What slang says about us

Nicholas Shakespeare in The Telegraph:

SlangSlang’s first compilers were chippy individualists, routinely beset by financial worries and complex marital lives. They were never grandees like the 70-odd team beavering away still on the Oxford English Dictionary in Great Clarendon Street (less than 30 yards from where I live in Oxford). They numbered Francis Grose (1731-91), the son of a Swiss jeweller, who was so fat that his servant had to strap him into bed every night; Pierce Egan (1772-1849), a boxing journalist and editor of Real Life in London; and John William Hotten (1832-73), a workaholic pornographer (The Romance of Chastisement) who died from a surfeit of pork chops, and was remembered, unfairly, by the phrase: “Hotten: rotten, and forgotten”. Even so, they shared many characteristics of lexicographers like William Chester Minor (1834-1920), one of the OED’s founding fathers, who was, quite conclusively, bonkers. As one of Jonathon Green’s mentors, Anthony Burgess, cautions: “The study of language may beget madness.”

Super-geeks (from geek, meaning fool) to a man, slang’s lexicographers tend to be self-appointed guardians who, while cheerfully plagiarising each other in their project to demonstrate the importance and scope of slang, have yet to agree on a definition of what, precisely, slang is, or was – or even its origin. Hotten believed slang to be a gipsy term for the gipsies’ secret language; the Oxford philologist Walter Skeat attributed it to the Icelandic slunginn (cunning), while Eric Partridge (1894-1979), a New Zealand ex-soldier, ex-publisher and ex-bankrupt, believed it was the past participle of the Norwegian/Old Norse verb sling, so giving the concept of a “thrown” language. Into this tradition, Green (from greens, meaning sexual intercourse, b 1948) fits seamlessly. “What goes in a slang dictionary and what does not is often a matter of individual choice,” he writes. “Ultimately slang seems to be what you think it is.”

More here.