Abstract and Keywords
The conclusion draws together trends observed in the dictionaries discussed, noting particularly the difference in perspective between British historical dictionaries and American contemporary dictionaries. In Britain, Australia, and the United States slang had a different social meaning, and this is reflected in the dictionaries. The Conclusion also summarizes developments in slang lexicography and looks forward to developments to be discussed in Volume IV of the series.
Many of the British dictionaries covered in this volume are historical. Some detail changes through time, while others document terms no longer in use. Both types of dictionary are backward‐looking, and this tendency indicates a general sense of regret: a feeling that the future will not and cannot live up to the glories of the past, either for individuals or for the nation as a whole. Some authors were attempting to preserve ephemeral language before it was lost altogether. Others were trying to document a time that was better than the present: looking back from the later years of the nineteenth century, some considered the past more lively, more adventurous, and in many ways less conformist than the present. Non‐standard language encapsulated this non‐conformity, and Britain's amateur scholars were busy during this period documenting the slang of their youth or of previous generations. Contemporary urban working‐class life had little intrinsic appeal, and only rhyming slang, an expression of solidarity artificially sustained by the music‐hall, was of interest in the inter‐war period.
Social structures in Britain, the United States, and Australia were different, and in each system non‐standard speech carried different meaning. Although social and educational distinctions in language were carefully maintained in the United States, and the poor were largely left to sink or swim, contemporary slang and dialect were of interest for their own sake. Despite the hierarchies that dominated society, the symbolic importance of freedom and democracy is reflected in the application of new scholarly techniques to the study of non‐standard language. In Australia, attempts to recreate Britain's social hierarchy had been foiled by nature, geology, and demographics. Although still considered inferior by the stubbornly Anglocentric, Australian slang and Australian English had become for their speakers powerful symbols of fairness, national pride, and self‐respect.
Slang dictionaries inevitably lie along the fault‐lines of change. Not only do they document new terms, but they also embody their writers' feelings about the changes underlying them. The dictionaries discussed here fulfilled a variety of functions for their writers and users. (p. 396 ) Some created and nurtured a sense of loyalty to school, university, or nation, and emphasized the importance of tradition. Some encouraged rebellion against Empire, capitalism, or patriarchy. Others sought to resist change by stirring up moral panic in response to it. First World War glossaries inspired reluctant soldiers and nations to action, helped the survivors to come to terms with their experiences, and memorialized the millions who did not survive.
Having sacrificed so much to the war, some individuals gained a sense of group pride that they had not previously enjoyed. They had anticipated being treated with greater respect at the end of the war, and when this did not happen young people, African‐Americans, and Britain's colonies all began to reject the ideals and figures of authority they had previously sought to emulate and serve. Non‐standard speech is a clear symbol of such disobedience. Political agitators tried unsuccessfully to extend the rebellion to the workers, 1 and fear of communism is expressed in a number of the glossaries discussed in this volume.
Other objects of horrified fascination during this period were gangsters, hoboes, and modern women. Audiences throughout the world adored Chaplin's tramp, 2 a figure building on decades of comic tradition, but gangster films and books of the Twenties and Thirties, linked crime, glamour, and jazz together in an irresistible mixture of danger and excitement. Television broadcasting was in its infancy, but the film and music industries provided the conduit by which social and cultural trends in the United States were to influence language internationally. They exposed Middle America to the language of the racially mixed inner cities, and exported American slang to the rest of the English‐speaking world. Aspiring writers and bemused audiences needed help with these unfamiliar terms, and many of the slang glossaries in Chapters 10 and 11 refer to the use of underworld slang in fiction. As susceptible to glamour as everyone else, aspiring criminals undoubtedly modelled their speech on its cinematic representation. Like the rhyming slang of the music‐halls, criminal slang was both the raw material and the product of the media.
(p. 397 ) It would be dangerous to generalize about the reliability of these glossaries as witnesses of non‐standard speech, but it is certain that the areas of slang they chose to document are expressions of contemporary interest. No one was making glossaries of the slang of factory workers or schoolgirls or insurance men (or if they were, they were calling it something different), because these groups did not have the romantic appeal of college boys, gangsters, hoboes, or soldiers in the trenches. Even for those groups whose slang is documented, a single individual's knowledge, no matter how carefully transcribed, could not represent the speech of every other member of the group in every situation. Conversely, it takes a disciplined lexicographer to omit material once collected, and many of the dictionaries discussed here are by no means disciplined. Real language does not present itself in ordered lists—it is produced in complex social contexts—and very few of the dictionaries make any attempt to account for this. Scholars who wish to do so tend not to become lexicographers.
This period did see the beginnings of sociological slang lexicography, sometimes scholarly and sometimes journalistic. This approach insists that slang cannot be recorded in a study or a library. To understand it properly, one must observe or even live the life of its users. This new emphasis on the importance of insider knowledge was to undermine the status of the gentleman slang lexicographer. Moreover, the influence of structuralism on linguistics effectively disqualified vocabulary as an area for serious scholarly interest. As the twentieth century progressed, being a slang‐user was to become a far more credible qualification for the task of documenting slang than being a competent lexicographer.
Another strand running through this volume is the development of psychology, which tended to pathologize non‐conformity. Eugenics also lurks in the background as a solution to social problems. Tramps, criminals, drug‐users, and homosexuals were all held to suffer from genetic traits that the world would be better without. Their use of deviant language was symbolic of their inability to conform.
None of the threats to security that had alarmed Britain's imperialists at the beginning of this period had been resolved, and many now threatened America too. Women, homosexuals, the working classes, foreigners, and outsiders of all kinds had failed to accept their places in the pre‐ordained social order. No matter what concessions were (p. 398 ) made, they were never satisfied. In 1909, in an address to the AGM of the English Association, a speaker commented that:
The old standards have decayed, the aristocracy no longer take the intellectual lead; men of Letters and booksellers are left face to face with a multitude of readers whose intellectual appetites and tastes are emancipated from all direct influence and control. If we look at the state of our imaginative literature, we must observe in it a grossness, even an indecency, of conception, and an inflowing tide of slang and vulgarity and other forms of ugliness which tend to corrupt imagination and barbarize language. 3
Although we have seen much evidence to the contrary, the idea that slang was particularly characteristic of the uneducated was still firmly entrenched in Britain and America at the end of the period covered by this book. Several glossaries in this volume provide a hint of the changes to come. In the period following the Second World War, slang came to be associated more particularly with American teenagers, and ultimately with the African‐American musical forms that defined their years of youthful rebellion. We have seen that early lexicographers of American and Australian slang turned to British sources rather than first‐hand knowledge, but the centrality of British slang and of British slang dictionaries was an inevitable casualty of political change.
Urbanization and the increasing influence of the media were to remain central to the development and dissemination of slang during and after the Second World War. Increasing prosperity and leisure created new markets, particularly among the young. The music, film, and fashion industries created and responded to changes in attitude and language. They also harnessed teenage slang as a marketing tool, and the period from 1937 onwards sees the increasing commercialization of slang and its lexicography.
Partridge's DSUE was modelled on the nineteenth‐century historical dictionaries that were his main sources, but he found it necessary to exclude American slang in order to make his task at all manageable. This decision, anticipated by the presentation of so many separate lists in Rose's Thesaurus and Weseen's Dictionary of American Slang, is a foretaste of the fragmentation of slang lexicography that will be seen in the next volume in this series.