Thursday, 6 February 2020

Partridge, a Kiwi Great

Born on this day in 1894 was the great lexicographer Eric Partridge, one of New Zealand's many gifts to the wider world. The son of a grazier, he was born in the Waimata valley, near Gisborne, on North Island. When he was 14, he moved with his family to Queensland, and from there, after serving in the Australian Imperial Force in the Kaiser war and taking a belated degree at the University of Queensland, he came to Oxford to work on both an M.A. and a B.Litt. By 1923, he had ensconced himself at desk K1 in the British Museum reading room (as it then was), his 'second home', where he spent the next half century researching and writing.
  Partridge's greatest achievement was his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, originally published in 1937, but he wrote much else, including the ground-breaking Shakespeare's Bawdy, a volume that gave me much pleasure in my dirty-minded schoolboy days.  Originally published in 1947 in an expensive limited edition, Shakespeare's Bawdy explored an aspect of Shakespeare's endlessly rich and inventive language that had long been glossed over – the presence, not far below the surface, of a world of exuberant rudery. Partridge teased out double meanings, nuances and innuendos that would have been readily apparent to Shakespeare's audience, but had since drifted out of view. The book has its limits, resorting to Latin to gloss some of Shakespeare's more eye-popping bawdy, but it was pioneering work, opening up a new field of Shakespeare studies, and, more importantly, widening appreciation of just how 'universal-spirited', 'catholic-emotioned' a man Shakespeare was, and how far his language roamed, both high and low.
  Partridge somehow concluded, from his researches, that Shakespeare was 'an exceedingly knowledgeable amorist, a versatile connoisseur, and highly artistic, and ingeniously skilful, practitioner of love-making, who could have taught Ovid rather more than that facile doctrinaire could have taught him; he evidently knew of, and probably he practised, an artifice accessible to few – one that I cannot becomingly mention here, though I felt it obligatory to touch on it, very briefly, in the Glossary'. What on earth does Partridge mean? He might have given us a clue, if only in Latin... As it is, the mind boggles.


  1. I cherish a copy of Partridge's edition of Grose's A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, I may have his Dictionary of Cliches on my shelves somewhere, and I suppose one of these days I will spot Origins in a bookstore and buy it.

    The difficulty in offering a dictionary of slang is that it constantly changes, and varies from place to place. Raymond Chandler quarreled with Partridge's definition of "flivver" as meaning an old or otherwise unsatisfactory car: where Chandler lived, flivvers were always Fords.

    Well, not all of slang constantly changes. Thirty years ago I heard men then young making jokes about slang that Grose recorded, and that was probably old in his day.

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