New Zealand-born lexicographer Eric Partridge (1894–1979) was one of the twentieth century's leading experts on American, English, and Australian slang.
His most enduring works include A Dictionary of Slang (1937), A Dictionary of the Underworld (1950), and Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1958). At the time of Partridge's death, Meanjin contributor Ralph Elliott wrote: "He made a contribution to the historical study as well as to the practical use of the English language so substantial and so individual in its scholarship, breadth, imagination and wit that his name is now a household word in every country where English is spoken and studied."
Early Life and Education
The son of John Thomas and Ethel Norris Partridge, Eric Partridge was born in February 1894 on a farm near Gisborne, North Island, New Zealand. His family later moved to Brisbane, Australia, and he attended local schools there, winning a scholarship to study classics at the University of Queensland.
However, his studies were interrupted with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, and Partridge joined the Australian Imperial Forces. An infantryman from 1915 to 1919, he fought in the battle of Gallipoli and later saw action along the Western Front. Partridge's memoirs of the war years were later published as Frank Honeywood, Private: A Personal Record of the 1914–1918 War (1929) and included together with those of R. H. Mottram and John Easton in Three Men's War: The Personal Records of Active Service (1930).
Partridge returned to the University of Queensland in 1919 and completed his degree in 1921. He pursued graduate work in England as a traveling fellow, earning both a master's degree in English poetry from Queensland and a degree in comparative literature from Oxford University in 1923. Remaining in England, Partridge worked as a grammar school teacher and lecturer in English at universities in Manchester and London from 1925 to 1927 and during this time married Agnes Dora Vye-Parmenter.
His academic work was issued by the Parisian publisher Champion in 1924 as Eighteenth Century English Romantic Poetry; A Critical Medley: Essays, Studies, and Notes in English, French and Comparative Literature and The French Romantics' Knowledge of English Literature (1820–1848). During this time he also edited a volume of poems by Cuthbert Shaw and Thomas Russell and produced the biographical and critical study Robert Eyres Landor in 1927.
At this point, however, Partridge abandoned his academic career in favor of publishing and founded the Scholartis Press in London in 1927, a commercial venture that specialized in high-quality editions of eighteenth and nineteenth century works and issued new works on literature and language. Among the reissues was Francis Grose's 1785 compilation A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, to which Partridge added a preface and biographical sketch. Partridge contributed Pirates, Highwaymen and Adventurers and The Three Wartons, a selection of poetry by Thomas Warton, the elder, and his sons Joseph and Thomas Warton. He also published fiction, including the autobiographical novel Glimpses (1928), under the pseudonym Corrie Denison.
Classics on Words and Slang
In 1931, Scholartis failed because of the global Depression, and from that time on Partridge earned his living as a freelance writer and compiler of lexicographical works. During the 1930s he began his association with the publishing firm Routledge with such volumes as Slang Today and Yesterday (1933), which included a historical sketch and covered English, American, and Australian slang. In it Partridge identified some of the reasons people have developed slang, including the desire to be different, to identify with a certain school or social group, and to be secretive.
The first edition of the work for which he became best known, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, was published in 1937. According to its subtitle, it included "the language of the underworld, colloquialisms and catch-phrases, solecisms and catachreses, nicknames, vulgarisms and such Americanisms as have been naturalized." In the introduction he wrote that the Dictionary "should be of interest to word-lovers, but it should also be useful to the general as well as the cultured reader, to the scholar and the linguist." By 2004, more than two decades after Partridge's death, his dictionary was still in print, a recognized classic of its kind, and a two-volume ninth edition was being prepared for release. In the Guardian John Mullan called the original work an "extraordinary one-man dictionary" and noted that though much of its content now seems antiquated modern reference books nevertheless "owe much to [Partridge's] largely solitary endeavours." Writing in the Times in 1984, Philip Howard called the volume "a rich treasury of extraordinary and shady language recorded nowhere else."
Other works by Partridge in the 1930s include Words, Words, Words! (1933), Name This Child: A Dictionary of English (and American) Christian Names (1936), the anthology A Covey of Partridge (1937), and The World of Words: An Introduction to Language in General and to English and American in Particular (1939).
Enduring Works on Usage
Partridge returned to military service during the Second World War, serving in the British Army Education Corps from 1940 to 1941 and in the Royal Air Force from 1942 to 1945. His wartime experiences provided the inspiration for works on military slang, including his collaboration with John Brophy published as Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–1918 (1930) and A Dictionary of RAF Slang (1945). Quoted on the Australian National Dictionary Centre website, Partridge's introduction to the 1945 work notes, "In the Services, the men live—or should live—a more exciting life; they deal with equipment and various weapons; do things they've never done before—and pretend they never want to again; many of them visit strange countries; many become engaged in a service that is actually instead of nominally active; all of them mingle in such a companionship as they have never had before they enlisted and will never again have, once they quit the Service. Such conditions inevitably lead to a rejuvenation of language—to vividness—to picturesqueness—to vigour; language becomes youthful, energetic, adventurous. And slang is the easiest way to achieve those ends."
In peacetime Partridge became a fixture at the British Museum Reading Room, where he worked researching his books, and in 1946 he published the essay collection Journey to the Edge of Morning: Thoughts upon Books, Love, Life.
