Oxford University Press has put online a long and fascinating interview (pdf file; HTML cache here) with J.L. Lighter, compiler of the indispensible and happily revived Historical Dictionary of American Slang (which he’s been working on since he left high school). As the introduction puts it:

The best news of the year for word buffs, amateur etymologists, professional linguists, and all who respond to the incredible richness of the American language is that J. E. Lighter has found a home for his Historical Dictionary of American Slang.
When Random House published the first two volumes of this dictionary, covering letters A through O, in 1994 and 1997, critics reached for such terms as definitive, absolutely outstanding, and landmark publication. Nevertheless, the publisher abandoned the project when it was only half-completed, leaving the author and his dictionary in publishing limbo—and his many fans aghast…

Not to have completed this work beyond the letter O would have been a tremendous loss to American cultural history as well as to lexicography. But now Oxford University Press has come to the rescue; a contract has just been signed to carry the project right on through Z. Fortunately, J. (for Jonathan) E. Lighter, the research associate in the English Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, had persevered, and currently he is deep into the S’s—a big letter, one that accounts for about 10 percent of the pages in most dictionaries. Oxford expects to bring out volume three of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang in 2006.

The interview is full of great nuggets about words like goon, cowpoke (which, contrary to the OED and all other sources, is not attested until the 1920s), and occupy (“During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, occupy was used so frequently as a euphemism for sexual intercourse that writers stopped using it in its primary sense”). Thanks go, as so often, to aldiboronti at Wordorigins for the link.


  1. I cannot tell you how happy this announcement makes me. I consult the first two volumes regularly. I have a particular interest in the language of American popular music & Lighter’s volumes provide a definitive guide.

  2. I have been using the two volumes and this is very effective for me. Both the volumes are simply great, I like it

  3. I use Dr. Lighter’s Dictionary of American Slang often, and its very useful However, when it came to explaining the meaning of “dog” in the following sentence, I couldn’t find a “match”. Here is the sentence and the source:
    “The guy in the brown car’s a dog, he’s always here,” the man narrating said.” Source: The New York Times, Wednesday, September 21, B11, col. 6 article entitled “A Sex Stop on the Way Home: A Park’s Lot Doubles as a Trysting Place for Gay Men” Any help in defining the word dog as used here would be appreciated.

  4. Hmm. Good question. Here’s the context:
    One recent evening, a half-dozen mothers stood chatting, waiting for their children to finish soccer. A stone’s throw away, a group of gay men stood narrating the attempt of a man trolling the lot in a tan sedan to woo the cute man parked in the black S.U.V. with tinted windows backed into a spot.
    “The guy in the brown car’s a dog, he’s always here,” the man narrating said. “I’ve never seen the black car before. But watch, here he’ll pull right up to him and see what happens.” Within moments, the man in the tan sedan hopped into the S.U.V. and the windows closed.
    “Woop, there he goes,” the narrator said. “You go, girl.”
    I’m thinking it might be definition 14 (‘something extraordinary’), but that’s specified as black usage, and it’s not clear these are black guys. Any other ideas?

  5. Gordon Van De Water says

    What happened to the appearance of P to Z? It is now 2017, but can find nothing on the appearance of this volume. Thank you … Gordon Van De Water

  6. I’m afraid Oxford canceled it after all. Sorry to have to give you the bad news.

  7. Any new home for it? Or will we have to pass among ourselves mimeographed copies tied with string?

  8. Nope, they bought it and they buried it. I try not to hate them for it, because they do so much good stuff (not to mention using my professional services), but it pisses me off.

  9. How do you know that they buried it?

    If they did bury it, maybe Lighter can sue on the grounds that he was misled into signing a contract he was given to understand would result in publication of the remaining volumes.

  10. I read the project was cancelled, and since they’ve had seventeen years to produce another volume, I’d think that’s a good bet. Lighter has no grounds to sue (even if it made sense for an impecunious lexicographer to sue a major publishing company) — his contract was for a single volume, and he’s the one who broke the contract and forced a multivolume project on them.

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