Winchester on Green and Lighter in NYRB

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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.

Everything was fine until Winchester brought in the unhappy story of Jonathan Lighter's unfinished Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which has been able to find no publisher to take it the rest of the way from P to Z. Winchester may have been led there by his ear for a good tale, but it isn't clear why he took it on himself to compare Lighter's book invidiously with Green's—or more accurately, to say that there is "no real comparison between the two books." Winchester is not a linguist, a lexicographer or a student of the history of English, and he's way out of his depth in making that call, which is gratuitous and, well, wrong.

As it happens, I’ve just finished a manuscript on the word asshole and other obscenities that were converted to social descriptions over the twentieth century, a development largely unprecedented in English or other languages. I relied heavily on Lighter’s work in preparing in the historical sections of the book, and when Green’s dictionary appeared, I quickly acquired a copy, thanks to a credit I had at Oxford for some reviewing work, and examined the relevant entries in it as well. It was very helpful, but for purposes of serious scholarship I don’t find it quite at the level of Lighter’s dictionary, which is more rationally organized and tends to have more and earlier citations for most of the important words. (Take the use of asshole to refer to the most unpleasant spot in a region, as in "the asshole of the universe." Green illustrates that sense with seven citations; Lighter has fifteen, plus a lovely anticipation using bung-hole from Oliver Wendell Holmes.)

Critics of dictionaries are inevitably obliged to cherry-pick their examples, but it's a sign of how far Winchester is in over his head that the very entries he offers in evidence of the superiority of Green's work actually testify to its limitations. Both dictionaries begin with slang uses of the letter "A," he notes, but "here, crucially, Lighter stumbles—for despite his being a compendium of American slang only, the first entry in Green for the letter A is an American usage that doesn’t appear in Lighter at all."

But not so fast. The entry that Winchester is referring to involves the use of A as shorthand for the Model A Ford. But why would you include that in a dictionary of slang, any more than the abbreviation Z for the Datsun 280Z, which Green also lists, or for that matter than Jaguar's E and XKE, which he doesn't? They're not colorful or colloquial, not restricted to a particular group, and they're devoid of attitude. Nor is there the slightest slang feel to the abbreviation a. and b. for “assault and battery,” which also appears on Green's first page, with a first citation from a 1928 legal journal. If a. and b counts as slang, why are there no entries for M and A, R and R, and PB and J?

What's more, it's not likely that A was ever actually used in that way. Green gives only one citation for it, from a Stephen King novel written in 1986. But that's almost sixty years after the first of 5 million Model A's rolled off the assembly line, and if they were commonly referred to as A's, you'd figure Green would have located a citation for the usage well before then—particularly now that lexicographers have literally millions of books and newspapers from that period available for searching online. A more wary compiler would have surmised that the usage was just another of the many specters created by King's fecund imagination, at least until earlier evidence for it turned up.

The very next item in Green is even more curious—an entry for the final -a of woulda, shoulda, and the like, which Green describes as “used to denote a colloquial or slangy pronunciation." Linguistically speaking, that entry is a mess. In the first place, shoulda isn't slang but informal (all speakers produce the form in conversation, whether they're aware of it or not). In the second place, what's informal here is the pronunciation, not the way writers transcribe it. And in the third place, the -a isn't a separable element—you might as well give an entry to n’, since that is "used to denote a colloquial or slangy pronunciation" of words like going, not to mention separate entries for the apostrophe in li’l and the -uz in wuz.

Those first few entries demonstrate two endemic (though far from fatal) difficulties with Green's work. His bower-bird instinct has him scooping up slang, colloquialisms, nonstandard and informal items with undiscriminating enthusiasm. And he too often relies on documentation that's thin or implausible. A large number of his entries are drawn from slang lists or glossaries of dubious accuracy and don't seem to have any other written attestation—a necessary expedient for the slang of earlier periods but not in the age of the web. Take the entry for claven to mean someone who is long-winded, carried over from the 2005 Cassell's slang dictionary that Green did, for which he cites a lone entry by one "Mudflap" at the anyone-can-play site urbandictionary.com. I haven't been able to find it anywhere else on the Web. Green has it as "ety. unknown," though a second urbandictionary entry for the form, dated several years after the 2005 Cassell's dictionary appeared, relates it to the surname of the loquacious mailman on Cheers—actually spelled Clavin—though that doesn't seem to be attested anywhere else on the web either. In any case, you'd want to nose around a bit more before awarding it an entry.

