Tuesday, May 01, 2007

From the Department of Unlikely Lexicography

I couldn't resist passing along this Slate column about the book Street Talk (2005, now in a new edition by Barricade Books), a dictionary of prison slang compiled by Randy Kearse during eight years of his thirteen-year prison term (for conspiracy to distribute narcotics, in case you're curious).

Bryan Curtis talked to Kearse about the writing process: "The hardest thing about assembling a slang dictionary in prison in the late 1990s, he said, was that the facilities Kearse was confined to did not offer inmates access to computers or the Internet. Every afternoon, Kearse wrote on an electric typewriter and carried his rapidly growing manuscript, which measured about 8 inches high, back and forth from the prison library to his cell. When his fellow inmates saw him with papers under his arm, they would say, 'He's going to the office.' Whenever Kearse completed a few pages he was happy with, he mailed them to a friend in Brooklyn for safekeeping."

Street Talk includes "more than 10,000 words and phrases, counting variants." Curtis took a copy to OED editor Jesse Sheidlower, who deemed it "pretty good," adding "One of the typical things about self-edited books of this sort is that they'll include everything that is not standard English - slang terms, unusual pronunciations, a colloquial phrase that's not slang. But these are mostly real lexical phrases. The terms in here have a particular meaning, and they're used that way."

The whole column is interesting, so read it over if you have a chance.