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Dirty words

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The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional EnglishI remember the first time I gave a presentation about my design for The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 2005), showing a sample from ‘G’. I could tell the exact moment that everyone in the room had read the words ‘gangbang, noun’ on the screen behind me.

As a lover of typography and language, and yes, dirty words, I feel proud to have had the opportunity to give a twenty-first century makeover to this revival of a true dictionary classic. Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang (DSUE) was first published in 1937, running to seven editions in its author’s lifetime and remaining the authoritative, go-to slang dictionary for over sixty years.

8e A Dictionary of SlangAn eighth, posthumous edition appeared in 1984 – a true period piece typographically speaking, with text set justified in Rockwell and densely packed into two columns, abbreviations galore, but with generous margins.

The New Partridge Dictionary was my first solo commission working on a major reference work, between July and November 2004. I actually inherited this job from Paul Luna, typographer extraordinaire, who had been approached by Routledge and invited to London to discuss the project. Having worked with Paul on a few other dictionary designs, I tagged along to the meeting where we were shown a single sample entry (‘game’), and, given Routledge’s meagre budget, Paul suggested that I take on the project with him acting as mentor.

On our way from Routledge HQ back to the tube we stopped by the house of Dr Samuel Johnson, the greatest dictionary maker of all, to pay our respects. It seemed very apt.

Looking through old paperwork, I see that I quoted £500 for the job, which Routledge haggled down to £400, to be paid in two instalments – £200 each for ‘Stage 1: Look & feel’ and ‘Stage 2: Typesetting specification’. One lonely dawn, after yet another all-nighter, I foolishly worked that out as an hourly rate.

What does it mean for a slang dictionary to look ‘fit for the twenty-first century’? Looking at the 1984 edition and other slang dictionaries on the market at the time, I was struck by a sense typographic claustrophobia, exacerbated by heavy use of abbreviations, that made them look and feel dated to me.

I started experimenting with unjustified setting to create a more open feel on the page, reasoning that I would be able to recover some of the ‘lost’ space by decreasing the margins and using a compact typeface. Typeface legibility and economy are commonly seen as adversaries – that efforts to increase legibility reduce the amount of text on a page, but efficient use of space must jeopardise legibility. Well, not if you choose the right typeface.

My experiments quickly led me to the typeface that has become one of my all-time favourites: Parisine designed by Jean-François Porchez, a clean sanserif that still feels fresh and contemporary to me over a decade after I discovered it. It’s also remarkably economical and stands up well to having its horizontal scale squeezed just a little. A good range of weights from the ‘Clair’ to ‘Sombre’, plus small caps and a choice of ranging and non-ranging numerals, made it the perfect choice for me as they are essential to be able to distinguish the different elements of a dictionary entry.

I also felt strongly that we should use as few abbreviations as possible – perhaps a hangover from working on children’s and school dictionaries where this is a bit of a no-no, and from my own frustrated struggles trying to work out their meaning without referring to prelims.

Using only a dozen or so entries available to design a 2000-page dictionary that would take another 18 months to compile was also a challenge. Had I really covered every eventuality? And was it all going to fit? Extent calculations are a tricky business and less reliable if done using a limited amount of dummy text repeated over and over. Paul Luna has written wonderfully about the contribution of typography to lexicography – articulating the structure of dictionary entries and thus helping to convey meaning – and I was lucky indeed to have him. Working on this project deepened my understanding and honed my skills in typographic detailing and gave me the confidence to take on other similar projects.

I also learnt a lot about ‘sex, money and intoxicating liquors’, as one J.Y.P. Greig described the ‘chief stimuli of slang’ back in 1938, although I would add drugs and crime to that list. You can’t help but pick up a few things.

Dictionary reviews, and indeed most book reviews, tend to focus on content not on design. But scanning for any puffs I might use creatively in my design portfolio, I came across a review by Jonathon Green, Britain’s foremost slang lexicographer:

‘The essence of a reference work is clarity, and that begins in the design. The scholarship, however refined, is as nothing if the page is a blur of text, further confused by abbreviations and barely comprehensible short titles which add to every consultation of the text a second trip to the bibliography. Routledge have been almost profligate with white space and the entries, laid out in double columns per page, are eminently readable … Unlike most dictionaries, where space is at a premium, the editors seem to have resisted abbreviation: parts of speech are spelt out in full, as are the names of countries – Australia, New Zealand – whence a slang term may come. Titles too are offered in full.’

– Jonathon Green, ‘A pair of Partridges’, English Language and Linguistics 11.1 (2007), pp. 209–225

I had to consult a dictionary – the non-slang kind – to find out what ‘profligate’ meant. Even then I didn’t know if I should feel flattered or insulted, what with ‘Routledge’ and ‘the editors’ getting all the credit for positive use of space and the treatment of parts of speech and countries of origin. It is almost typical that these are seen as editorial decisions rather than design considerations, and are presented as extravagant. Space is always at a premium in book publishing – but my design proposal to Routledge came backed up with careful calculations to prove it could be done without going over extent. In the end I decided to just take Green’s comments as a compliment. If nothing else, it’s nice to see design acknowledged as playing such an important part in the usability of a reference work.

But here is a far more unqualified compliment: in Michael Quinion’s review on World Wide Words, about halfway down the page: ‘The typography is easily the best of any current slang dictionary and gives a clean and authoritative feel.’ Those words really mean the world to me.

A few months after I submitted my final typesetting specification (and invoice), I was asked to adapt my design for the new Routledge Frequency Dictionary series, of which 12 titles have appeared to date. Routledge followed up with a Concise New Partridge Dictionary in 2007, and a second edition of The New Partridge Dictionary in 2012 – all I am pleased to note, still in my original design.