The effect of both of these practices is to somewhat inflate the size of Green's dictionary, which has a great many items that are absent in Lighter—though the vast majority of these are legitimate, and of course Green is documenting the slang of the entire English-speaking world, not just America. Winchester attaches great importance to the items missing in Lighter (there are only about two or three things that writers have to say about dictionaries, too). But lexicographers know that comparing word-counts isn't a very useful standard for evaluating a dictionary, even if their advertising departments insist on stressing the counts in their publicity. By that standard, after all, we'd have to judge Johnson’s 1755 dictionary as inferior to that of Nathan Bailey's of 1730, which contained 48,000 words to Johnson's 40,000. And it’s particularly pointless to count words when we’re talking about a category as elastic as slang, which doesn't offer even the illusion of the "clear and unmistakable nucleus" that James Murray discerned for the standard language.

Does any of this really matter? Certainly not to casual browsers of Green's dictionary, who will find it a delight to rummage around in, provided they take some of the unattestested items with a grain of salt. But every dictionary is an implicit theory of its compass, which is why critics have taken dictionaries from Johnson's to Webster's Third to task for including items they held to be unsuitable for use in public discourse. And it matters how we define and circumscribe slang, too, a category that has historically embodied changing assumptions about class, deviance and criminality that are particular to the English-speaking world. (That's why the word slang itself doesn't have an exact translation in French or Italian, for all that Green asserts in his introduction that it’s a universal category.) Whereas Green's expansive coverage seems to blur the category of slang even beyond its naturally fuzzy boundaries.

Winchester stresses that Green, like himself, is not an academic, but "a child of Sixties counterculture," whose popular volumes on sex, cannabis, and other topics were all derived "from personal, streetwise experience." But a Bohemian youth isn't much of a qualification for the painstaking work of lexicography, and Green to his credit relies not on his streetwise Sprachgefühl but on the same musty sources that other lexicographers use. I suspect there's a touch of projection in Winchester's suggestion that Green "seems not to take slang quite so seriously," which if you took it at face value would render Green's decades of prodigious devotion to the project a matter for professional intervention.

I'm not trying to be captious. Overall, these are venial shortcomings in an impressive and important work that should be on the shelves of any word-lover who's in a position to spring for the nearly $600 that Oxford is asking for it. But Winchester's ill-considered comparisons to Lighter do casual injury to the scholarly reputation of someone who has already endured a great deal. Winchester rightly indicts two of the culprits behind the abandonment of Lighter's dictionary: first Bertelsmann, who dropped it when they acquired Random House, and then the Oxford University Press, who negotiated a deal to publish the remainder but then stopped publication. We can add to these the National Endowment for the Humanities, which decided not to help Oxford complete the project—partly on the grounds, I'm told, that it was felt to be inappropriate for the NEH to make grants to a foreign company, even if the result would be a unique record of American cultural and linguistic history. So for the foreseeable future we are left without an authoritative historical slang dictionary of our own, or at least for the terra incognita beyond O. It takes nothing away from Green's admirable work to say that it doesn't go far enough towards filling that gap.

Geoffrey Nunberg

Given the sensitivites involved here, I'll welcome comments on this one that are specifically relevant to the issues at hand, but will keep a firm hand on the spigot.



19 Comments

  1. Wilson said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 1:15 am

    Well said, Geoff!

  2. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 5:12 am

    Re "(there are only about two or three things that writers have to say about dictionaries, too)", first, that's a great pity, because a good dictionary entry packs an amazing amount of useful information that can be discussed. And second, I'd be curious to hear what you think these two or three things are.

