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.
About these ads

The radio station that created Music City USA turns 87 today


Radio stations come and go. You’ll like a station, but you’ll tune in one morning, and instead of oldies, they’ll be talking sports.  

That’s what I like about WSM-650 AM in Nashville, which began broadcasting 87 years ago today. It’s always there, playing country music.

Its nickname is “The Air Castle of the South.” At night, its 50,000-watt signal can be picked up all across the South and Midwest, and it’s online (and there’s an app for that).

WSM has a neat history. It was founded by the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. as a way to advertise its insurance policies. Its motto was “We Shield Millions.”   

On Nov. 28, 1925, it launched the “WSM Barn Dance.”  Back in those days, radio stations played a little bit of everything, and before the “Barn Dance,” WSM played operatic music.  One Saturday night in 1927, the announcer, “Judge” George Hay, introduced the “Barn Dance” by saying, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from the grand opera, but from now on, we will present the grand ol’ opry.”  

It’s been the Grand Ole Opry ever since.  

Because of the Opry, a lot of musicians set up camp in Nashville, and because they wanted to make records close to home, the city got a bunch of recording studios, eventually, Nashville became Music City.

If you ever visit Nashville, you can visit WSM, or, at least, look through the window at the disc jockey. WSM’s studios are in the Magnolia Lobby of the massive Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, which is named after Opryland USA, which was a theme park that Gaylord Entertainment razed in the 1990s because it thought it would make more money with a shopping mall. The executives who thought that are no longer with the company.

The only recording studio that’s open for tours is the former RCA Studio B, which is down on Music Row, an area that’s home to record labels, recording studios, video production houses and other business who serve the music industry. RCA Studio B is known as “The Home of 1,000 Hits,” and that’s no exaggeration. It’s where Elvis recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” Roy Orbison recorded “Only the Lonely,” and Dolly Parton recorded “I Will Always Love You.” You should go. (The Jolie did when she passed through Nashville a couple of years ago.)

One of the things I like about Nashville is that there’s a lot going on here besides music. Nashville is known as “the Athens of the South,” because there are so many colleges and universities. It’s also the center of the nation’s for-profit healthcare industry.  

But country music is what makes Nashville unique, and without WSM, it wouldn’t be Music City USA.

Smells like a ’90s revival


While driving home a while back, I heard one of those non-commercial commercials on the NPR station for a private school. It said the theme of the school’s spring concert would be the ’90s.

I thought that sounded weird, having a ’90s-themed anything, but I remembered it’s 2012, meaning the ’90s were 20 years ago, meaning it’s time for a ’90s revival.

It was inevitable. Pop culture moves in 20-year cycles. In the 1970s, we had “Happy Days.” In the 1980s, the Monkees got back together (most of them, anyway). In the 1990s, there was “That ’70s Show.” In the naughties — the first decade of the 21st century — we had “I Love the ’80s.”

Today, 98 Degrees are getting back together, and elementary schools are teaching kids “MMMBop.” (How long ago were the ’90s? Zac, the youngest Hanson brother who looked like a girl, is married with 2 kids.)

I guess I’m OK with all this. I guess the ’90s weren’t so bad.

Sure, it wasn’t the best-looking decade (see the cast of “Saved by the Bell,” left), and, sure, there was plenty of bad music, like anything by Vanilla Ice, but the ’90s also gave us “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (Note to the folks working on this year’s Beloit College Mindset List: Kurt Cobain shot himself 18 years ago, so, as far as the college class of 2016 is concerned, he’s always been dead.)

TV wasn’t awful in the ’90s, either. Prime time wasn’t choked with singing contests, makeover shows and reality shows, so smartly-written shows like “Seinfeld” and “The X-Files” could become hits.

You also had a bunch of smartly-written shows that weren’t hits, like “NewsRadio” and “Get a Life” and the mostly forgotten, really funny “Ben Stiller Show” (see “P.S.” below).

If a decade has to make a comeback, I think we could do worse than the ’90s, but, remember:

Someday, say, around 2032, people will be nostalgic for “The Vampire Diaries” and Jay Leno. Consider this a warning.

P.S. Here’s a clip from “The Ben Stiller Show.” It’s a parody of “Lassie,” only instead of a dog, it’s Charles Manson.