Too awful not to read: a 200-year-old dictionary of vulgarities

I haven’t been blogging as much as I used to because I’ve been working on a couple of research/writing projects. The other day, I was looking up something on Google Books when I found this:

Francis Grose

A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: The Second Edition, Corrected and Enlarged by Francis Grose, published in London in 1788. (Google has scanned in thousands public domain books and posted the copies online. It’s like having a great university library on your laptop.)

I had no idea such a book existed, and I was struck by the fact that this was the second edition.

Publishing always has been a business, and coming out with a second edition was clearly a business decision. It means not only that a lot of people bought the first collection of vulgarities, but that Grose’s publisher, one S. Hooper of No. 212 High Halborn, facing Bloomsbury Square, decided he could make even more money by publishing an even bigger collection of vulgar words.

Some of the 224-year-old vulgarities are actually more offensive now than they were then. There are lots words for and references to various parts of the body and to venereal diseases and to prostitution, which, apparently was very common in 1780s London. Plenty of entries are sexist or bigoted or just plain hateful.

We tend to imagine people who lived in the 1700s as somehow better than us, more civilized, less crude, more refined, but they weren’t, at all, and this is proof. You would not want to hang out with these people.

Here’s a sampling of some of the vulgarities and slang that isn’t too awful to repeat:

  • Act of Parliament: A small beer, so called because Parliament once required landlords to give soldiers five small pints of beer free of charge.
  • Ape leader: An old maid whose eternal punishment for failing to have children will be to lead apes in hell.
  • Baptized (or christened): Watered-down liquor, as in, “I believe this whiskey has been baptised.”
  • Child’s Best Guide to the Gallows: A deck of cards.
  • Christmas compliments: A cough and running nose; a head cold.
  • Death’s head on a mopstick: A description of an especially scrawny man.
  • Face making: To bear children; to bring new faces into the world.
  • Fire ship: A wench with a venereal disease.
  • Fortune teller: A judge who tells a convicted man what’s to become of him.
  • Frenchified: Someone with a venereal disease.
  • Holy water: The object of one’s hatred, as in, “He loves him as the Devil loves holy water.”
  • Jason’s fleece: Someone whose gold has been stolen.
  • Little snakesman: A small boy who enters a house from beneath the floor then opens the door to let in the thieves he works for.
  • Lobster: A British soldier, because of the color of his uniform.
  • Maneuvering the apostles: Robbing Peter to pay Paul; borrowing from one person to pay another.
  • Master of the wardrobe: Someone who pawns his clothes to buy liquor, which apparently was something that happened so often that people came up with an expression to describe it.
  • Moll Thompson’s mark: A moll was a prostitute, and this is play on words referring to an empty bottle of alcohol, because of the initials M.T., meaning empty, as in, “Take away this bottle. It has Moll Thompson’s mark on it.”
  • Nicknackatory: A toy shop, a shop that sells knickknacks.
  • Petticoat pensioner: A man supported by a wealthy woman.
  • Queen Street: Said to be the address of a man who’s governed by his wife.
  • Quill driver: A clerk, scribe or hackney writer, who drive their quills into the ink well.
  • Saint: Wood that’s too knotty or warped for a carpenter to use, so it’s thrown into the fire like a martyred saint.

So, we’re losing another bookstore

Our little town south of Nashville lost Border’s a little over a year ago, and now we’re losing our discount book store, the one by Kroger, the one with really interesting books that weren’t bestsellers and that are dirt cheap.

We still have a Barnes & Noble, which is nice, but walk in, and the first thing you see is a big display of Nooks, the company’s e-reader-slash-Android tablet, which I think seems like an obvious bit of foreshadowing. It’s like going to see a romantic movie, and, soon after meeting the love of her life, the wispy heroine develops a nagging cough that she says is just a cold; you know how the story is going to end. (Hint: It’s not just a cold.)

I’m really sorry to see the bargain bookstore close. It wasn’t the greatest bookstore ever. It didn’t have a lot of character. It didn’t have overstuffed chairs, a coffee bar and free Wi-Fi, but it was a bookstore for people who love books.

