I interviewed Simon Winchester some years ago for the City Arts and Lectures series in San Francisco, just after the publication of his book The Professor and the Madman (British title The Surgeon of Crowthorne). He's a personable and engaging story-teller, and of all the interviews I've done in that series, from Robert Pinsky to A. S. Byatt, his was the easiest and most entertaining (I said afterwards that it was like pitching batting practice to Barry Bonds). A few years later he published The Meaning of Everything, a very readable book about the creation of the OED, and the one I usually recommend to people who are interested in the topic. So he was a very good choice to review Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang for the New York Review of Books a few weeks ago. 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. I wrote the following letter to the New York Review. They haven't run it (not surprising, considering its length and the relative marginality of the topic), but because I think the review did an injustice to Lighter, I'm posting it here.
To the editor: When it comes to the topic of slang, even writers as imaginative as Emerson, Chesterton, and Anthony Burgess have had only two or three things to say. You can celebrate the poetry and effervescence of the language of the common folk, you can revel in raffish identification with long-gone rakes and rowdies, and you can proclaim your embrace of slang in defiance of the (even longer gone) pedants and purists who disdain it. The thing can only be done badly or well. So one could do a lot worse than assign the review of Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang to Simon Winchester, an engaging writer who has produced two very readable popular books about dictionaries.
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