"Green's work on the ruder end of the language spectrum feels especially current now that political debates, both home and abroad, have become so soaked in invective"by Sam Leith / November 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Say what you like about Jonathon Green: the man works his nuts off. He works his ring off. He works like a wop. Any readers who find one or all of the last three epithets offensive might be advised to steer clear of Green’s magnum opus. For he has spent over three decades collecting slang: 30 years at the coalface, by his own confession 24/7/365. And if you think “work like a wop” is offensive, why, there’s plenty more where that came from.
Green’s work on the ruder end of the language spectrum feels especially current now that political debates, both home and abroad, have become so soaked in invective. As he modestly admitted in his memoir two years back, among his upward of 100,000 headwords are 1,351 words for the penis, 1,180 words for the vagina (Donald Trump’s preferred term among them), 1,740 for heterosexual sex alone—and not a single word for love.
The reason I raise his work now is that this linguistic Don Quixote has finally seen his scholarly endeavours—last collected in 2010’s three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang—put online, in a searchable and deeply cross-referenced form. You can find it here: greensdictofslang.com. And for the dabbler in filth and obscurity, in lexical surprise and in earthy wit, it’s just irresistible. A whopcacker, in fact.
My favourite part of it might be the “browse” function, in which you can run a horizontal slider across the alphabet from “A” (which can stand for a Model-A Ford and two types of illegal drug) and “aachibombo” (a codfish fritter—“lit ‘codfish-arse’”) to “zug up” (give an unsatisfactory haircut) or “zuke” (to be sick). With just a slight movement of the wrist you can watch the epithets flicker by: “conveyance,” “dinky dau,” “Kofifi,” “medzers,” “satchel-arsed” and “Terry Waite” all offer themselves for inspection at a click. Terry Waite is rhyming slang for “late,” by the way. And just looking that up I discovered that I shouldn’t hope for a “Tetbury portion.”
Part of the pleasure of this resource is the vast and eclectic pool of citations from which he has assembled his dictionary. It draws on everything from Tom Stoppard and JM Synge to the 1980s kids television show The A-Team; from 1648’s anonymous A Brown Dozen of Drunkards to Charles Bukowski and William Gibson. And if you so choose you can search quotes by author—so you find, for instance, that Anthony Burgess, among other gifts to the language, is a source for “spalpeen,” “pox-doctor’s clerk,” “vinegar strokes” and “skating rink for flies.”
It’s intriguing to see this go online, though. On the one hand, it’s an obvious thing to do with any such lexical resource. On the other, it’s eccentric because Green’s great new competitor, at least implicitly, is the wiki of vulgarism to be found at urbandictionary.com. Here this analogue cant-collector is going head to head—bunting against—a digital driftnet.
Green’s selling point is that he’s scholarly, evaluating, careful with his sources, and has a historical long view; his disadvantage is that he is one man, albeit a monomaniac. Urbandictionary, where any user can offer a definition and its authority is decided by upvotes, is (we can assume) more nearly connected to current slang users and more likely to catch spoken usages on the fly.
Actually, this only makes me love Green’s work the more. The wiki is messy, prankish, full of spoof definitions, and suggestive but unreliable. Green’s work applies all the magnificent and fastidious apparatus of scholarship to something as fugitive and anarchistic as the slang lexis. That’s the better joke.
Urbandictionary, for instance, supplies a definition for “Belgian biscuit” (“a vile and non-specific sex act performed by the staff of a rub-a-tug shop”), sourcing it to Viz’s Profanisaurus where it appears as a running joke for a sexual practice so horrible no words can describe it. Green’s Dictionary of Slang does not include it—because it’s not a proper slang phrase. He’s many things, this author. But Green’s no butterboy, no dromedary, no hoosier, no shark-biscuit, no raw-jaws… Green’s no green-ass.