The only way to learn a language is to sleep with a dictionary – jocular stuff from men in Mandalay and Jaipur and Cairo, stuff from the Warrant Officers’ Mess, stuff to give the rookies. Of course, it’s no more invariably true than Smile and the world smiles with you, snore and you sleep alone; I mean, some of the best dictionaries make extraordinary nocturnal noises (oneiric responses, no doubt, to the bit of sack they’ve just had). No, the trouble is that while you may pick up a crock of endearments and a few words for your genitals and for – depending on taste – cunnilingus or rimming (or both) you will be unlikely, unless fate or design takes you into the bed of a lexicographer, to do as well for slang as for standard language. The fact is our slang vocabularies are limited by place, job, the crowd we mix with and so on; they are prone to quick changes. I doubt that few of us can remember accurately the gamut of slang words we used ten or fifteen years ago; to learn a lot of slang you need to sleep with lots of dictionaries, each from a different milieu. Catch phrases like those at the top of this paragraph are different, liable to transcend place and generation because, no doubt, they are vaguely apothegmatic, little gobs of savvy, the sort of worldly nous that perpetually illumines taprooms and NAAFIs and the lads’ corner in rude discos.
Slang, though, is essentially synonymic; its habitual referents are always with us, always being granted new signifiers that tend to obviate the old ones. Here’s a referent: the thin cylinder of paper bungful of tobacco that does us no good save as a solace and a sensory pleasure. The word