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The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English

Much has been said and written about the influence of the Internet on our language, a lot of it by commentators who feel that its love of slang and unconventional terms, its informality, and the poor linguistic abilities of many of its users, show English is going to hell in a handbasket. What is less appreciated is that the Net is semi-formalising the way that people have always communicated, so that we’re now able to eavesdrop on unedited conversations that show us the way the language operates when it isn’t being mediated by editors and professional writers.

Conventional lexicographical research is still largely wedded to the printed page. Grant Barrett’s book is different. He has created it from the Internet using methods impossible before the Net existed, such as the Google Alerts that send you e-mails when some word or phrase you specify turns up in a news report. Once he has identified a term, he hunts for its origin in the many electronic databases available online: as he says, “etymological work has never been easier”. Or more fun.

The cover of The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English

The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English is a teasing title (its subtitle even more so: A Crunk Omnibus for Trillionaires and Bampots for the Ecozoic Age), one that you might expect from a lexicographer who has given his Web site the name Double-Tongued Word Wrester (which is from an obscure 1571 citation in the OED). Grant Barrett spends his life immersed in colloquial language and slang, since his day job is as the project editor for Oxford’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang, a work that everybody with an interest in such matters is waiting for with ill-disguised impatience. This book, however, is firmly an extramural activity, though his professional background results in a work created on the best principles of historical lexicography, with terms researched and defined, discussed and illustrated by a set of citations.

Despite the modern means of identifying and researching the words in this book, the most obvious feature is how many of them predate the Net. Some of the terms have been around for long enough that they could easily already be in standard works on informal English: armchair pilot, an aviation enthusiast, recorded from 1934; cat face, an irregular appearance on fruit or vegetables, which dates from 1890; heartsink, a feeling of disappointment or dismay, from 1937. Some have indeed already appeared in dictionaries, such as ASBO (“Anti-Social Behaviour Order”), a British term from 1997; colourway, any of a range of combinations of colours in which a style or design is available; Ediacaran, a Precambrian period; and molecular gastronomy, the application of science to food choices and preparation. Others are modifications of terms that are well known, such as to blue-sky, to propose ideas that are as yet unfeasible, which even in its verb form predates the Net.

But the group that is largest and most interesting is that of colloquial or slang terms that rarely appear in mainstream works. Bustdown, for example, a Chicago Black-English term for a woman who is promiscuous or undesirable; merk, to attack, overcome or defeat somebody or something, a hip-hop term recorded from 1999; otherkin, people who believe themselves to be something other than human; skidiot, an unsophisticated computer hacker; terp, a slang abbreviation for “interpreter”; wad, to crash, probably a motorcycle, perhaps because that’s what the result looks like; the television series The West Wing popularised POTUS (“President Of The United States”) but Barrett includes the more recent TMPMITW (“The Most Powerful Man In the World”).

Terms come from every national variety of English: half-past-six is from Singapore and means something bad or shoddy; gronk, as a general derogatory term for a man, is Australian; gbege, for an act of vengeful violence, is from Nigeria; freeco, a cost-free performance, service, or item, is West Indian; vernac, a casual abbreviation of “vernacular”, is a derogatory Indian term meaning culturally backwards or unfashionable; trapo, from the Tagalog word for a dirty rag, in turn from Spanish, is a Philippines term for a corrupt politician. Others come from creative meetings of English and another language, such as Spanglish, Hinglish, or the many other glishes, as he calls them: goonda tax, protection money or a bribe, is from Pakistan, with goonda being Hindi or Urdu for a ruffian; freeter for a temporary worker or freelance is known in German, Japanese and Korean and is variously identified as a blend of free with Arbeit, German for work, or Japanese arubaito, part-time or casual work. Some foreign terms are included because of English exposure, such as the Austrian Verwaltungsvereinfachungsmassnahmen, which is a drive against bureaucracy and bureaucratic jargon.

From a British perspective, I must query handbags at ten paces, a British term for a verbal spat, often in sports — it may have had its origin in a Monty Python sketch, but its earliest datings shows it was influenced by Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister, in which she was said to keep order among her ministers by hitting them with her handbag; frogspawn, a schoolboy’s term for tapioca, is surely a lot older than the first citation from 1991 would suggest, as I can remember it from my childhood.

But these are minor quibbles. If you want to find out more about the way English is being creatively used worldwide, then this is the book for you. Recommended.

[Grant Barrett, The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, A Crunk Omnibus for Trillionaires and Bampots for the Ecozoic Age, published by McGraw Hill in May 2006; paperback, pp412; ISBN 0071458042; publisher’s price US$14.95.]

Page created 15 Jul. 2006

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