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Slang Sleuth

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AROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME WOULD smell as sweet. And being dissed as a loser always stinks, whether you were called a lobster in 1832, a fin-de-siecle mutt, a post-Depression meatball or a lame-o in the bell-bottomed 70s. But before fluffing off even one of those slams, geeks ought to first touch base with the big cheese—in this case, J.E. (Jonathan Evan) Lighter, who as author of the definitive Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (vol. II, H to O, arrived in September) is one of the world’s leading brainiacs on the origins and evolution of lingo. “Some people collect stamps, and some people collect comic books,” says Lighter, 48, from his University of Tennessee office in Knoxville. “I collect words…like a vacuum cleaner.”

No jive. Lighter, a research associate professor of English, has been a word nut since his childhood in New York City. “I can remember as an 8-year-old opening up the dictionary and looking at all the unfamiliar words,” he says. By the time he finished his Ph.D. dissertation (slang words beginning with the letter A), he discovered that some current usages actually go way back. Like, way. Fly girls may think homeboy arrived with hip-hop, but Lighter found the term in an 1899 African-American newspaper. Wayne’s World fans, says Lighter, oughta check out an essay from an 1893 issue of a Princeton humor magazine titled, “An Historical Parallel—Not.” And Lighter traces man, as in the Bart Simpson-esque “Don’t, have a cow,” back to Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote in 1385, “What saistow, man? Where arte?”

Lighter’s source material tends to lie off the beaten track. His library includes such troves as Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales and The Bubba Handbook. But he and Jane O’Connor, his wife and assistant, also mine nonliterary sources. For example, they picked up skeevy (“dirty” or “sleazy”) for vol. Ill, due out in 2000, while viewing The Drew Carey Show. Meanwhile, Lighter will keep stoking his collection of 70,000 slang-filled index cards. “This is what happens,” he says, eyeballing his literary stash, “when a hobby gets out of control.”