Dictionaries are useful for writers when they need to know the meaning of words, but they are also useful for those of us who enjoy history. Dictionaries provide a snapshot of how words are used in the time period that they were written.
A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Captain Francis Grose, was first published in 1785. It lists and describes the many cant phrases used, primarily by the poor and working class, in England at the time. As well as the definitions, the author has also often provided common phrases containing the particular word, and a description of the meaning or origins of these.
One of the problems – no doubt – with attempting a work of this standard during a time where some publications were deemed immoral, is that the author was bound to come across rude or obscene words. Whilst the subject matter insists that such content be included, the author obviously had reservations about the potential offence he may cause, as evidenced by this comment in the Preface.
Due this restraint of propriety, rude words have been politely dashed in the middle, e.g. a-se. However, there are some words (referring to women) that are completely asterisked out (****), and my imagination has struggled to uncover what they might be, especially since the f-word is included as “f–k” (meaning: to copulate)!
For your interest, I have reproduced some of the more obscure and interesting definitions below. All comments in square brackets [ ] are my own.
Ankle: a girl who has got with child, is said to have sprained her ankle.
Autem Mort: a married woman, also a female beggar, with several children hired or borrowed to excite charity.
Bagpipe to Bagpipe: a lascivious practice too indecent for explanation. [One can only wonder!]
Barking Irons: pistols, from their explosion resembling the bow-wow or barking of a dog.
Beggar’s Bullets: stones; the beggar’s bullets began to fly, i.e. they began to throw stones.
Blind Cheeks: the breech. Buss blind cheeks, kiss mine a-se.
Breeches: To wear the breeches; a woman who governs her husband is said to wear the breeches. [Sounds similar to today’s phrase!]
Catch Fart: a foot boy, so called from such servants commonly following close behind their master or mistress.
Cheese Toaster: a sword.
Church Yard Cough: a cough that is likely to terminate in death.
Dismal Ditty: the psalm sung by the felons at the gallows, just before they are turned off.
Finger Post: a parson, so called, because like the finger post, he points out a way he has never been and probably will never go, i.e. the way to heaven.
Friday Face: a dismal countenance. Before and even long after the reformation, Friday was a day of abstinence or jour maigre.
God Permit: a stage coach, from that affectation of piety, frequently to be met with in advertisements of stage coaches and waggons, where most of their undertakings are promised with if God permit, or God willing.
Jack Robinson: before one could say Jack Robinson, a saying to express a very short time, originating from a very volatile gentleman of that appellation, who would call on his neighbours, and be gone before his name could be announced.
Kettle Drums: a woman’s breasts, called by sailors chest and bedding.
Marriage Musick: the squalling and crying of children.
Nicknackatory: a toy shop.
Oil of Gladness: I will anoint you with the oil of gladness, ironically spoken for, I will beat you.
Paddington Fair Day: an execution day, Tyburn being in the parish, or neighbourhood of Paddington; to dance the Paddington frisk, to be hanged.
Queer Rooster: an informer that pretends to be sleeping, and thereby overhears the conversations of thieves in night cellars.
Rabbit Catcher: a midwife.
Scull Thatcher: a peruke [or wig] maker.
Tarpawlin: a course cloth tarred over, also figuratively a sailor. [Sounds like this is the origin of our word, “tarpaulin”.]
Tatterdemallion: a ragged fellow whose clothes hang all in tatters.
Urinal of the Planets: Ireland, so called from the frequent rains in that island.
Widow’s Weeds: mourning clothes of a peculiar fashion, denoting her state; a grass widow, a discarded mistress; a widow bewitched, a woman whose husband is abroad, and said, but not certainly known to be dead.
Perhaps it is because I love words, or maybe because I always liked reading the dictionary in my spare time; either way, this book is my cup of Scandalbroth!
Sources and Relevant Links
A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Groseman, 1785.
A Dictionary of the English Language: …, by Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1785.