The Ecphorizer

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
John Cumming

Issue #38 (October 1984)



The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
or "Lexicon Balatronicum, A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence," compiled originally by Captain Grose in 1785 and later "considerably altered and enlarged" by members of the Whip Club, is now available in a facsimile reprinting of the 1811 edition.

This is a sort of underground dictionary, and never mentioned by John Walker, who otherwise loved to compare his dictionary entries with those of other lexicographers of his time. Certainly the formidable Johnson would have had little interest in this work, if he had lived to see it, for it is loaded with words that would have most likely been shunned by the "best authors" that Johnson used to justify his definitions. In fact, the device of illustrating meaning by quotes from literary sources, a practice that other lexicographers picked up from Johnson, is missing in this volume, perhaps from the authors' own choice, or perhaps from the low origins of the vocabulary.

[quoteright'/>This work contains a real rarity among dictionary entries, a word entered with the "averted eyes" style of typesetting, C**t (or "the monosyllable"). The first essay at a definition is given in Greek, followed by "the cunnus of the Latin dictionaries," etc., otherwise affectionately known as "tuzzy-muzzy." Another synonym then in use was "Buckinger's boot," a rather vile reference to the wife of an artist named Matthew Buckinger. Buckinger was born without arms or legs.

Despite the powerful influence of social prejudice and of the printed word, the most ancient and most durable of words seem to be those that are least likely to be printed or uttered in public. The innovative impulse of the lexicographers stopped with "the monosyllable," however, for there is no entry for f**k. We have noticed sh-t and t--d, incidentally.

The very first entry is an expression of hearty irreverence: "Abbess, or Lady Abbess. A bawd, the mistress of a brothel." On the next page, a Hogarthian classic: "Admiral of the Narrow Seas. One who from drunkenness vomits into the lap of the person sitting opposite to him." Pursuing the order of precedency in reverse, we next consult "Vice Admiral of the Narrow Seas," given as "a drunken man that pisses under the table into his companions' shoes."

Captain Thomas Grose himself suffered a death of Hogarthian character, for he died in 1791 of an apoplectic fit at the dinner table of a friend. His captaincy was earned by virtue of his accepting a commission with the Surrey militia, after a disastrous term as paymaster of the Hampshire militia, where he is recorded to have said that the only account books he kept were his right and left pockets. His sense of humor was well recorded in a poem by Burns ("Ken ye aught o' Captain Grose"). Burns also warned his countrymen in the poem "Hear, land o' cakes, and brither Scots," of this "chield amang them taking notes."

The Scots must have become quite accustomed to traveling gentlemen taking notes since Johnson and Boswell's peregrinations. Nevertheless besides Burns's poetry, Grose's reputation is perhaps best preserved in his works on antiquities (The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., described him as a "sort of antiquarian Falstaff") and was in turn greatly amplified by his skill as a draughtsman.

We do not know at this time how much of his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue survives in this 1811 reworking, but he is mentioned only briefly on the title page. This "considerably altered and enlarged" edition is attributed to a member of "The Whip Club" assisted by "Hell-Fire Dick, and James Gordon, Esqrs. of Cambridge," etc.

One can infer from the entries that the chief preoccupations of the vulgar classes (or of the vulgar young gentlemen who so enlarged upon Captain Grose's work) are the more earthy aspects of female anatomy (and male, to a lesser extent), hangings, and boozing. In the introduction to the 1811 edition, the work is justified as giving an opportunity for gentlemen of polite associations to converse on certain topics without shocking their company. "We need not descant on the dangerous impressions that are made on the female mind, by the remarks that fall incidentally from the lips of the brothers or servants of a family; and we have before observed, that improper topics can with our assistance be discussed, even before the ladies, without raising a blush on the cheek of modesty." Redeeming social value is a very old dodge.

An indignity upon their cousins across the ocean, and not justified by the rather prissy introduction, is the word "pompkin," given as a citizen of "Boston in America: from the number of pompkins raised and eaten by the people of that country." It naturally follows that Boston and environs are to be called "pompkinshire."

The "apple-pye bed" is one made in apple-pye fashion (as a turnover) where "the sheets are so doubled as to prevent anyone from getting at his length between them." This is a suspiciously collegiate-style entry with a somewhat more tasty image than that offered with the more prosaic "short sheeting" of modern usage.

A "bitch booby" is given as a military term for a country wench. A "mort" is a woman or wench, as is a "piece." "Mort" was also corrupted to "mot" at times. A "mopsey" was a dowdy or homely wench. A prostitute was called, among many things, the "receiver general." A "thornback" was an old maid. A "biter" was given as "A wench whose **** is ready to bite her a-se: a lascivious, rampant wench." The "ape leader" was an old maid, for their punishment in Hell for failing to procreate would be to lead apes! (There's no escaping it, either in this world or the next, I suppose.)

