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A Serious Dictionary of Slang

Random House releases the first volume of the definitive work on the history of streetwise lingo

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If you’re the type — and you know who you are — who likes to flip through the dictionary looking for naughty words, you might get more than you bargained for with the Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Want the F-word? Try 12 pages of it.

Titters aside, the book has other fans besides furtive cuss-seekers and Beavis and Butt-head. Scholars are heralding it as the first serious effort to tap an underground river of words traditionally shunned by academia. ”It’s really the only historical dictionary that’s ever been done on slang, in any language,” says Random House editor Jesse Sheidlower, 25, the book’s cocreator, with J.E. Lighter. ”You can look up any term and see how it’s been used the entire time it’s been used in English.” The first volume (A through G) preserves old faves such as geek, booger, and boink, along with lost wonders like buffarilla (an ugly woman), catawampus (an odd or remarkable thing), and flaming onion (an antiaircraft shell). Admits Sheidlower: ”You have to be somewhat obsessive to work on this.”

Fortunately, Lighter is just that. Currently teaching in the English department at the University of Tennessee, Lighter, 45, got quite a head start: He began filling notebooks with funny words in junior high; by college he was scribbling slang on index cards. To compile the dictionary, he and Sheidlower cast a huge net, fishing for lingo in war novels, diaries, pulp detective fiction, newspaper clips, rap songs, TV shows — everything from The Official Preppy Handbook to Deep Throat, Mystery Science Theater 3000 to Madonna. ”By the time you’ve heard of something,” Sheidlower found, ”it’s probably been around for quite a long time.” Take Wayne and Garth’s signature yell — ”Not!” It dates back to 1900 and even pops up in a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But longevity isn’t always the case. ”As far as we can tell,” the editor says, ”the Eagles’ song ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ is the first use of fast lane in that sense.” Random House hopes to print volumes two (H through R) and three (S through Z) within three years, by which time there should be a new heap of streetwise bons mots to file away. ”It never stops,” Sheidlower says. ”There’s always more language out there.”