It’s the kind of bookstore where you see people buying an armload of books. Thing 1 (the 12-year-old) always ended up with a couple of Mike Lupica novels, and Thing 2 (the 6-year-old) always found something in the children’s section, which had a giant castle-shaped entrance and a big bench where we’d sit and I’d read him stories about whatever he was into that day, usually something like Spider-Man or Power Rangers.

I didn’t know this was even a genre.

I honestly don’t believe traditional books are dead, but I also understand that the paper book is just a format and that content is what matters. What’s important is that people are reading and learning and thinking about things. It’s the same with music; I don’t buy many CDs these days, but I buy a lot of MP3s. I don’t care about having a lot of shiny plastic discs. I care about listening to great music.

Still, I’m a romantic when it comes to traditional books. I like having them around, and I like showing them off, but I don’t think the kids are going to feel the same way. Thing 1 just got a Google Nexus 7 for school. It came with a $25 online credit. First thing she did was download a book. I’m OK with that.

Kindles make it harder to show people how smart you think you are


Came across an interesting statistic the other day: Digital books are outselling hardcovers these days.

This is one of those statistics that’s supposed to say something Important and Significant about the state of the world, like the claim that salsa now outsells ketchup in the United States, which is usually cited to illustrate the growing influence of Latinos on the U.S. economy but could as easily mean that nobody doesn’t like salsa.

The economy’s still kind of wobbly, digital books are cheaper than hardcover books, so, of course, they’re going to outsell hardcovers.

This doesn’t bother me. I’m basically a glass-half-full* kind of guy. I’m just glad people are reading. I’m especially glad people are still willing to pay money to read.
What’s more, digital books make it easier to buy books you ordinarily wouldn’t be caught dead with. I can’t imagine Fifty Shades of Grey becoming a bestseller if the women buying it couldn’t buy it online, anonymously.
However, there is a downside to the shift toward digital books: With a Kindle, it’s harder to show people how smart you think you are.
For a serious reader, a book is like a trophy case. The books you choose to display tell people what you’ve read, what you’re thinking about, how you look at the world.
When I walk into someone’s home, the first thing I look for is a bookshelf, or, absent that, a book. If you have books, there’s a good chance we’ll become good friends, especially if it turns out you’ve read a lot of the same books I have, especially if you have some literary or obscure book I love that most people haven’t heard of.
You can’t do that with a Kindle.
Your e-reader could be loaded with great books, but no one’s ever going to know it. You could open the bookshelf on your Kindle and leave it lying conspicuously on the coffee table when you go answer the door, but the screen will probably go dark before anyone notices.
Likewise, when you visit someone’s house, you can’t really start thumbing through someone’s Kindle. That would be like flipping through someone’s diary. It would be rude, and there’s a chance you’ll see things you can’t unsee (such as those Fifty Shades of Grey sequels).
Without a bookcase to help you, your only option is feeling the other person out, which can be tricky. If you walk into someone’s house, and there’s a bookshelf, you tend to pick up on the titles you recognize or like (Love in the Time of Cholera, for example) and ignore the titles you don’t (such as Kitty Knits: Projects for Cats and Their People, which is a real book and not something I just made up).
If you ask someone, “Read any good books lately?” you’re putting the other person on the spot. They’re under pressure now to come up with a book they think you might like. If they say Kitty Knits: Projects for Cats and Their People, and you’re a dog person, or they try to play it safe and say, “Oh, I’ve been so busy, I don’t really have time to read,” well, what might have been a beautiful friendship may be dead in the water.
This doesn’t mean Kindles are a bad thing. I think they’re really useful. I love hearing about a book then having a copy seconds later. I love being able to download public-domain titles such as Walden or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn free of charge. Plus, unlike paper books, Kindles let you play Angry Birds and stream Netflix. (There is a hack for this, of course: Simply draw a little cartoon on the bottom corner of every page then flip the pages to see it move.)
I’m just saying new technologies bring new challenges, new challenges that, sooner or later, someone will write a digital book about.
*Technically, I’m a glass-is-completely-full kind of guy. The bottom half of the glass is full of water. The top half of the glass is full of air. So there.