Book Review: New Partridge Dictionary of Slang & Unconventional English

Two weeks ago I received my copy of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor, from Amazon.com. This is an update of the work started by lexicographer Eric Partridge (1894-1979). First published in 1937, his slang dictionary was revised six times during his life and once by Paul Beale after his death. This new work is essentially a new reference rather than just a revision and updating of the earlier work. One can still see the influence of the Partridge originals in some of the entries, but it is quite different in research, scope, and presentation.

Partridge had his idiosyncrasies and quirks. Some of his research was sloppy. But his dictionary and other works are still valuable references. This was because Partridge filled a void by being the only available, comprehensive review of slang. In other words, he was often the only game in town. The Oxford English Dictionary long ignored slang. This has been corrected in more recent editions and additions, but updating the vast OED takes so long that this early prejudice against slang lives on in the absence of many needed entries. Other general dictionaries simply didn’t have the space to address their slang entries with the thoroughness that Partridge did and few slang researchers were willing to attempt to duplicate the monumental effort that Partridge put into his work. More recently, others have taken up the task and Partridge’s exclusive hold on the domain of slang has diminished somewhat. But Partridge still often fills a void. For example, Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang is a wonderful resource for American slang beginning A through O, but if you want to look up a word from elsewhere in the world or from the back end of the alphabet you are out of luck, at least until that dictionary is completed. This leaves us with Partridge, for all its faults.

Dalzell and Victor superbly sum up these faults with Partridge’s original in their preface to the new dictionary:

His protocol for alphabetizing was quirky. His dating was often problematic. His etymologies at times strayed from the plausible to the fanciful. His classification by register (slang, cant, jocular, vulgar, coarse, high, low, etc.) was intensely subjective and not particularly useful. Furthermore, his early decision to exclude American slang created increasingly difficult problems for him as the years passed and the influence of American slang grew. Lastly, Partridge grew to lose the ability to relate to the vocabulary he was recording. In 1937, Partridge was a man of his time: but the same could no longer be said in 1960.

Dalzell and Victor seem to have avoided all these problems and this new edition of Partridge is all the better for it:

  • Their dating is precise, based on actual citations, not on estimation as Partridge was wont to do.
  • Their etymologies, when given, are solid or clearly labeled when not.
  • There is no classification by register and few usage notes.
  • They have widened the scope of the work to include slang from all over the English-speaking world.
  • They show no evidence of being out of touch with current slang.

It’s been a while since I’ve bought a new language reference book and I was excited when this one arrived. My eagerness wore off, though, as I perused it. It’s not that it is a poor reference–I’m sure I will use it often–but there are a few problems with the work that fall into two categories.

The first category are things I, personally, don’t like about the work. These aren’t deficiencies and I understand why Dalzell and Victor made these editorial choices. It’s just that they make the work less valuable to me. One is that this is not a historical dictionary. The editors make no attempt to trace the development and usage of a term over time. Etymologies, other than a date of first known use, are not usually given and the usage citations are illustrative rather than comprehensive. Also, only terms used 1945-present are included. Why they limited the scope of the dictionary in this way is perfectly understandable. I just wish they did not have to. Others with different purposes will not find these issues a problem.

The second category, non-systemic problems in individual entries, is more vexing. Some individual entries display deficiencies that raise doubts about the thoroughness of the editors.

I noticed one as soon as I opened the book. It’s my habit to first look up the whole nine yards anytime I encounter a new slang reference. I can get a good feel for a work by the way they handle this phrase. But stunningly, the phrase is not included, not under whole, not under nine, not under yards–and knowing Partridge’s penchant for odd alphabetization, I even looked under the. The phrase is simply not in the dictionary. It’s not that the editors have deliberately chosen to exclude catchphrases; there are plenty of others in the dictionary. How any slang reference that includes American terms from 1945 onwards could omit the whole nine yards is mind boggling.

As I have recently been updating the Letter B on wordorigins.org, I looked up most of the B words on The Big List in the new dictionary. The phrase Bob’s your uncle is also missing. I know the phrase is still current; I’ve heard it in the wild myself. Partridge’s Dictionary of Catchphrases has a fairly lengthy entry on it, so one would think it would be considered for inclusion here, but evidently not.

Another B deficiency is in the entry for black box, meaning a piece of avionics hardware. The dictionary marks it as an American usage dating to 1945, although the OED contains 1945 citations from both the RAF and the US Air Force. So this one is clearly mislabeled.

While Dalzell and Victor have avoided guesswork in etymologies, they state that the phrase in like Flynn was "originally a reference to the legendary sexual exploits of actor Errol Flynn" and give a date of 1945, the date of the earliest citation in the HDAS. The phrase has been antedated to 1940 by Barry Popik and available in the American Dialect Society e-mail archive. Missing an antedating of a few years would normally not be a critical error, but in this case these antedatings are key to understanding the etymology. The clearly disprove that the phrase got its start with the actor’s acquittal for statutory rape, which is often given as the original reference–although to be fair not by Dalzell and Victor. More importantly, the antedates indicate that the Flynn in the phrase is probably just nonsense that rhymes, in like Flynn and out like Stout and not a reference to the actor or anyone in particular.

And I have found one example of political subjectivity in an entry that compromises the scholarly objectivity of the work. The entry for chickenhawk, meaning a person who advocates for a war but refuses military service, includes the following extraneous political commentary, "virtually every member of the US government that supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq avoided active military service in Vietnam during their youth." There is no other commentary on the word and given that usage citations go back to the 1980s, this is not intended as etymological commentary. Worse still, two of the five citations are anti-Republican political commentary on the 2003 war that, amazingly enough for "usage" citations, do not include the term chickenhawk. One uses the constituent elements, but not the term itself, in a very different context. ("What do you get when you cross a chicken and a hawk? A Quayle.") The second does not even use elements of the word at all, but is simply a list of Republican politicians and pundits who did not serve in the military. This last contorts the definition of "usage citation" out of all recognition. (So you understand my objection, I am in complete sympathy with the political viewpoint expressed in the entry. I just think it has no place in a linguistic reference.)

To be fair, any work of this magnitude will have errors and omissions and editors and editorial assistants sometimes get carried away and include inappropriate opinions. The problem is the rapidity with which I turned up these. I had barely cracked the book open when I started discovering them. It makes me wonder if by happenstance I stumbled on the few deficiencies in the work shortly after first consulting it, or if they are representative of a larger number of ones yet to be discovered.

On the whole, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang looks to be a fairly solid reference. But I can’t help having the nagging suspicion that this, like the earlier editions of Partridge, is one that I will consult because there is no other.

Hardcover, 2400 pages (2 vols.), Routledge, December 2005, $175.00

There is also a web site, www.partridge-slang.com, which includes submission forms new words to be added to future editions.

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