“Slang dictionaries have always been done by mad people who sit in rooms and make books out of them,” explains Jonathon Green. For 35 years he’s been doing just that: collecting slang words and compiling them into dictionaries.
The biggest of these—Green’s Dictionary of Slang, published in 2010—launches online today (Oct. 12). The online version is made up of 132,000 terms (the original print edition had around 110,000). Users can search for a word and its etymology for free, and subscribers can pay to access a bigger range of citations and a timeline of their evolution.
Finding hundreds and thousands of slang words isn’t a straightforward affair. There is, Green says, “an element of dropping the stone in the pond and seeing where the ripple takes you.”
He sifts through newspaper archives, picking out, say, a columnist from the mid-20th century and reading through their work to pluck out specific terms to trace. He’ll trawl through lyrics, film and TV scripts, fiction, bibliographies in other authors’ books, and box sets—he once watched the entirety of The Wire, and as soon as a word came up, he’d stop, go back, transcribe, and trace it. That particular exercise threw up over 400 citations.
“I need something I can quote, [so] it has to have been recorded,” he says, explaining why he doesn’t do fieldwork. It’s also hard to extract slang. For some people it’s “simply the language they speak and the words they use,” he says. Grasping slang is not so much about getting up to speed with modern or “youth” speech, but observing the latest lexical twist on something.
Read more: Quartz