March 4, 2009

Ol' Slangy, my lexicological friend

In my day job as a copy editor (really, just for fun, since being a quizmaster I'm continually showered with rubies and emeralds), I refer to the dictionary (Merriam-Webster's 11th edition) approximately 17 zillion times a day. Less often referenced, though still a vital tool that holds an honored place on my desk, is the Dictionary of American Slang, third edition, edited by Robert L. Chapman, Ph.D. I'm continually reminded of what an amusing tome this is, and I think I've come to realize that it might be my favorite book of all time. (Tough competition, though.)

Today's amusing example: the entry for the phrase I'll be damned. The book offers a number of variations, including I'll be danged, I'll be hornswoggled, I'll be ding swizzled (?!?), I'll be dipped in shit, and that classic among classics, I'll be a monkey's uncle.

And the definition: "May I be maltreated, confounded, accursed, etc; an exclamation of surprise or determination." This is what I love about Ol' Slangy: applying linguistic formality to the stupidest shit that comes out of human beings' mouths. Amusing juxtaposition is always a thrill.

I can recall the exact moment I first learned that such a thing as a slang dictionary existed. Ninth-grade English class, Mrs. Casapulla, Columbia High School (no, don't go high-fiving me; I was out of that place within a year). She was talking about slang in general, told us about its unlikely codification in various reference manuals, to the shock of both me and, I clearly remember, a classmate bound for fame and glory. "How is that possible?" the future idol and I both asked. "They update it a lot," Mrs. Casapulla assured us.

Eh, not really. For all I know, Robert L. Chapman, Ph.D. died in the French-Indian War, 'cause this thing is seriously out of date (copyright 1995, which is paleolithic in slang terms, especially considering the rise of the Internet since then). It's the time-honored manual, though, so I've stuck with it out of inertia. Some years ago I looked for a more authoritative alternative, but came up empty—most slang dictionaries are extremely selective volumes the size of religious pamphlets, with titles like English as a Second Fucking Language. (Though this looks promising; good thing I can expense book purchases.)

Come to think of it, someone should make an authoritative slang guide online. (Hell, someone should make an authoritative anything online.) Maybe that can be my next career: Internet lexicographer.

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