If ever there was living disproof of Samuel Butler’s apophthegm, ‘To the lexicographer, God is simply a word that comes next to go-cart’, it is the estimable Jonathon Green – compiler of the three-volume Dictionary of Slang, devotee of the vital back story of myriad words, and indisputably the Eric Partridge de nos jours. His kaleidoscopic memoir charting three decades exploring our mother tongue’s more exotic margins is vigorous, gonzoid, learned and entertaining.
Just how does a schoolboy raised in Lincolnshire by a family of lapsed Orthodox Jews turn into a chap who can list 1,180 terms for ‘vagina’, from ‘abc’ to ‘zum-zum’? ‘The honest answer is fuck knows,’ comes his characteristically cheerful response. But Green belongs to a literary line running back to Abbot Aelfric (who helpfully translated the Latin testiculi as Anglo-Saxon beallucas), via Francis Grose (so fat he had to be strapped into bed), the Victorian pornographer Camden Hotten