roots, we are focusing on historical developments of meaning.”

Citations are drawn from primary sources, examined for their rhetorical and sociocultural content, and then arranged in the pattern established by the OED for historical dictionaries. Each main entry consists of the lemma, or headword, a functional label indicating the part of speech, etymology, field label (when a social milieu can be established), sense divisions and definitions in chronological order of development, citations for each sense division, idiomatic phrases and habitual collocations, and pronunciation when it is not self-evident--or when the pronunciation is what makes the word itself slang, such as “garbaaje,” a slang variation of garbage.

“Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work,” Carl Sandburg told the New York Times in 1959. There may be a correlation between an increase in the written use of slang and the forging of an American style. According to Lighter, from the nineteenth century on, writers began inventing characters that had distinctly American characteristics and actually spoke like Americans: such as Mark Twain’s 1884 Huckleberry Finn, which is written in first-person vernacular. Although the book was criticized for its use of language, many writers have held it up as a milestone. Ernest Hemingway said fifty years after its publication, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. . . . All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before.”

The first American definition of slang appeared in The Century Dictionary not long after, published in 1889. “Of obscure cant origin, the form suggests a connection with sling. . . . ‘to sling epithets, to fling reproaches.’ Slang enters more or less into inferior popular literature. . . . and is apt to break out even in more serious writings. Slang as such is not necessarily vulgar or ungrammatical; indeed it is generally correct in idiomatic form, and though frequently censored on this ground, it often, in fact, owes its doubtful character to other causes.”

Lighter says that slang was bolstered by the birth of hardboiled detective novels, particularly those of Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. “For the first time there was an infatuation with the tough guy as a kind of hero. Before that heroes were cultivated and refined, but Hemingway created heroes who were anything but.”

Comics also put slang terms into circulation. R.F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, featuring a single-toothed street urchin who narrates life in Hogan’s Alley--a fictional New York City slum embodying the toughness of urban America--coined the term yellow journalism. The name of the color comic strip, first printed in the New York World in 1896, became associated with sensationalist news coverage.

Many slang expressions derive from music. Hip, which according to the dictionary means “fully aware; in the know” or “splendid; fine; enjoyable,” became popular in the 1960s, but was used much earlier by black jazz musicians. Its first appearance has not been traced, although the dictionary cites a 1904 novel by George Hobart, Jim Hickey : a story of the one-night stands: “Say, Danny, at this rate it’ll take about 629 shows to get us to Jersey City, are you hip?”

Jazz slang such as cool and groovy came from the music culture of the 1940s and 1950s, and Louis Armstrong popularized the words dig and cat. In response to Edward R. Murrow’s question to “What is a cat, Louis?” on the CD soundtrack of Satchmo the Great, Armstrong says, “He can be the lowest guy in the gutter all the way up to King, and if . . . he enjoys the music, then he’s a cat!”

New technology is changing the way we speak. “The Internet has had a huge affect on slang,” Sheidlower says. “While it is a bit overstated in the way that people think it coins words, the Internet greatly influences the spread and access to new terms.” As for which is growing faster, standard English or slang, he says, “Standard English is a much larger corpus than slang, and both continue to grow, but percentage-growth wise--while impossible to truly calculate--more slang is being created than standard English.”

“New words are constantly being unearthed and invented, so it is an eternally elastic process,” he continues. “It’s not science, it’s a rhetorical examination of a certain kind of English vocabulary.”

About the Author

Jessica Weintraub is a freelance writer in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Funding Information

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang has received $721,667 in NEH support since 1988.