Under my byline

Lone ranger

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 4 September 2010


For a man who spent 40 years’ worth of working days seated at desk K.1 in the Reading Room of the British Museum in London — the room that once harboured Marx and Lenin — Eric Partridge was unusually alive and kicking.

An interviewer in 1976, when Partridge was already 81 (he died three years later), discovered that the famed lexicographer had organised himself a sternly single-minded life. His world consisted of the room in north London which served as his home — “an old man’s room with medicine at the bedside” — and the British Museum. His day consisted of travel between the two, hours of work at K.1, and a break for lunch. In the evening he answered letters and then read until bedtime. No other thing was allowed to intrude.

But what a sizzling spark of life and wit the old man had! Here’s how he justified his schedule to Byron Rogers of the excellent (but now sadly defunct) Horizon magazine:

It all sounds terribly pedestrian, but it does save time. A routine is an imaginative use of time. By having one, I save myself strain. It’s an aid to work. People say to me “Mr. Partridge, aren’t you interested in art?” Of course I am, but I can’t afford the time. I’m social in my tendencies, but I’ve had to cut them out. I attend my club, the Savile, every Wednesday at lunchtime. I used to lunch and dine there, but I’ve given up the dinners. I was no good the next day for my work. I’m not a recluse, but there’s not the time.

He gave up other things, too: public lectures, the cinema, attending Wimbledon. (“And I used to be mad about tennis. Crackers. Bonkers. What have you.”)

All this sacrifice bought Partridge the time to write his 40-plus books on the English language, including classics like A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937), which shocked many good people when it came out, not least Partridge’s father; Shakespeare’s Bawdy (1947), on sex in Shakespeare (there is plenty); Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English (1947); Origins: An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1958), his own favourite though hardly a bestseller; A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1977), his final masterpiece; and extras like Name Your Child, a “Little bread and butter job.”

I say “write” advisedly. Partridge actually wrote his books, dictionaries and all, in long hand and complete thoughts. He did all his own work. That’s not like modern lexicographers, who work in teams and depend on powerful software to construct corpora (singular, corpus), which are collections of millions of written words, each in its original textual context. A lone lexicographer is now a near impossibility — consider the amount of time and reading Partridge had to put in to accomplish his art.

Reading helped him winkle out the origins of quite a few words. Such as “tanner”, slang for “sixpence”, which had defeated many experts until Partridge “one day, sometime before the Second World War”, he said, recalled this line from the New Testament: “He lodgeth with one Simeon, a tanner.” Partridge was also an expert on criminal slang, so he knew that a 17th-century underworld term for sixpence was “a simon”. Case closed. This kind of work cannot be done by software or technicians.

And how would software weigh the claims of the different candidates for originator of the familiar catch phrase “the real McCoy”? In a clever little 1950 essay in a collection titled From Sanskrit to Brazil, Partridge describes the possible real McCoys: boxer, bootlegger, cowboy, bandit, actor, Scots chieftain; also whisky and cocaine; from America, Scotland, England, Australia, Macao. You can read it online. Mystifyingly he concludes the essay with this postscript: “A considerably shorter version served as my Christmas card for 1951.”

Partridge’s books are regularly updated and reprinted. He will not be out of print for many, many years. Old-fashioned he may have been, but he was the first to take slang seriously. His dictionaries are characterful, idiosyncratic and cheerful, yet painstaking and accurate. They are much more than mere tools. The next time you reach for a dictionary, or look up a word online, reflect a moment on the lone adventurers who once mapped the badlands of the English language.

(See this page for tables of contents for Horizon magazine — inspiring. I reviewed a pair of books on quick-evolving contemporary language a while ago, one of which was about Oxford University Press’ lexicographical corpus, used for the famed OED. Read the review here.)


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