So much fun it's almost obscene

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
Don't know your eddies from your melvyns? Help is at hand, says David Self

The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English Edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor Two volumes, Routledge pound;99 until March 2006, then pound;120

I can remember one of boyhood's bygone excitements: when you progressed from a "school" dictionary to an adult dictionary, and could discover rude words in print. Words such as arse, bastard and even bugger.

It was a 1958 definition of one of those words that first interested me in the history of language: "buttocks, rump, not now in polite use". Was it, that schoolboy wondered, once polite to say arse? Thanks to the original Partridge dictionary, he discovered it was, until 1660. Most obscenities and profanities are now so widely used that their magic has faded, but even the most jaded teenager might be surprised by the explicit entries in this mammoth two-volume opus. Teachers who struggle to keep the insults clean in school will be fascinated, and anyone who loves language will find many uses for it in class. Others will think it should be burnt.

This book is weighty in every sense. It runs to more than 2,000 explicit pages and so is certainly not a "one-handed (pornographic, UK 1978)" read.

And it is very, very rude as it defines the slang, jargon, colloquialisms, anachronisms and vulgarisms that have entered the English language since 1945, including words that originated in Britain, the Commonwealth countries and the United States.

Its ancestor is Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, first published in 1937 and updated several times. Partridge's dictionary last appeared in 1984 and, as the two editors of this supplementary work fairly point out, their predecessor never quite absorbed the cultural changes of the 1960s. "Beatniks and drug addicts, and their slang baffled Partridge, who lacked either the personal experience or historical perspective to understand underlying countercultures." Tom Dalzell is an American lawyer who "moonlights as a slang collector". Terry Victor is an English playwright, actor and director. I wouldn't presume to comment on whether their experience gives them specific authority to write this work, but they forced me to conclude that I have led a very sheltered life.

I'm even surprised at how much rhyming slang has eluded me. Yes, I knew chalfonts were haemorrhoids (as in Chalfont St Giles) and ednas were drinks (as in Everagebeverage). I'd never come across eddies or a melvyn (undies, as in Eddie Grundy from The Archers, and either a fag or a shag - from Melvyn Bragg). Equally fascinating is another use of the noun melvyn. No etymology for this usage is given but, in case you don't know, it is "the condition that exists when someone pulls your trousers or underpants forcefully upwards, forming a wedge between buttock cheeks". There is also the verb to melvyn: "a girl's revenge".

The world of education does not seem to have spawned many imaginative derivations. A study bunny is self-explanatory. "Teach" was a noun (as a term of address to an American teacher) as early as 1958. On the other hand, class became a verb only in 2002 (as in to attend or join in a lesson). More depressing is the discovery that in Australia "teacher arms"

are the sign of a flabby, overweight person.

More interesting is the short section on numbers that have entered colloquial speech. Yes, I'm old enough to have owned a collection of vinyl 45s. But why haven't the editors included 33s and 78s, the latter term being post-war although the records were invented earlier? Even I understand 247 and 69, but I'd no idea a "12 and 12" was a person who is sexually attractive only after midnight and a dozen beers. Nor did I know the American slang term 404 (a person who is "mentally lost", from the internet message "404, URL not found") nor even the insult 288 (a pun on two gross).

Rather like someone who doesn't get a pub joke, I've found myself searching for words I have heard but not grasped. Here, I thought, I could at last discover if "glad wrap" really is Australian for cling film. No luck, but at least I now know a gladbag is a body bag (coined in Vietnam) and a glad rag is not only a single item of fine clothing but a cloth used for "recreational inhaling". While he usefully remedies Partridge's neglect of American slang, Dalzell's coverage of Australian, Canadian, Irish and New Zealand slang is at best patchy, and Caribbean colloquialisms are seriously underrepresented.

But this dictionary is huge fun. If you get a lot of Christmas book tokens, buy yourself a copy. Sadly, given the combination of cost and content, few school libraries will feel able to invest in it even though it could do more than most to encourage an interest in the history and development of the English language and to nurture a fascination for words and their precise usage.

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