"Barbarous Latin" is called herein "Bog Latin," or "Dog Latin" or "Apothecary's" or "Law Latin."

One of our timeless vulgarisms that is here recorded is "Clap. A venereal taint." One usually caught it from "Moll" (a whore) while doing "Moll Peatly's gig," defined as "a rogering bout." Money, incidentally, was defined (not exclusively, we suppose) as "A girl's private parts, commonly applied to children: as Take care, Miss, or you will shew your money." One wonders what associations growing girls made from this euphemism. Perhaps Moll found the prospect of making money especially exciting.

A buttock broker was a matchmaker. Dells were "young buxom wenches, ripe and prone to venery, but who have not lost their virginity [!'/>, which the upright man claims by virtue of his prerogative; after which they become free for any of the fraternity." Collegiate parties never change. An "athanasian wench" or "quicunque vult" was a forward girl, "ready to oblige every man that shall ask her." The "Spanish padlock" was a chastity belt, "contrived by jealous husbands of that nation" (against randy Englishmen, no doubt).

"To go up the ladder to rest" was to be hanged. This was before the development of scaffolds with trap doors. The subject of the execution was thrown off a ladder, or it was pulled from him to deliver the full measure of justice. The victim was said to be "jammed," as he "danced upon nothing," so to speak.

The deadly nevergreen was the gallows, or three-legged mare. The expression "three-legged mare," or stool, comes from a by-then-obsolescent mode of construction consisting of three posts, supporting three transverse beams. The authors write, "This clumsy machine has lately given place to an elegant contrivance, called the new drop by which the use of that vulgar vehicle a cart, or mechanical instrument a ladder, is also avoided; the patients [!'/> being left suspended by the dropping down of that part of the floor on which they stand." To the merriment of all, no doubt.

Several advertisements for the second edition of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue are reprinted with the book itself, including one that advertised it as "The Scoundrels Dictionary" of cant words used by "Thieves, Housebreakers, Street Robbers, and Pickpockets... The whole printed from a copy taken on one of their gang, in the late scuffle between the watchmen and a party of them." Collecting vocabularies must have been a widespread practice in those days.

The "private parts of a man" are called tools. Nothing's changed in this usage. There are other expressions given here that the boys may not have heard, such as thingumbob, man Thomas, arbor vitae, tallywags, twiddle-diddles, silent flute, pego, whirlygigs, and sugar stick.

A twiddle-poop was "an effeminate looking fellow." A "back gammon player" was a sodomite. "Spanish faggot" is here defined as the sun!

The Spanish loomed large in English minds in those days, and "Spanish" was even used as a euphemism for ready money. "Spanish gout" was the pox, the "Spanish trumpeter" was a braying ass, a "Spanish worm" was a nail, "so called by carpenters when they meet with one in a board they are sawing." (Brewer also recorded this last expression.)

And of course, the French: "French cream" is brandy "so called by the old tabbies and dowagers when drank in their tea." The "French disease" was VD, as was the "French gout." To catch VD was to be "Frenchified." Curiously, a "Froglander" was a Dutchman.

The collegiate character of this work shows through in various entries that are unlikely to have had their origins among the vulgar classes. One such is "Simeonites (at Cambridge), the followers of the Rev. Charles Simeon, fellow of King's College, author of Skeletons of Sermons, and preacher at Trinity church; they are in fact rank methodists."

Johnson's Dictionary of two generations before had no words under "X." This work has one, "Xantippe," given as from the name of Socrates's wife, and signifying a shrew. One wonders how the lower orders came upon such a name, or how ladies were to be deceived by reference to her. Can we infer that all gentle ladies were kept from reading, and common scum (male) spent their idle hours buried in books?

Entries beginning with V and U are still intermixed in this work, as are J and I, though we have an earlier lexicon with the modern alphabetic ordering. Perhaps the authors of the 1811 edition felt bound to preserve the style of the earlier editions. Perhaps they were too dissipated to notice.

Contributor Profile

John Cumming

john served as a medic in the Vietnam War then returned to Silicon Valley where he has worked as a tchnical writer and programmer at a number of Valley firms. In the 70s - 90s, John held many appointed and elected positions in local and national Mensa - notably as editor of the SFRM newletter Intelligencer and Local Secretary of SFRM, as well as serving as Regional Vice Chair for a number of years. John enjoys a good game of chess and likes nothing better than to curl up and read ancient or niche dictionaries, many of which are reviewed in these pages.




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