1. Archive

For now, search of American slang must stop at O

Published Sep. 27, 2005

A-G and H-O have been completed. But the girth of the work, high costs and rocky relations with the author have halted dictionary's completion.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang is the last word on tens of thousands of terms, such as beefhead (a Texan, from Harper's magazine, 1872). Scholars consider it a masterpiece. And, yet, it has one obvious shortcoming: It stops after the letter O.

"I'm waiting for the rest of the alphabet," says John Herr, a California psychologist who consults the dictionary when the state parolees he counsels use unfamiliar lingo. "I've got to have the whole set."

The dictionary is "a significant resource of enormous scholarly value," adds John A. Simpson, chief editor of the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary. "It would be a great pity if it wasn't finished."

But no entries on pencilneck, studmuffin or zonk will be forthcoming soon _ if ever. Random House officials don't care to discuss or even acknowledge it, but a feud over royalties is jeopardizing the completion of the most ambitious commercial dictionary in American history.

Trouble often arises when authors deliver less than promised. But in this case, Random House, a unit of German media giant Bertelsmann AG, got more slang than it bargained for.

In 1984, the publishing house contracted a Tennessee linguist named J.E. Lighter to deliver a single-volume slang dictionary by 1986. Instead, long past that deadline, Lighter submitted an entire volume's worth of material covering only the letters A-G. Random House published that volume in 1994, and the next installment, H-O, three years later.

Critics raved. "Will do for nonstandard English what the Oxford English Dictionary did for the whole language," wrote wordsmith William Safire.

Yet that hasn't made it a big moneymaker. The publisher sold only about 25,000 copies of both volumes combined, which retail for $65 each. Factor in the cost of typing each slang entry into a computer database (Lighter compiles his words by hand, on 3-by-5-inch note cards), of editing and producing the upscale volumes, which have sewn bindings, high-grade paper and cloth spines, and Random House says the project has been extraordinarily expensive.

No one at the publishing house knows quite what to do with a project of this size or scope, says Wendolyn Nichols, Random House's editorial director of dictionaries. "The book is very different than it was expected to be," she says.

So the company hasn't committed to publishing any further installments. And it has asked Lighter to accept a cut in his royalties, says his agent, John Tornton. It also wants him to submit the rest of the dictionary in its entirety even though editing has all but ceased on the entries now sitting in the publisher's file cabinets.

Lighter has balked on both counts. While he doesn't deny that he essentially broke his contract by failing to produce the single volume it called for, he says Random House originally encouraged his prodigious outpourings.

"It is our responsibility and pleasure to see that such worthwhile books are published," the late Stuart B. Flexner, former editor in chief of Random House's reference unit, wrote to Lighter in 1987. "I know that we shall not get our money back on it for many, many years _ if ever."

But the reality seems to be that historical dictionaries and commercial publishers just don't mix. It's no accident that the OED belongs to Oxford University. Even at a list price of $2,070 for the full 20-volume set, "we certainly don't do this to make a profit," says Caroline Scotter Mainprize, of the nonprofit Oxford University Press. And Harvard University Press' Dictionary of American Regional English has hired a full-time fundraiser to help finance its completion.

Lighter belongs to a small, storied group of lexicographers so focused on their projects that they have little time for anything else. James Murray, the original editor of the OED, worked on it for nearly 60 years before dying in 1915 and leaving it unfinished at the letter T. And Frederic Cassidy, the founder of the Dictionary of American Regional English, labored on it 40 years before dying this summer at age 92, leaving the project far from finished at three volumes. Like the authors of those two dictionaries, Lighter has an obsession with words.

Since his teenage years in New York City, Lighter, 51, has combed publications from Newsweek to Playboy, TV shows from Saturday Night Live to Nightline and literature from Mark Twain to Shakespeare, searching for slang.

It's part chance, part diligence and part, as Lighter calls it, "slang addiction." In his mission to collect, document and annotate any English slang ever used in the United States, from colonial times to the present, Lighter jots down words he hears on the street and in movie theaters and keeps track of their usage over time.

He has, say those who know him, an uncanny ability to keep track of thousands of citations in his head. The first time Lighter comes across a word, he will make a note card and file away the citation. A second encounter makes the word a candidate for inclusion in his dictionary.

To wit, the dictionary says the term "beer goggles," meaning "a beer-induced lack of judgment, esp. in flirting with or associating with someone of the opposite sex," was regularly employed by University of Tennessee students in 1987. But it also was used in a 1993 episode of The Simpsons.

The dictionary defines a "cookie-pusher" as "an effete man who frequents tea parties or the like . . . (also) used as a derisive term for State Department officials." The term was first cited in a 1934 reference book to describe "a male student who seeks female companions; a tea hound." In 1936, the word was used as a synonym for a waitress. And on Feb. 18, 1989, the CNN talk show The Capital Gang referred on air to "striped-pants cookie-pushers in the State Department."

In 1972, when Lighter was fresh out of college, his collection of the American slang of World War I became one of the longest articles ever published in the academic journal American Speech. In it, Lighter combed more than 750 sources to compile a glossary of terms used overseas by United States servicemen, from "goulash bakery" (a field kitchen, 1917) to zig-zag (sexual intercourse, 1918). His doctoral dissertation in linguistics was titled "A Historical Dictionary of American Slang: Volume I, the Letter A." By 1984, he had gained enough recognition for his expertise to attract a call from Random House.

To work on his dictionary, Lighter took himself off the tenure track at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and largely quit teaching. Over the past 16 years, Random House has paid Lighter advances and royalties on the dictionary totaling less than $125,000, his agent says. He has also received more than $400,000 in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, but the NEH is reluctant to provide more funds in part because the work is owned by a commercial publisher.

To try to recoup its investment, Random House, which won't comment on its financial relationship with Lighter, decided to take a single entry from volume one _ the F-word for sexual intercourse _ and package it as a stand-alone book. The F-Word, published in 1995, was a cult hit, with about 35,000 copies sold.

But the 272-page book didn't credit Lighter as its author; he refused to allow it. Instead, it bears the name of Jesse Sheidlower, who was project editor on the second volume of the dictionary.

Now, Lighter worries that Random House will do the same with a four-letter expletive starting with S.

Since submitting entries for the letters P, Q, R and part of S to Random House a few years ago, Lighter hasn't sent the publisher any more cards, including any on the S-word. And friends say the lexicographer, who rarely utters a curse word or slur, doesn't want to be remembered as the f and s guy.

"I wanted to cover this in detail, be the OED of slang," he says with an air of resignation. "Maybe hubris is a good word here."

Up next:SPORTS