Jonathon Green, Lexicographer
Jonathon Green knows more dirty words than anyone else in the English speaking world, including twelve hundred for penis and a thousand for vagina, and yet, much to my disappointment, I found he is capable of engaging in civilised conversation without recourse to any unpleasant, vulgar or colourful vocabulary.
If you sat next to him at dinner you would count yourself lucky to enjoy such amusing and well-educated company. You would not guess that he is the top lexicographer of slang, the foremost scholar of filth, author of the definitive Green’s Dictionary of Slang, published by Chambers in three fat volumes last year – as the product of more than twenty years tireless application to the frayed margins of the English language, earning him the title Mr Slang.
“It’s my life’s work,” he confessed to me with a reckless smile of delight, “it has occupied my very being from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. I am the latest in a long line of slang lexicographers that is quite tangible and continuous stretching back to Robert Copeland in 1538. One day I realised, ‘You are doing the right thing for you,’ because I enjoy teasing out etymologies. I am fascinated by the margins, and I’m sure it’s linked to being a Jew and being an only child. Marginal language is more interesting to me, I wouldn’t want to be a mainstream lexicographer. I think, every book that I have written, it has always been about, ‘What can we learn from this?’”
“The primary difference between my work and that of earlier lexicographers is that they had to go looking, whereas, in the modern world, I don’t know where to stop!” continued Jonathon, exhilarated at the potential of the universe to offer up material for his pleasure. “Slang is thematic and there are certain themes,” he added with a conscientious orderliness,” – crime, drink, drugs, parts of the body and what we do with them, being unpleasant to other people, being nice about yourself, racism and having a good time. There’s also bodily fluids, shitting, pissing, fucking and farting. And on top of that there’s words for stupid, fools, prostitutes and the whole world of commercial sex.”
Judging from the nature of his curosity you might assume that Jonathon inhabits a hovel in the gutter, but in fact he lives with his wife in an airy modern rooftop apartment in Clerkenwell, less than a mile East of Dr Johnson’s house where this whole dictionary business began. “I feel a true relationship with my predecessors.” he confided to me, “I can relate to Samuel Johnson, but the one I most identify with is John Camden Hotten author of ‘The Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant & Vulgar Words’ 1859, because he wrote pornography and since I also used to write for top shelf titles, I always recognise a certain kinship with him.”
Before I could enquire further about the pornography, Jonathon launched into a history of slang, explaining how Robert Copeland once asked the porter outside St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield what the poor people were saying and received the reply, “They have their own language.” From this chance conversation over five centuries ago, just a quarter of a mile South from Jonathon’s flat, came the first book of cant, entitled “The Highway to the Spital House,” thereby initiating the field of scholarship Jonathon ploughs today. “Because slang is marginal only criminal stuff was written down at first since there was no other reason to record it,” he explained, before reeling off the names of those who have gone before him, from Eric Partridge to John S. Farmer to C.G. Leyland to John Camden Hotten to Francis Grose, reaching the early nineteenth century when the term slang appeared in our language. Then, enthusiastically pulling treasured copies off his shelves to show me,“Slang Dictionaries have always been independent,” he declared with a sparkle in his eye, “I am an independent, but there aren’t people like me any more – institutions and publishers make dictionaries now.”
After editing dictionaries of quotations in the early eighties, Jonathon wrote his first dictionary of contemporary slang in 1984 – just eleven and a half thousand entries, compared to twelve thousand in his current work for the letter “S” alone. In 1993, he was asked to write a broader dictionary of slang that was published in 1998, which in turn led to the commission for the current work comprising 110,000 entries, that, including the work of assistants, has taken an estimated fifty years of human labour to complete. Jonathon’s good humoured yet pale faced wife Susan Ford, who refers to herself succintly as “the slave,” visited the British Library five or six days a week for ten years to pursue research for the dictionary and, when Jonathon’s advance ran out only the unexpected legacy from an obscure uncle enabled him to continue, until the day the publishers hauled the mighty beast into publication.
Unsurprisingly, Jonathon admits to feeling depressed since his dictionary was completed, recognising that the changing world of publishing means there will never be a second edition and, more than this, there is unlikely ever to be another printed dictionary of slang. With some poignancy, Jonathon understands that his work is the last dictionary of slang – the end of the sequence of books that began with Copeland in 1538 – because the future lies in electronic databases. A realisation which has permitted Jonathon to ameliorate his sadness by continuing with the work of expanding his personal files in preparation for the day his beautiful dictionary of filth can become a continuously updated online resource.
“There have been moments of drudgery,” revealed Jonathon, almost reluctantly, “but you when you publish the book you become a little tin god – an expert.” With laconic irony, Jonathon encapsulated the apotheosis of the lexicographer, from drudge into deity and then, at this natural conclusion, he returned to his desk while I continued my conversation with Susan. But I could not help noticing that Jonathon appeared to be having a few problems with his computer, judging from the string of expletives worthy of the pages of his dictionary that emanated from his direction. And I was glad, because what is the use of knowing all these bloody words if you cannot savour their rich poetry upon your own tongue?
The New Dictionary of the Canting Crew by B.E. Gent, c.1698
Francis Grose author of “The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” 1785.
A Cadger’s map from The Vulgar Tongue by Ducange Anglicus, 1857
Advertisement in Cockney with text in standard English below from The Vulgar Tongue by Ducange Anglicus, 1857