The Vulgar Tongue

I found a 1994 edition of The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence in a charity shop yesterday. (This itself was a revised version of a 1789 dictionary of the ‘Vulgar Tongue’ compiled by one Captain Francis Grose.)

The 1811 compilers’ audience (according to the preface, with more than little tongue in cheek) was intended to be “our young men of fashion”, so that they might “attain the language of whippism”.

By an occasional reference to our pages, they may be initiated into all the peculiarities of language by which the man of spirit is distinguished from the man of worth. They may now talk bawdy before their papas, without the fear of detection, and abuse their less spirited companions, who prefer a good dinner at home to a glorious up-shot in the highway, without the hazard of a cudgelling.

But, dear me, this isn’t just a frivolous exercise, oh no.

… we are very sure that the moral influence of the Lexicon Balatronicum will be more certain and extensive than that of any methodist sermon… 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 the 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. It is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of twiddle diddles, or rise from table at the mention of Buckinger’s boot. Besides, Pope assures us, that “vice to be hated needs but to be seen;” in this volume it cannot be denied, that she is seen very plainly; and a love of virtue is, therefore, the necessary result of perusing it. …

If you’re now wondering…
BUCKINGER’S BOOT: The monosyllable. (MONOSYLLABLE: A woman’s commodity… COMMODITY: The private parts of a modest woman; and the public parts of a prostitute.)
TWIDDLE-DIDDLES: Testicles.

That’s quite enough rudery. Some random gleanings that tickled me:

APOTHECARY: To talk like an apothecary; to use hard or gallipot words: from the assumed gravity and affectation of knowledge generally put on by the gentlemen of this profession, who are commonly as superficial in their learning as they are pedantic in their language. (GALLIPOT: Apothecary)
BAWDY-HOUSE BOTTLE: A very small bottle; short measure being among the many means used by the keepers of those houses, to gain what they call an honest livelihood: indeed this is one of the least reprehensible; the less they give a man of their infernal beverages for his money, the kinder they behave to him.
LEGGERS: Sham leggers; cheats who pretend to sell smuggled goods, but in reality only deal in old shop-keepers or damaged goods.
POMPKIN: A man or woman of Boston in America; from the number of pompkins raised and eaten by the people of that country. Pompkinshire: Boston and its dependencies.
SOLO PLAYER: A miserable performer on any instrument, who always plays alone, because no one will stay in the room to hear him.

And, finally, a mini-quiz. What is:
1. A Gilly Gaupus?
2. A Gluepot?
3. A Green Bag?

You can find the 1811 dictionary online via Project Gutenberg; does anyone know if Grose’s original version is online anywhere?

5 thoughts on “The Vulgar Tongue”

  1. I love the justification for the dictionary. It reminds me of medieval palinodes: the writer gives a long story filled with adultery and mockery of priests and piously ends with some sort of statement about how he hopes the story will be read properly, since it is really all just intended to encourage people to follow the teachings of the Church. (The best palinode I’ve read, I think, is that of Andreas Capellanus, who writes a long, detailed book for his nephew on how to seduce women, and ends insisting that the whole point of the book is to help young men know what to avoid doing.)

  2. Love it. Now there’s a subject for somebody to write on: hypocritical prefaces through the ages… :)

  3. And I’m still giggling about twiddle-diddles… One day I suppose I will have to grow up. But not yet.

  4. Interesting that the monosyllabic commodity should be thought of in that way. or that, by extension, society women would also have a “commodity” — something semi-separate from themselves, which they could/did sell?

  5. That’s fairly representative of the view of women contained in the dictionary, really. What are women? Prostitutes or bawds (I’m not sure just how many words for a prostitute the dictionary contains, but it’s a lot). That’s the other side to this cant (in the modern sense of that word!) about the virtue and modesty of ‘females’ of their own class, the ‘ladies’. While I made a joke of it, there’s a nasty misogynistic strain running through the whole thing.

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