    I suppose one of them is the complaint that you mention about the inclusion of "unsuitable" entries. Here's a true personal anecdote on that, from a foreign learner: When I was still at school, there was no World Wide Web yet, and all the paper dictionaries I had at hand let me down, so I went and asked my English teacher at the time what does "fuck" mean. She was very embarrassed about the question and actually gave a misleading answer. I think the dictionaries should have included both the word and the information that it is considered highly unsuitable.

    Another of the two or three things that writers say about dictionaries should be, in my opinion, to complain about incomprehensible entries: a kind of heavily abbreviated dictionarese that leaves the casual user with the sense that dictionary seems to say something about the word but one doesn't know what. For me, Cobuild demonstrated that this is not needed. But do people complain of the usability of dictionaries?

    (The choice of examples, the presentation of typical grammatical patterns, pragmatic considerations, a useful ordering of different uses are just a few of the many other things that could be mentioned. Oh, and the recognition that different dictionaries may have a different purpose: etymology, normativity, description of actual current use, frequent vocabulary, rare or specialized vocabulary.)

  3. Jonathon Green said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 5:21 am

    If we allow ourselves to take positive reviews seriously, then we must accord equal respect to those less kindly. I would like to answer Professor Nunberg and apologise in advance for the unavoidable length of my answer.

    As I read it his critical assessment of my work (Green’s Dictionary of Slang) is based as much on his distaste for Simon Winchester’s decision to compare it to that of Jonathan Lighter (Historical Dictionary of American Slang) as the shortcomings of my own, of which dictionary he is by far from wholly dismissive. I am sure Mr Winchester, if he chooses, can respond.

    Although I can hardly decry so congratulatory a review, my own feelings are that Mr Winchester’s comparison was indeed otiose, even if it so conspicuously benefited GDoS. The books are superficially similar; the primary differences being, as noted, that Dr Lighter, through a combination of the cruellest circumstances, was not permitted to finish, and that my work attempts to cover the whole Anglophone world. There is perhaps no single person who could understand what Dr Lighter has gone through as do I. My own book saw two of its publishers closed down during its 17-year gestation, painful searches for replacements, and ultimately the forcing of the book – by the international uber-publisher – onto an imprint that although it saw the book through to print, made it clear that this was an imposition that it would have preferred to avoid. My sense is that both books suffered a succession of car crashes; I was lucky enough to walk away.

    There are, however, certain specifics.

    1. ‘Take the use of asshole to refer to the most unpleasant spot in a region, as in "the asshole of the universe." Green illustrates that sense with seven citations; Lighter has fifteen, plus a lovely anticipation using bung-hole from Oliver Wendell Holmes.’

    This is the GDoS entry:

