They also drew clever maps, adjusted for population (Massachusetts thus being larger than Idaho, New York almost the same size as California) and on them plotted the geographical frequency of the more interesting discoveries—showing at a glance that it was people in the Appalachians who most commonly called an abscess a “bealing,” for instance, and how a bird, a particularly pretty kind of swift, was known as a “chimney sweep” more commonly in the Deep South than elsewhere.
And so they gathered and annotated all of these, and in total some sixty thousand further lexical illustrations of just how varied and mismatched and chaotic this country truly is—or was, at least, half a century ago. There is in truth little new, or newly found, in the dictionary: this is a deliberately fashioned portrait of the regional language of America as it was half a century ago—one small criticism that can fairly be leveled at a dictionary of the words of a vanished world, that is now published for a modern world so much more accustomed to the immediate and the up to date.
The completed dictionary memorializes an American language that is demarcated by geography, topography, heritage, immigration. In that sense it differs significantly from the many slang dictionaries, which display a quite different, but equally informal language, that is denominated largely by craft, by age, by persuasion. The language of thieves and computer geeks, of carnival workers and sportsmen, of drug addicts and prostitutes and the homosexual world is qualitatively different from the dialect words of those who have lived for years in the valleys of West Virginia, say, or the plains of South Dakota. These two kinds of languages may occasionally overlap, but they are by no means cut from the same cloth.
It is customary to suppose that it is the constant addition of slang to the mainstream of standard English that keeps American English so deliciously alive as a language—rendering it the most robust, flexible, and influential of all languages known. The recent publication of two immense new slang lexicons—Jonathan Lighter’s half-completed Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang—reinforces this notion, reminding us of its truth. Browsing through the thousands of pages of the slang dictionaries displays vividly—and in a way that browsing through DARE does not—just how much the informal cutting-edge vocabulary adds, in great measure, to the richness of what we speak and write today.
Not all slang words make it into the formal vocabulary, of course—even after a century’s slang usage, no New York Times reporter would write that “the cops” were investigating a crime. But he would write, and without fear of an editor’s objection, that police were looking into charges that someone had “filched” a purse, and that he later had stashed the “booty” in his room—in so writing employing two words that were once egregiously informal slang, and yet are now made entirely acceptable to all.
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