Partridge produced a number of his best-known works during and after the war, including A Dictionary of Cliches (1940), Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English (1942), and Shakespeare's Bawdy: A Literary and Psychological Essay and Comprehensive Glossary (1947). The Shakespeare book provided a key for understanding the ribald humor of numerous images, puns, allusions, and double entendres that would have been apparent to seventeenth-century theatergoers but which modern audiences fail to comprehend.
Partridge's Dictionary of Cliches comprises a list of stock phrases that careful writers should avoid. In the guidebook Usage and Abusage he outlined proper grammar and word choice and did so with humor, discussing such subjects as ambiguity, jargon and puns. Reviewing Janet Whitcut's 1995 update of Usage and Abusage, Tom Hoyt in the journal Technical Communication called the volume an "ideal" handbook and concluded that "In this age of Web pages, usability testing, and distance learning, we still need to remember that good, solid writing is at the core of all excellent technical communication. Partridge's book helps writers and editors focus on this important fact."
Love of Common Language
In 1950, Partridge produced A Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American, Being the Vocabulary of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, the Commercial Under-World, the Drug Traffic, the White Slave Traffic, and Spivs, one of the first major works to apply scholarly methods to the study of street language. Terms covered include short-hand names for jails, prisons and run-ins with the law, the jargon of criminal activities, including prostitution and narcotics dealing, and the colorful language of itinerants, such as "alberts," the Australian tramps' name for rags they used to wrap their feet when they lacked the money for socks, or "alley apple," an early twentieth-century American term for a brick or piece of pavement that could be thrown during a street fight.
In addition to Usage and Abusage, Partridge produced other guide books, including You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies (1953) and Notes on Punctuation (1955). He examined the origin, development and nature of the so-called "shaggy dog" story in a 1953 study, and his etymological dictionary Origins was published in 1958. It demonstrated his vast knowledge of word derivations and the development of the English language and became a favorite of logophiles.
His own love of language led to such celebrations as A Charm of Words (1960), Adventuring among Words (1961), and The Gentle Art of Lexicography as Pursued and Experienced by an Addict (1963). The slight work Comic Alphabets, first published in 1961, included such examples of Cockney punning as "A for 'orses," "Q for a bus," and "Y for husband." Commenting on this work in Eric Partridge: In His Own Words, Anthony Burgess wrote: "What fascinated Eric … was the anonymous human brilliance of this fantasy, and it was the creativity of humble users of language which, of course, inspired him to that lifelong devotion to slang and catch phrases which produced the great dictionaries." Among Partridge's later works, the Dictionary of Catch Phrases British and American, from the 16th Century to the Present traces the history of "back to square one," "the bee's knees," "believe you me," "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" and numerous other familiar terms.
A gentleman scholar, Partridge was well known in England as a cricket and tennis enthusiast, and he occasionally wrote journalistic pieces offering his commentary on competitive events in these sports. He once told Contemporary Authors, "In all work, whether lexicographical or expository (or even slight and light-hearted), my aim has been to conceal erudition and to be readable to students and general public alike, and to humanize the subjects treated by not forgetting that one's readers are—most of them—human beings."
Partridge died June 1, 1979, in Devonshire, England. The posthumously published volume Eric Partridge: In His Own Words was favorably reviewed in the London Times by Philip Howard, who noted that Partridge "was seldom dull, never obscure, and always good-humoured; and he always demonstrated the connexion between clear thinking and clear writing." In an obituary tribute published in that volume Randolph Quirk commented that "In almost any aspect of humane letters—literature, languages, book-craft, and of course word-study—[Partridge] … not only had a staggeringly wide knowledge: he had a limitless capacity for sharing it." Howard concluded: "His best work will last as long as there are those around in love with English."
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 3, Gale, 1981.
Crystal, David, ed., Eric Partridge: In His Own Words, Macmillan, 1980.
Critical Quarterly, Autumn 1998.
Encounter, February 1985.
Meanjin, 4, 1979.
Technical Communication, August 1996.
Times (London), December 4, 1980.
Australian National Dictionary Centre,http://www.anu.edu.au/ANDC/WWI/Intro.html (January 8, 2004).
"Guide to Print Collections: Eric Partridge Collection," University of Exeter,http://www.ex.ac.uk/library/special/books/collections/partridge.html (January 8, 2004).
PARTRIDGE, Eric (Honeywood)
After graduating, he became a Queensland Travelling Fellow at Oxford. Having gained an MA and B.Litt. simultaneously there, he taught at the universities of Manchester and London, but boredom and dislike of lecturing made him found his own publishing firm, Scholartis, in 1927. Partridge's most important publications were (with John Brophy) the discursive glossary Songs and Slang of the British Soldier in the Great War (1930) and his annotated version of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose (1931). Cecil Franklin, chairman of the London publishers Routledge & Kegan Paul, saw the potential of these works, and, when Scholartis closed because of the Depression in 1931, commissioned Partridge to produce a comprehensive dictionary of SLANG.
Published in 1937, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English was a worldwide success. It was followed by: Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English (1942); Shakespeare's Bawdy (1947); A Dictionary of the Underworld (1950); Origins: An Etymological Dictionary of English (1958); A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1977); and over 20 other books of essays on language, some prescriptive, some descriptive. Partridge's influence has been twofold: generating curiosity about the language among its speakers in all walks of life; working for the adequate lexicographical coverage of COLLOQUIAL and TABOO usage, a procedure now, partly as a result of his influence, standard for major dictionaries.