    arsehole of the universe (n.) (also arsehole of creation, …the world, asshole of creation, …of the world, …of the universe, bunghole of the universe) [note description of Holland as ‘the Buttock of the world, full of veins and blood, but no bones in’t’ in A Brief Character of the Low Countries (1660) and Primo Levi’s ref. to Auschwitz as anus mundi, a Lat. synon.] applied to anywhere considered especially unpleasant on a global or, hyperbolically, local level.
    [1698 N. Ward ‘A Trip to Jamaica’ in Writings (1704) 161: The Dunghill of the Universe, the Refuge of the Whole creation, the Clippings of the Elements, a shameless Pile of Rubbish, confus’dly jumbl’d into an Emblem of the Chaos].
    1860 O.W. Holmes Professor at the Breakfast Table 24: My lively friend has had his straw at the bung-hole of the Universe!
    1926 Mencken letter 1 Nov. in Bode New Mencken Letters (1977) 205: This place [i.e. L.A.] is the one true and original arse-hole of creation. It is at least nine times as bad as I expected.
    1934 H. Miller Tropic of Cancer (1963) 24: And not one man […] has been crazy enough to put a bomb up the asshole of creation and set it off.
    1950 D. Thomas Coll. Letters 17 July (1985) 767: This arsehole of the universe this hymnal blob, this pretty, sick, fond sad Wales .
    1959 (ref. to 1920s) L. Lipton Holy Barbarians 276: In every small town I hit during those days there was always someone to assure me that it was ‘the ass-hole of the world.’
    1960 J. Iggulden Storms of Summer 89: Bugger Europe! I say. It must be the arsehole of the World!
    1963 (con. 1944) L. Glassop Rats in New Guinea 58: It’s not like the desert up there, corp […] It’s the — hole of the world.
    1967 M. Braly On the Yard (2002) 30: There it is […] The asshole of creation.
    1978 H. Selby Jr Requiem for a Dream (1987) 171: That fuckin place [i.e. Dannemora prison] is the asshole of the world.
    1993 B. Moore Lex. of Cadet Lang. 15: arsehole of the universe The Royal Military College. The term appears in the college cheer-song; this runs (Moore 1993) ‘We’re a pack of bastards, / Bastards are we, / We come from RMC, / The arse of the world… / And the universe’.
    1999 G. Seal Lingo 123: One may be unfortunate enough to reside in the arsehole of the world, or even of the universe (sometimes said to refer to Canberra, pronounced ‘Canbra’, and popularly considered a reality vacuum).
    2001 Herald (Glasgow) 26 Sept. [Internet] As they walked through the airport his exasperated cameraman exclaimed that the country had to be the ‘arsehole of the world’.
    2006 D. Mitchell Black Swan Green 83: Black Swan Green might not be the arsehole of the world, but it’s got a damn good view of it.

    2. ‘Critics of dictionaries are inevitably obliged to cherry-pick their examples, but it's a sign of how far Winchester is in over his head that the very entries he offers in evidence of the superiority of Green's work actually testify to its limitations.’

    Prof. Nunberg, for whom I have nothing but respect and whose on line work I read regularly, does not write full-scale historical dictionaries of slang. He is fortunate enough, for instance in his work with asshole, to be able to concentrate on pointilliste treatments of that language. GDoS is large work – whether or not it is too large is something on which we must disagree – and even 17 years does not give the author time to focus so intensely and protractedly on every headword and its parts. It is also easy to second-guess. I also put my hand up to a failure to take on board certain minutiae of American culture.

    3. ‘Lighter’s dictionary, which is more rationally organized and tends to have more and earlier citations for most of the important words.’

    I not sure what qualify as ‘the more important words’ but I trust Prof. Nunberg does not fall into the popular assumption that slang equals ‘dirty words’ (and, in the case of the UK, rhyming slang). But if he does, I am not sure that Dr Lighter pre-dates my examples thereof. As for comparisons with HDAS, I know that book well, as I must, and Dr Lighter, as must any lexicographer, is capable of stumbling. His dating, for instance, often takes as its basis the period when a book was being written rather than that of publication. I would not allow myself what to me is essentially guesswork. He also chose to include many examples from sport, the military, entertainment, etc. which I would not, seeing them as I do as occupational jargons. As to our respective levels of scholarship, notably in the meta-data and the ordering of the work, I can only commend the user to make their own assessment. Prof. Nunberg has his, others may differ.

    4. ‘You'd figure Green would have located a citation for the usage well before then—particularly now that lexicographers have literally millions of books and newspapers from that period available for searching online.’

    The Internet is a potentially magnificent source: but that magnificence is also overwhelming. I was able to use it, including that dubious ally Google Book Search, for the latter part of my researches, but the ‘musty sources’ played a far greater role. (Aside from my own efforts, my primary researcher spent 10 years reading in the British Library, plus regular visits to the New York Public Library.) The database as printed was frozen for editing in 2009 and doubtless much more might have been done; but publishers, even reluctant ones, enforce deadlines and lexicographers, however well aware of their failings, prefer to see their work appear elsewhere than on their own screen. The research I am doing now is very much focussed on newspaper databases. I have so far made alterations, corrections and improvements to 7500 entries, in many of them adding an earlier date of first use. That work will contnue as long as I am able but I shall never be able to use all the Internet’s riches, which increase every day.

