Jonathan Lighter followed his mentor, John Hurt Fisher of the English Department, to UT in the early 1970s and earned the PhD in English in 1980. He became interested in American slang in the 1960s when, as a high school student, he began to collect slang words and origins. His first major article, “The Slang of the American Expeditionary Forces, 1917–1919: An Historical Glossary” was published in American Speech while he was an undergraduate. Building on the work of his doctoral dissertation (essentially, the entries for the letter A) he worked as a research associate in the English Department on a project to create a historical dictionary of American slang, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In 1984 he negotiated with Random House to produce the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the first volume of which (A-G) was published in 1994. The second volume (1997) covered H-O. Random House then withdrew from the project, but in 2003 Oxford University Press announced that it had acquired the publication rights. While there are other slang dictionaries, Lighter’s is the first to take a scholarly, historical approach to the subject.