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Meet a Labor Lawyer Whose Labor of Love Is Writing About Slang

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: our guest is Tom Dalzell, senior editor of the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English -- and, now, the Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.

RS: "How do you hope that readers use this dictionary?"

TOM DALZELL: "There is the traditional role of the dictionary: 'I don't know what this word that I heard or I read means, I'll look it up.' But it's a browsing pleasure, because when you start seeing clusters of words that come out of the Caribbean, there's just such hope and joy of life there. And then you see a skepticism and irony in Australia. You see different cultures emerging as you browse through it."

AA: "Speaking of changes in attitude or culture, or cultural differences, I'm curious since you've looked at -- let's just focus on American slang for a moment here -- you've looked at slang from nineteen forty-five to the present. Have you seen any shifts in attitude or in the culture as expressed through the slang?"

RS: "Or trends."

TOM DALZELL: "Sure, sure. I've seen two things. One is homogenization of American slang. If you looked in nineteen forty-five, you would find very different slang in the cities and in rural areas. And there's a lot more uniformity now, and I attribute that to media. With young people, with the advent of MTV in the early eighties, that really became a national media outlet for language. So I've seen homogenization, and there's something lost in that.

"And the other thing that one sees, beginning in the late nineteen thirties but certainly continuing on almost a linear way up is the influence of African-American vernacular, African-American slang on American slang in general. With the Swing movement and jitterbugs in the late thirties, there was a conscious attempt by white Americans to learn African-American slang, and it has just become more and more a part of mainstream American slang."

RS: Tom Dalzell is a labor lawyer, but when he's not doing that, his labor of love is writing about slang. We asked him if he found any terms that are especially difficult for non-native English speakers to understand.

TOM DALZELL: "Well, even among English-as-first-language speakers, there's a great deal of vagueness in slang -- intentionally. When you say 'Well, we hooked up,' that could mean anything from 'We just happened to meet each other at a club and talked' to romantic involvement. I mean, there's a wonderful scene in [the movie] 'Pulp Fiction' when Vincent Vega tells the Samuel Jackson character that Marcellus wants him to take out Uma Thurman. Take out, as in kill? Or as in, to take out on a date? There's a lot of vagueness and sometimes context doesn't even suggest the answer."

AA: "Do you run into any uses of slang that confuse you or other lawyers or judges?"

TOM DALZELL: "Well, actually, I'm testifying as an expert witness up in a murder trial in Spokane [Washington] in early December about a slang term, where the prosecuting attorney deemed it to mean only one thing and the defense is arguing that it could mean many things."

RS: "What is that word?"

TOM DALZELL: "The term is to 'hit a lick.' The defendant told several friends that he had 'hit a lick,' and the prosecutor is urging that the only possible definition of that term is to commit an armed robbery. My research tells me otherwise, that 'hit a lick' actually more commonly means to come into a sum of money, in somewhat shady circumstances, but in one fell swoop and by no means necessarily armed robbery. And here somebody's life depends on how a jury is going to interpret him saying 'I hit a lick.'

RS: Tom Dalzell, senior editor of the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. The two-volume set is being republished in a concise form without the citations and with new entries from around the English-speaking word.

AA: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. To learn more about American English, we invite you to browse through the archives at our Web site, And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.