    5. Prof. Nunberg goes into some detail to decry such entries as A, -a, etc. and criticises my ‘bower-bird’ instincts (should I see this, I wonder, as an advance on an earlier critic who preferred ‘magpie mind’?) Again, I can only differ. Far from accepting an omnium gatherum of ‘slang, colloquialisms, nonstandard and informal items with undiscriminating enthusiasm’ I have cut and pared and revised extensively, and continue to do so. Were he to compare GDoS with the successive editions of the Cassell Dictionay of Slang (1998, 2005), and their successor the Chambers Slang Dictionary ( 2008) he would find ample evidence.

    6. I am grateful to Profesor Nunberg for taking with a pinch of salt Mr Winchester’s references to my sadly distant youth. The reality is that my work and my life have long since become co-terminous, and if I have written on a variety of topics, this has almost invariably been so as to secure extra funds for my primary project. Such is the reality of the task.

    7. ‘Does any of this really matter?’
    Indeed so. The role of the lexicographer, however much he or she may be Johnson’s drudge when making the dictionary, is that of an authority once the book appears. The fact that we are fallible human beings does not help. Every dictionary is flawed – and no-one is as acutely aware of the failings within GDoS as am I – and those flaws need to be noted and if possible remedied. So we work on, even if the likelihood is that our revised editions will, in turn, contain further errors. The underlying marginality, the ‘fuzziness’ of the slang lexis makes authority especially challenging, ever more so when every housing project offers its own local variation. In 1996 I wrote a popular history of the craft; it was called Chasing the Sun, the source of which was Johnson’s suggestion that the lexicographer resembles ‘the first inhabitants of Arcadia, [who] chace the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld art the same distance from them.’ The sun remains beyond us; the chase, however frustrating, remains as important as ever.

    GN: My thanks to Jonathon Green for this response, which is almost certainly more gracious than mine would have been in the circumstances. I’m glad that he appreciates that my criticisms of his work—which as I stressed, were minor in the larger scale of things—were aimed at demonstrating the wrong-headedness of Winchester’s comparison of it to Lighter’s work, and I feel some uneasiness at having made Green stand in the line of fire. I’m glad too that he agrees that Winchester’s evaluations were otiose and misconceived.

    Let me start by apologizing for my confusion over the GdoS entry for the sense of asshole to mean the most unpleasant spot in a region. It's true that I accurately described Green’s entry for this sense of asshole, but there was other material included in two other entries. One of these is for the sense of arsehole to mean “the most least appetizing, poorest, most run-down and dangerous area of a city or town or place,” and includes citations such as “I’m here in this arsehole of the earth… wondering what she’s doing”; the other, which Green repeats in his response, appears later in the section of the arsehole entry reserved for its use in phrases, which includes a definition for “arsehole of the universe (also arsehole of creation… of the world… of the universe).” Taken together, these entries provide quite as much information as Lighter’s do, and I was remiss in not locating all of them. On the other hand, they also underscore the point I made about the occasional inconsistencies in the organization of Green’s entries. It isn’t clear why citations for “arsehole of the earth” are listed in one entry while those for “arsehole of the world” are listed in another, all the more because that distinction isn’t made for the corresponding sense of asshole, where citations for "asshole of the world" and "asshole of the universe" are both included in the main entry rather than being listed in a separate section of phrasal uses. But while I’m not a lexicographer, I’ve done enough work in the area to know how complicated and difficult it is to achieve consistency, and I’m sure I could find similar problems in Lighter’s work if I looked around for them—the Lord knows there are plenty in the OED, too.

