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March 25, 2006

'Historical Dictionary of American Slang'


Wonderful news this morning: it's on once again.

This epic undertaking, begun in the 1960s by Jonathan E. Lighter when, as a high school student, he started to collect slang in notebooks, seemed to be on track and moving along beautifully when, in 1994, Volume I: A–G," appeared with Lighter, by now a professor at the University of Tennessee, devoting all of his research time to the project.

In 1997 "Volume II: H–O," came out, and I settled in to wait for the presumed third and final volume.

I'm still waiting.

Every year I nose around to see if there's anything on the final volume front.

This morning there was.

Long story short: Oxford University Press acquired the project from Random House in 2003 after Random House became unable to finance the project's completion.

Editorial work had stopped and Lighter had abandoned the dictionary and returned to teaching.

Oxford green–lighted the project, Lighter got back into the captain's chair and the project resumed.

Look for "Volume III: P–S[Part 1] next month and "Volume IV: S[Part 2]–Z" in 2008.

These are wonderful books for the linguaphile; I often read the entire page containing the term or word I looked up, and the facing page as well.

It's always been a source of frustration that about half the time the term or word begins with a letter in the alphabet beyond "O," leaving me all dressed up investigatively with no invitation to the party I really, really want to go to.

    Here's more on the revival of the dictionary:

    Project History

    Chief Editor Jonathan E. Lighter first became interested in slang in the late 1960s, when, as a high-school student, he started to collect slang in notebooks.

    By the time he was in college he was doing extensive historical research on American slang.

    His first major article, "The Slang of the American Expeditionary Forces, 1917-1919: An Historical Glossary," was published in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, when Lighter was still an undergraduate.

    Lighter followed his mentor, John Fisher, a former president of the Modern Language Association, to the University of Tennessee, where in 1980 he finished his Ph.D. dissertation, in essence a draft of the letter "A" of the present book.

    While teaching courses in linguistics, composition, and literature at the University of Tennessee, the editor chose since 1980 to devote all available research time to the completion of the dictionary.

    His commitment to this project remains total after more than three decades of labor; it is now his primary undertaking.

    During this time Lighter began communicating with Stuart Berg Flexner, the Editor in Chief of the reference department at Random House and himself the junior editor of the Dictionary of American Slang, then the best one-volume book on the subject and still useful in its current highly revised version.

    The project came significantly closer to fruition in 1984 when Lighter negotiated to provide for publication of the completed work.

    In the mid-1980s Flexner signed Lighter up to edit a historical dictionary that was, with the optimism typical of most lexicographical projects, envisioned as one large volume to be published after only several years of editorial work.

    Though much of the early material was set into type, various factors prevented the book from being published, not least an uncertainty about what had clearly become a multivolume publication.

    Random House published the first two volumes of HDAS, which received widespread acclaim in the popular press as well as in the scholarly journals.

    The first volume was published in 1994.

    The second volume followed in 1997.

    Despite the groundswell of admiration, Random House, a commercial publisher unable to finance the years of work needed to complete a project of this scope, stopped editorial work after the publication of Volume II.


    Progress on the dictionary came to a halt, and Dr. Lighter returned to teaching.

    In 2003, Oxford University Press acquired the project from Random House and immediately began the work necessary to complete the dictionary.

    Oxford University Press plans to release volume III (P through part of S) in 2006, and the remainder as volume IV in 2008.

March 25, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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If this be true it is a chance that doth redeem all sorrow I have ever felt. I too have beeb searching the skies, scanning the seas for nearly a decade awaiting Lighter's next volume. All praise to Oxford & Professor Lighter. I will refrain from comment on Random House.

Posted by: George Weinberg-Harter | Aug 21, 2006 7:21:31 PM

That's great news. I wonder if he'll consider revising I and II when he's done... what with the 14 year gap there will be. Then again, has this generation really come up with enough slag to be worth it?

Posted by: Cory Capron | Mar 25, 2006 6:18:40 PM

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