Geoff Nunberg has a post at the Log about Simon Winchester’s review of Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang (reviewed here at LH) for the New York Review of Books. I had read the review and disliked it, as I dislike everything Winchester does (see this 2004 jeremiad), and one of the reasons I disliked it was what Geoff (who otherwise finds Winchester “a personable and engaging story-teller”) focused on:

The review took an unfortunate turn, though, when Winchester brought in Jonathan Lighter’s still uncompleted Historical Dictionary of American Slang and compared it invidiously, and quite unfairly, to Green’s work. It’s another in a long line of ill-conceived evaluations of dictionaries by writers who mistake their literacy and passion for the language for lexicographical expertise—think of Dwight Macdonald on Webster’s Third, for example.

Geoff wrote a letter to the NYRB complaining about it, which he provides in his post (the magazine probably won’t run it, since it’s long and specialized), and it’s well worth reading; what leads me to post about it here, though, is that Green responded with a long and amazingly civil comment in the thread—Nunberg says it’s “almost certainly more gracious than mine would have been in the circumstances.” As I say in the thread, “the back-and-forth between Green and Nunberg above is one of the most polite and informative such exchanges I’ve ever seen; kudos to both.”


  1. Amen on Simon Winchester. My own animus against him derives largely from the blurb he supplied to Alister McGrath’s “In The Beginning”, a book about the King James Bible that was so badly written (IMHO) that I couldn’t get through more than about a dozen pages of it, despite my strong interest in the subject matter (and what Winchester says is the author’s “proper reverence for the language”). The last time I tossed the book aside in disgust, I noticed Winchester’s blurb on the cover and decided, “I’m holding you responsible!”

  2. Winchester has been on my shit-list ever since The Professor and the Madman, an egregiously awful, saccharine confection of slip-shod research, over-simplification, wishful-thinking, and fiction-presented-as-fact. He’s about the last person on the planet who should be allowed to review a serious work of scholarship of any sort.

  3. A very enjoyable and edifying exchange. I also liked Nunberg’s well-turned remark that “every dictionary is an implicit theory of its compass”.

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