    The other points I made were also in response to remarks made by Winchester. He acknowledges that Lighter often has earlier citations that GdoS does, but in a rather dismissive way: “frequently the ever-assiduous Lighter does manage to find an earlier citation.” It’s hard to imagine any lexicographer or serious student of the lexicon, and certainly not Green, regarding assiduousness so slightingly. And I focused on the first entries of the two dictionaries a because that’s where Winchester did:

    …a close study of sample pages shows the real variance, that between a good dictionary on the one hand, and a truly great one on the other. The difference becomes clear from page one, even line one. Both dictionaries begin with a discussion of the slang usages of the letter “A,” as an informal abbreviation. And here, crucially, Lighter stumbles—for despite his being a compendium of American slang only, the first entry in Green for the letter A is an American usage that doesn’t appear in Lighter at all.

    Here, I’ll have to stand by my contention that the use of A as an abbreviation for the Model A shouldn’t be considered slang, no more than Z for the Datsun 280Z. Similarly for the inclusion of an entry for the -a in wanna and shoulda, for the grounds I mentioned in my letter: it isn’t a linguistic unit, and if it were it wouldn’t be slang. And I think it’s rash to include contemporary words attested only in urbandictionary.com.

    It’s true that these points involve the sort of wonkery that matters only to lexicographers and dictionary fetishists. (I think of what the Hollywood fashion designer Edith Head was said to have remarked on leaving a performance of Oklahoma!: “I don’t see what the fuss was about—the seams were two inches thick!”). The only important question, as Green notes, is how one conceives of the larger descriptive project. He’s quite right to note that “the underlying marginality, the ‘fuzziness’ of the slang lexis makes authority especially challenging, ever more so when every housing project offers its own local variation.” To this I’d add the even more vexing problem that haunts any historical treatment of a socially constructed category, whether it’s slang, sex, crime or the comic book. We often talk about slang words becoming standard, for example; we less often acknowledge that slang itself is continually redefined, which makes the very notion of a historical dictionary of slang problematic. Even Green’s observation about the fuzziness of slang has to be historicized; for the Victorians, I have argued, it was much more of a discrete category, not to mention a more vicious and polluted one. You could say that this militates for spreading the net very widely, as Green has, including everything that might have qualified as slang at one point or another; or conversely that it requires one to narrow the treatment of slang to whatever would be the equivalent of Murray’s clear nucleus, which is maybe a little closer to what Lighter has tried to do. There's no definitive answer, but one way or the other, these questions are a challenge to linguists whose universalism and scientism often seems to make them incapable of historicizing anything at all. For that reason, thinking critically—and theoretically—about slang dictionaries has a therapeutic value.

  4. Sid Smith said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 7:44 am

    Italians have always told me that 'slang' is 'gergo'.

    GN:Well, it is and it isn't. Gergo can also be jargon or terminology, as in phrases like gergo legale and gergo della medicina. And what we think of as slang is also rendered, perhaps a little misleadingly, by dialettale. I recall once using the word intrallazzo for "wheeling and dealing" and being told by an Italian friend that it was dialettale. What dialect is it? I asked, and my friend responded, Oh, all Italians use it. More generally, slang is a category that has to be both localized and historicized; see my reply to Green above.

  5. languagehat said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    I agree with your take on the review, which was very unfortunate, and I hope the NYRB will publish your letter. I must dissent, however, from your approving take on Simon Winchester; he may well be "a personable and engaging story-teller," but he's a dreadful writer, and it fills me with despair every time I see another reference to his "readability." I particularly despise The Meaning of Everything, and I hope you won't mind if I link to my review of it (spoiler: the title is "More Bad Writing"). For journalists to call Winchester "fluent, eloquent" or "an extraordinarily graceful writer" is bad enough; for Geoff Nunberg to join the hosannas is downright depressing.

    GN: Well, it may be that I was simply taken with Winchester's personal charm when I intereviewed him. But before you pass judgment on his style, I'd urge you to look at his travel writing, in particular The River at the Center of the World, which I thought was a great read.

  6. Ø said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 11:58 am

    Thank you, Hat. When I first encountered Winchester's style in The Professor and the Madman, I guessed (wrongly) that he was American. To me his special kind of pompous windbaggery smelled like that of a non-Brit who, intimidated by his subject matter, consciously or unconsciously tries to write up to it and ends up wearing clothes that don't fit.

