What we now regard as the first glossaries of English slang—they were actually collections of criminal jargon—appeared in the 1500s. Looking back, some of the details may be blurred, but the themes that would characterize slang for the next half a millennium are already evident. There’s sex (to wap), intoxication (booze), and money (lour); man (cove) and woman (mort); the penis (jockum) and the vagina (cony). There’s buttocks (prat) and excrement (turd), thieves (prigs) and policemen (harman-becks). And there’s stupid (blockish) and mad (lightheaded).
When I consider the 125,000 slang words and phrases I’ve collected over my career, from five continents, filling an ever-expanding database, one thing’s clear: slang is repetitive. It is touted as speech’s cutting edge, yet its preoccupations are unchanging. The jury may be out on whether slang is a language—it’s got no grammar, which means it isn’t; it’s an undeniable form of communication (perhaps the liveliest), which means it is—but either way, it is an unrivaled repository of synonyms.
Slang’s obsessions embody what Freud called the id and I call humanity at its most human. Where Standard English cheerfully makes do with single terms—sexual intercourse, drunk, stupid—slang offers respectively 1,750, 2,500, and 1,000 variations. The same goes for slang’s other chart-toppers: we find myriad entries in such categories as drugs, criminals, police officers, the genitals, money, and so on. Why? Why do we need so many variations on these themes? Why 1,200 penises, and 1,200 prostitutes? Why, for Christ’s sake, 220 ways of saying vomit? Enough, surely, should be enough, even for the most obsessively foulmouthed.