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November 09, 1986|Fred S. Holley

NEW DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN SLANG, compiled by Robert L. Chapman (Harper & Row: $20; 528 pp.). This useful and encyclopedic volume begins by assuring us that "slang is the idiom of the life force" and its contents are drawn from such vital areas of our society as the black culture, the armed forces, the counterculture of the '60s and the drug scene.

Of course, one finds faults: Editor Robert L. Chapman regards home boy as a Southern black usage, but we Californians know it as Chicano; he gives us kiwi without the primary usage as a New Zealander; and he shows no musical meaning for hootenanny. One could wish for more dates, more etymology.

But the derivations are fascinating: The use of buff, as in jazz buff, is traced to fire buff, so called because firemen once wore buff jackets; to put the kibosh on refers to the hat worn by an Irish judge in pronouncing the death sentence; a visiting fireman was an Indian medicine man who brought fire to nearby villages, and a rookie was a British army recruit who wore a rook-colored (black) tunic.

But Chapman hasn't caught up with do lunch or the real estate term lookie-loo. And he attributes that tasteless reference to Montezuma's revenge to President Reagan rather than Jimmy Carter.

For all that, this is a labor of love, and there is no dumbing down here. (Dumbing down, incidentally and quite accurately, is attributed to Times reporter William Trombley.)

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