  7. Sid Smith said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

    "in particular The River at the Center of the World, which I thought was a great read."

    Seconded.

  8. languagehat said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

    But before you pass judgment on his style, I'd urge you to look at his travel writing, in particular The River at the Center of the World, which I thought was a great read.

    I'm willing to stipulate that he's a good travel writer; so is Bill Bryson, whose book on his misadventures in Europe had me in stitches (I'll never forget his reference to the Let's Go guides as "Let's Go Get Another Guidebook"). But every time Bryson writes about something other than his travels, he betrays complete ignorance, and his writing about language is particularly infuriating. He and Winchester should stick to the travel beat and let the grown-ups deal with important matters like language and lexicography.

    Also, may I say that the back-and-forth between Green and Nunberg above is one of the most polite and informative such exchanges I've ever seen; kudos to both.

  9. Sid Smith said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

    Blimey, languagehat, I loved Bryson's 'Mother Tongue'.

  10. languagehat said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

    Many, many people do, just as they love Winchester.

  11. YM said,

    March 18, 2012 @ 8:26 pm

    Dear Geoff,

    Is the asshole paper ready for publication yet?

    GN: I'm glad you asked. It's a book called Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the first sixty years, to be published in July by PublicAffairs.

  12. djbcjk said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 5:08 am

    "Arsehole of the universe" — for Australians, this leads to the Wilcannia Joke (or joke about any small hot dry town). Scene, the pub. A very hot day.

    Traveller: (to barman) Quick! Give me a beer! This place must be the arsehole of the universe!

    Barman: (serving him) I can see you're just passing through.

  13. Stitch said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    "the final -a of woulda, shoulda, and the like, which Green describes as “used to denote a colloquial or slangy pronunciation." Linguistically speaking, that entry is a mess. In the first place, shoulda isn't slang but informal (all speakers produce the form in conversation, whether they're aware of it or not)."

    How does this relate to the "split infinitive" issue? In colloquial English the "to" seems to connect to the verb before it rather than the one after it.
    (Of course any peever worth his/her salt would say "That's just wrong!" and leave it at that.)

  14. John Baker said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

    As much as I thought Winchester's review an injustice, I was sorry to see this response. Green and Lighter are probably the two most capable slang lexicographers in the English-speaking world. HDAS is a wonderful work and, while I haven't laid out the necessary moola for Green's book, I have little doubt that it is excellent as well.

    GN: Indeed; as I said in my letter to TNYRB, it is "impressive," "important," and "admirable," none of which judgments are contradicted by the problems I mentioned.

  15. MH said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    "Primo Levi’s ref. to Auschwitz as anus mundi, a Lat. synon."
    Wouldn't 'calque' be more accurate?

    "One of these is for the sense of arsehole to mean 'the most appetizing, poorest, most run-down and dangerous area of a city or town or place,'"

    Probably a typo for 'least'.

  16. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    March 20, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

    "Winchester should stick to the travel beat and let the grown-ups deal with important matters like language and lexicography."

    How horribly patronising.

  17. DCA said,

    March 21, 2012 @ 12:09 am

    Speaking as an earth scientist with an interest in history, I can say that Winchester's books on William Smith's geological maps, on Krakatau, and on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake have mostly been panned by experts in the relevant fields. (The Smith book is especially bad). FWIW, Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything had some errors, but mostly (so far as I could see) venial ones.

  18. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 21, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    I tried to read "The Map that Changed the World" a several times and never got past the first couple of chapters, even though geologic maps fascinated me when I encountered them in college and I like reading about the history of science. My impression was that the book started out focusing more on the evils of religion than on Smith's insights and achievements.

  19. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 21, 2012 @ 6:31 am

    It is unfortunate that OUP has not published Lighter's final volume (or volumes). If they are not going to publish, then why not let another do so? A shame to waste the research.

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