• print • Dec/Jan 2007

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    Society's Child

    When a young Edith Wharton first met Henry James at a dinner party, the twenty-five-year-old New York socialite thought she knew just the thing to make a lasting impression: Deck yourself out in the latest French design. Needless to say, this had little effect on the stoic and reclusive James. “Those were the principles in which I had been brought up,” she would later write with some embarrassment, “and it would never have occurred to me that I had anything but my youth, and my pretty frock, to commend me.”

    But Wharton would reinvent herself as a serious writer, at age forty-three, with her

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    Phat Chance

    The one stream of poetry which is continually flowing is slang.

    —G. K. Chesterton

    One of the many benefits of owning the two-volume New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge), besides the sheer size of the thing up there on a shelf with your other weighty reference books, is that you can dip in just about anywhere and enjoy the exuberant, endless display of human inventiveness with language. Let me demonstrate by flipping open volume 1 to . . . dick, as chance would have it. Besides ten meanings for that word, all familiar to an American speaker such as yourself,

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