word of mouth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am

The dictionary bundled with my word-processing program clearly wants me to speak like a redneck. I despise its limited vocabulary and insistence on American spelling.

Online stalwart Dictionary.com offers more scope but the same cultural bias and not much entertainment. But the Web is brimming with alternative dictionaries that do more than define words. Instead, conserving and celebrating the richness of the English tongue, they dish up the 'with-it' word, the regional word, the dirty word and, as I found while exploring the roaring 20s, the antiquated word.

Dip into Potpourri (local.aaca.org/bntc/slang/slang.htm), which brings out the monocled cad or cloche-wearing flapper in everyone. Opening with 'absolutely' and 'attaboy', the jazz-age lexicon gives the impression that, back then, everyone was 'spifflicated'. That is, 'canned', 'corked', 'tanked', 'primed', 'scrooched', 'jazzed' or 'zozzled' among other snappy expressions implying intoxication.

Whacked, waspish American journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce devised what must be the best-known lexicon with a Web presence, The Devil's Dictionary (www.alcyone.com/max/lit/devils). Bierce's reference, pitched as 'generally offensive', lives up to its reputation. Opening with the likes of 'abasement', the book runs the bad-taste gamut with words that make you want to take a shower or see a priest.

In a similar vein, the Cockney Rhyming Slang dictionary (www.cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk), which brings to mind the grungy streets of London, feels equally distasteful. Look no further than the slang for sick: 'Uncle Dick.'

Koalanet's Aussie slang dictionary (www.koalanet.com.au/australian-slang.html) makes more entertaining reading. Browse it and learn all about 'crow eaters' (people from South Australia), 'dags' (nerds) and 'rages' (parties), if you have some free time this 'arvo'.

For a less provincial take on language, head to Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com), which lists 'R & B', 'R u mad?' and all manner of curtly hip expressions. Urban Dictionary is neat if you want to learn how to insult someone tersely via SMS. Otherwise, it feels like a wasteland.

Head instead for the fallow ground of Pseudo Dictionary (www.pseudodictionary.com). Essentially a work of fiction, it invites the visitor to contribute personal coinages that are unlikely ever to be said out loud.

That's the difference between Pseudo Dictionary and the mighty Wordspy (www.wordspy.com), which only bothers with real words. Still, some words that Pseudo Dictionary flaunts border on mainstream. Just look at 'hacktivist' (a software programmer with attitude) and 'tata' (goodbye), which has been around forever.

But there is also 'yackwagon' - a disturbing ordeal, usually endured with others, recalled with a sense of humour and sentimentality. I know just what the word wizard responsible for that coinage means, and dream of seeing the neologism go viral via social networks, blogs and any other channels. So pass it on or go and get zozzled. Tata.