A Critical Study of John Camden Hotten and The Slang Dictionary



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Many lexicographers found some words unsuitable for inclusion in their dictionaries, thus the examination of general purpose dictionaries alone will not give us a faithful history of changes of the language. Nevertheless, by taking into account cant and slang dictionaries, the origins and history of such marginalized language can be truly examined. Despite people's natural fascination with these works, the early slang dictionaries have received relatively little scholarly attention, the later ones even less. This dissertation is written to honor those lexicographers who succeeded in a truthful documentation of nonstandard language. One of these disreputable lexicographers who found joy in an unending search for new and better ways of treating abstruse vocabulary was John Camden Hotten. This study investigates the importance of Hotten's Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words in the evolution of dictionary making. I analyze how many editions exist, the popularity of the 1864 edition, and differences between this and preceding editions, suggesting the inexorable growth of Hotten as a compiler. A short history of British cant and slang lexicography is provided and questions concerning the inclusion and exclusion of obsolete words and who makes such decisions are answered. Key terms such as slang and cant are defined and discussed briefly within the context of recent, relevant scholarship. The conclusions drawn from this research are laid out in extensive annotations embedded in the lexical items of a critical edition demonstrating once again that Hotten's compilation was extremely important in the evolution of dictionary making. That Hotten's work was accepted as authoritative is evidenced by the number of allusions and borrowings from it as seen in the work of later lexicographers: Barrere and Leland draw extensively upon it in A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon, and Cant, 2 vols. (1889-90) as do Farmer and Henley in Slang and Its Analogues, 7 vols. (1890-1904), and Eric Partridge in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937). Hotten's work seems to have been very influential in the preservation of words as well. A vast number of slang words that are cited in Hotten's dictionaries were used for a long time among the common people; in fact, the popular literature of the nineteenth century, particularly historical fiction, draws upon this vocabulary, and may well prove to be specifically indebted to Hotten's work. Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Joyce's Ulysses are full of slang expressions; Conan Doyle shows himself familiar with the terminology of pugilism in Rodney Stone, as does George Bernard Shaw in Cashel Byron's Profession. This dissertation places John Camden Hotten as a writer/publisher/compiler and his work within contemporaneous scholarly argument, and, contrary to popular opinion, acknowledges the publisher's significant contributions to the development of Victorian literature and late nineteenth- and twentieth-century lexicography.