Not Fit to Print
Not a pretty business, this lexicography. Just listen to what the London Sunday Times has to say about the recently published eighth edition of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. “No word,” the Times warns its readers, “is considered too verminous for the lexicographer’s zoo.”
Exactly. And no zookeeper has a grislier menagerie of words than Paul Beale. For Beale, 51, is the current custodian of Partridge’s, a 1,400-page, five-pound catalog that is devoted solely to offbeat, off-the-wall, often off-color English. In other words, the mother tongue’s lingua franca. Beale sees himself as a man with a mission. “My philosophy,” he says, “is that centuries from now, scholars should know what the hell we were talking about.”
The first edition of the great slang dictionary appeared in 1937 and represented the lifework of Eric Partridge, an eccentric New Zealander who sat every day for 40 years at the same desk in the British Museum Reading Room. Beale, a former officer in the British Army Intelligence Corps with a similar passion for words, began corresponding with Partridge 10 years ago. The letters, full of slang that Beale had either overheard or picked up in his reading, became increasingly frequent, and before the master lexicographer died in 1979 at 85, he entrusted his notes and his obsession to Beale.
“I was immensely honored and flattered,” says Beale, a college librarian who works out of an extra room in his tidy semidetached house in Loughborough, England and has devoted about 3,500 spare-time hours to his task. Like his late colleague, Beale understands that the language he records is not meant to endure. “Slang is fashion,” he says, “so it gets used up very quickly. Partridge agreed with me that what we were doing was like trying to catch snowflakes with a butterfly net.”
Some of the more exotic specimens that Beale has captured for Partridge’s eighth edition, which will be published in the U.S. next spring:
Yomp. During their invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, British troops were described by a London newspaper as “yomping toward Port Stanley carrying up to 120 pounds of equipment.” Beale speculates that the term is a perversion of hump.
Dog-shelf. Literally, the floor. This is a particular favorite of Beale’s. When something drops around the Beale household, his wife, Daphne, 46, cries, “That’s right, hang it on the dog-shelf!”
Punk. The term is considerably hoarier than safety-pinned cheeks and Cyndi Lauper’s hair. It’s been around since Shakespeare’s time, when it meant prostitute. The current rock ‘n’ roll version didn’t come into vogue until the mid-’70s. “Every generation,” says Beale, “wants nothing to do with the slang of the generation before it. But generations before that are all right.”
Much of Partridge’s eighth edition—like its predecessors—is X-rated. This troubles Beale not one whit. “I don’t put words in because they’re dirty,” he says. “I choose them because they are used and understood by an enormous number of people. Besides, a lot of people think there are more of them in the book than there actually are.”
“Because,” he says with a laugh, “those are the ones they look up first.”