Regular readers will know that I often have occasion to berate the hapless William Safire, whose love for the English language is passionate but lamentably short on genuine knowledge. Today, however, reading him has filled me with joy, for he has brought me good tidings. The magnificent Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan Lighter, was dropped by its original publisher, Random House, after two volumes in an appalling demonstration of obsession with profit to the exclusion of all other factors. (They might have considered the example of the OED, which was similarly seen by Oxford as a sure money-loser in the beginning; since then, of course, it has been a bonanza for OUP.) But salvation is announced in Safire’s Sunday column:
Best lexical news of all to word lovers is the salvation of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. The first two volumes of this projected tetralogy (that’s Standard English for four volumes) were published by Random House and opened a window on America’s cultural heritage. The ambitious project, brainchild of Jonathan Lighter at the University of Tennessee, was a godsend to all of us in the language dodge. But Random House, which is not a philanthropy, saw no profit in finishing it. We panicked; would slang scholarship stop dead at the letter O?
The National Endowment for the Humanities popped with a grant of $325,000 over two years to keep Lighter slaving away like a modern-day Sir James Murray, and Oxford University Press picked up the challenge. The Brits, just as they did in Iraq, came through for the U.S.
”The N.E.H. grant helps subvent it,” reports Casper Grathwohl, reference editor at Oxford, ”and we’re now working out the contract with Random House.” (The verb subvent, ”to come to the help of,” is listed as ”obsolete, rare” in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it defines the noun subvention as ”a grant from government . . . in support of an enterprise of public importance,” which this nearly abandoned history surely is.) Jesse Sheidlower, who was Lighter’s editor at Random House, is now principal North American editor of the O.E.D. and will work with the great lexicographer again.
”We want to build a whole online slang project with this at its core,” Grathwohl says, ”a slang resource center and living language project.” He envisions a ”slang watch” and a yearbook of ”the best American slang of 2004, that sort of thing. By being able to finish this work, Oxford will play a pivotal role in documenting the way Americans speak.” Why? The British lexie subvented me easily: ”Slang is the sexiest part of a language.”
Safire also announces the imminent publication of the 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate, which would be my lead story on another day—I’m very much looking forward to seeing it. But the revival of the HDAS is genuinely historic; my thanks to the NEH, Oxford, and the good Mr. Safire.
(I’d like to leave matters there, really I would. But I can’t resist taking a cheap parting shot. You see that parenthetical sentence up there, starting “The verb subvent…”? See halfway through, where it says “but it defines”? That “it” is meant to refer to the OED, but in fact its grammatical referent is “the verb subvent.” Sorry, Bill.)