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:
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.