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Hardcore Dictionaries

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, will be published by Perigee in July. In the post below Ammon, an expert dictionary reader, wonders what makes a dictionary “hardcore”.

There was an accidentally interesting discussion on the subject of orthography last week on Fox News. Hosts Gretchen Carlson and Steve Doocy were giving their learned opinions on spelling reform, and whether it was necessary. When it seemed to me that they were just about to decisively put an end to several hundred years of debate, Carlson suddenly interjected a new question into the conversation: “do they even sell hardcore dictionaries anymore…?You are doubtless thinking right now ‘what is a hardcore dictionary, and where can I find one?’ There are a number of ways to interpret the meaning of this word, and so before answering Carlson’s question we should perhaps examine some of them.

Mark Liberman, in an excellent post at Language Log, recommended Allen Walker Read’s study on graffiti, Lexical Evidence from Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary. This is a good example of a hardcore dictionary since, as Liberman points out, the book was judged incendiary enough in the 1930s that it had to be privately printed.

If we are to assume that Carlson was using the word hardcore in the sense of ‘pornographic’ then she is in luck, as there are a great number of dictionaries that fall into this category. I think that the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang is pretty hardcore. So are Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word, and Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. In fact, the tradition of hardcore dictionaries in English lexicography goes back hundreds of years, with such gems as Sir Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (from 1785, but available in a modern reprint), and Henry Nathaniel Cary’s, The Slang of Venery and its Analogues, a two volume compilation of off-color words taken from 18th and 19th century dictionaries (privately printed in 1916 and unfortunately hard to find).

Although perhaps she meant hardcore as it is defined by the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary (‘2. Stubbornly resistant to improvement or change’)? There are a number of prescriptivist dictionaries available that resist the inevitable change of language.

I suppose there is always a chance that Carlson already owns the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and was referencing that work’s own definition of hardcore (‘hardened, tough, pitiless’). In that case I would recommend Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, which has all those qualities and more.

But maybe she meant hardcore as it is defined by the Harper Collins Dictionary of American Slang (‘essential and uncompromising’). There are a great number of dictionaries that I think are essential, and a few that are uncompromising as well. The 1916 version of The Century Dictionary comes to mind – this single volume work is over 8000 pages long (almost two feet tall when laid on its side), and so feels pretty uncompromising when you try to hold it in your lap. Plus, the publishers inexplicably chose to cover it in brown corduroy, which to me seems hardcore for a dictionary.

What if she had recently been reading The Cassell Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green, and liked his definition of ‘…serious, committed, experienced, full-time…’? If this is what she meant then she can walk into almost any bookstore in the world and find that they most likely will sell a dictionary that meets these criteria. So no matter what meaning of the word was intended the answer is yes, Carlson, they do still sell hardcore dictionaries.

Recent Comments

  1. Mark Thwaite

    Spending a year reading a dictionary … that strikes me as wonderfully, life-affirmingly bonkers!

    Borges used to spend a lot time reading encyclopedias, I recall. But this is something else …

  2. […] I suppose that it is one way of improving your vocabulary, but, really, how mad is that!? More via OUPblog. […]

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