The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a Hilarious Collection of Slang Terms Used Among the Working Population of London in the 18th Century

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Thirty years after Dr Johnson published his great Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Francis Grose put out A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), a compendium of slang Johnson had deemed unfit for his learned tome.

Grose was not one for library work. He preferred to do his lexicography in the sordid heart of after-hours London. Supported by his trusty assistant Tom Cocking, he cruised the watering holes of Covent Garden and the East End, eating, boozing, and listening. He took pleasure in hearing his name punningly connected to his rotund frame. And he produced a book brimming with Falstaffian life.

Francis Grose (1731-1791) was well-described by Eric Partridge, his 20th-century counterpart in the field of slang lexicography, as “the greatest antiquary, joker, and porter-drinker of his day, and one of the happiest wits of the late 18th century”. Through a varied life, including a long military career, he sustained an enthusiastic philological interest, and his keen ear for linguistic curios both military and demotic meant that the first edition of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue included some 9,000 words that had been omitted from Johnson’s Dictionary.

Francis Grose. By D. O. Hill. from The Land of Burns by Wilson & Chambers (Glasgow: Blackie & Son, 1840). In 1789, Robert Burns met and befriended Grose, about whom he wrote a number of poems almost as rude as their subject.

While a good deal of the slang has survived into the present day — to screw is to copulate; to kick the bucket is to die — much would likely have been lost had Grose not recorded it. Some of the more obscure metaphors include a butcher’s dog, meaning someone who “lies by the beef without touching it; a simile often applicable to married men”; to box the Jesuit, meaning “to masturbate; a crime, it is said, much practised by the reverend fathers of that society”; and to polish meaning to be in jail, in the sense of “polishing the king’s iron with one’s eyebrows, by looking through the iron grated windows”. Given this was the era of William Hogarth’s famous print Gin Lane (1751), it’s not surprising to find the dictionary soaked through with colorful epithets for the juniper-based liquor: blue ruin, cobblers punch, frog’s wine, heart’s ease, moonshine, strip me naked. The Grose dictionary also contains hundreds of great insults, like bottle-headed, meaning void of wit, something you can’t say about its author.

Some highlights include:

ABBESS, or LADY ABBESS. A bawd, the mistress of a brothel.

ABIGAIL. A lady’s waiting-maid.

ABRAM. Naked.

ABRAM COVE. A cant word among thieves, signifying a naked or poor man; also a lusty, strong rogue.

ABRAM MEN. Pretended mad men.

ACE OF SPADES. A widow.

ANGLERS. Pilferers, or petty thieves, who, with a stick having a hook at the end, steal goods out of shop-windows, grates, &c.; also those who draw in or entice unwary persons to prick at the belt, or such like devices.

ANKLE. A girl who is got with child, is said to have sprained her ankle.

ARBOR VITAE. A man’s penis.

AUTEM MORT. A married woman; also a female beggar with several children hired or borrowed to excite charity.

BABES IN THE WOOD. Criminals in the stocks, or pillory.

BACON FED. Fat, greasy.

BANGING. Great; a fine banging boy.

BANTLING. A young child.

BASTARD. The child of an unmarried woman.

BAWD. A female procuress.

BEAR LEADER. A travelling tutor.

BEAU-NASTY. A slovenly fop; one finely dressed, but dirty.

BEDIZENED. Dressed out, over-dressed, or awkwardly ornamented.

BELLYFULL. A hearty beating, sufficient to make a man yield or give out. A woman with child is also said to have got her belly full.

BENE. Good–BENAR. Better.

BENE BOWSE. Good beer, or other strong liquor.

BENE COVE. A good fellow.

BENE DARKMANS. Goodnight.

BEN. A fool.

BETWATTLED. Surprised, confounded, out of one’s senses; also bewrayed.

BIDDY, or CHICK-A-BIDDY. A chicken, and figuratively a young wench.

BIENLY. Excellently. She wheedled so bienly; she coaxed or flattered so cleverly. French.

BITE. A cheat; also a woman’s privities. The cull wapt the mort’s bite; the fellow enjoyed the wench heartily.

BLACK BOX. A lawyer.

BOUNCER. A large man or woman; also a great lie.

BUCK. A blind horse; also a gay debauchee.

BUGAROCH. Comely, handsome.

BULL DOGS. Pistols.

BUNTER. A low dirty prostitute, half whore and half beggar.

BUSHEL BUBBY. A full breasted woman.

BUTTOCK. A whore.

BUTTOCK AND TONGUE. A scolding wife.

BUTTOCKING SHOP. A brothel.

BUZMAN. A pickpocket.

BUZZARD. A simple fellow. A blind buzzard: a pur-blind man or woman.

BYE BLOW. A bastard.

CACKLING FARTS. Eggs.

CADDEE. A helper. An under-strapper.

CAKE, or CAKEY. A foolish fellow.

CANDY. Drunk.

CANK. Dumb.

CAPON. A castrated cock, also an eunuch.

CAPRICORNIFIED. Cuckolded, hornified.

CAPTAIN QUEERNABS. A shabby ill-dressed fellow.

CAPTAIN TOM. The leader of a mob; also the mob itself.

CARAVAN. A large sum of money; also, a person cheated of such sum.

CARBUNCLE FACE. A red face, full of pimples.

CARDINAL. A cloak in fashion about the year 1760.

CARROTS. Red hair.

CAT. A common prostitute. An old cat; a cross old woman.

CAT-HEADS. A Woman’s breasts.

CATHEDRAL. Old-fashioned. An old cathedral-bedstead, chair, &c.

CATTLE. Sad cattle: whores or gypsies. Black cattle, bugs.

CAUDGE-PAWED. Left-handed.

CHAP. A fellow; An odd chap; A strange fellow.

CHAW BACON. A countryman. A stupid fellow.

CHEESER. A strong smelling fart.

CLANKER. A great lie.

CLOVES. Thieves, robbers, &c.

CORNED. Drunk.

CORNY-FACED. A very red pimpled face.

COVENT GARDEN NUN. A prostitute.

CRACK. A whore.

CRUMMY. Fat, fleshy. A fine crummy dame; a fat woman. He has picked up his crumbs finely of late; he has grown very fat, or rich, of late.

DAPPER FELLOW. A smart, well-made, little man.

DICKED IN THE NOB. Silly. Crazed.

DICKEY. A sham shirt.

DIDDEYS. A woman’s breasts or bubbies.

DIRTY PUZZLE. A nasty slut.

DOG’S SOUP. Rain water.

DOWDY. A coarse, vulgar-looking woman.

DOXIES. She beggars, wenches, whores.

DRAB. A nasty, sluttish whore.

DUB LAY. Robbing houses by picking the locks.

DUB THE JIGGER. Open the door.

DUB O’ TH’ HICK. A lick on the head.

DUCK LEGS. Short legs.

DUGS. A woman’s breasts.

DUNAKER. A stealer of cows and calves.

DUSTMAN. A dead man: your father is a dustman.

EVIL. A halter. Also a wife.

EXECUTION DAY. Washing day.

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