Thursday, January 12, 2017

Book Review: Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Title: 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Author: Frances Grose, edited by Robert Cromie

Date: 1811, 1971

Publisher: C. Chappel (1811), Digest Books (1971)

ISBN: 0-695-80216-X

Length: pages not numbered

Quote: “YELLOW. To look yellow: to be jealous.”

According to Cromie’s introduction, Captain Frances Grose published his original slang dictionary in 1785. A second edition appeared in 1788. Grose died in 1791, and his dictionary was revised and enlarged by “The Whip Club” in London.

A substantial proportion of the stranger slang words, including some that have non-English origins, are marked as “Cant.”As the text indicates, “cant” meant both the jargon used by the criminal element in London, and the lifestyle of “the canting crew”—gangs who wandered about begging, robbing, and cheating people out of money by whatever methods they could. Even the “kinchins” or children in these groups were trained to whine and beg, to pick pockets or crawl into houses through windows to steal things; there were specific “cant” words for practices like pinching babies to make them cry piteously, or irritating one’s own or one’s child’s skin to produce an ugly surface wound that suggested a disease or disability.

“Cant” had been used as a secret code by the kind of people Grose called “gypsies.” His description of “gypsies” seems like an expression of hate toward Romany people (Cromie reads it as such); upon examination it is, instead, an indictment of ignorant, dishonest people pretending to be real Romany Gypsies, by artificially darkening their faces and speaking “cant” as if it were the Romany language. Grose, and his readers, probably couldn’t tell one kind of “gypsies” from the other, but their hate was clearly and justifiably directed toward the bogus kind.

Other words come from the slang of soldiers, sailors, athletes, and college students, and no attempt was made to trace the origins of some of the strangest phrases in this book. When a word’s origin is traced, it often refers to a custom and/or a joke. A pesky clergyman who demanded, by right, to be fed by parishioners was a“black fly” (clergymen wore black). A “powder monkey” was a boy whose service on board ship was to fetch gunpowder when the sailors needed to fire guns. “Snapdragon” was a “Christmas gambol” in which raisins and almonds were dropped into a dish of brandy, which was then ignited; the edible solids would scatter around the room and the merrymakers, blissfully ignorant of germs, would scramble to pick them up.

As always, several words are coined to express thoughts that can’t be expressed politely. More than half the pages in the book contain some word for prostitution, a sexual act, or a sexually transmitted disease. Readers of eighteenth-century literature will know why the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue introduced fewer new words pertaining to excretion: the standard words for these things were not considered unprintable or unspeakable in 1811, that’s why. Another category of vulgarities referred to tortures that were still practiced, or had been practiced within living memory; it was still realistic to suggest that an offender be keel-hauled, scratched by a cat of nine tails, snitten on the snitch, tipped a muzzler, or combed with a stool. And, of course, every page contains a way to insult someone’s honesty or intelligence.

If you want to moralize, you might say that the value of this book is to correct excessive pride in our British heritage (anyone reading this in English has some share in the British cultural legacy). This book sold well in its time because all the disgusting conditions for which these slang words were invented were known to exist. Most of the conditions were familiar to the literate class, even if the slang words for them were coined by beggars and convicts. Licenses to beg, taverns where military recruiters doped young men and hauled them off as having enlisted, tubercular coughs, doctors who pretended to diagnose exclusively by looking at a urine sample (without even a microscope), making fun of the uncorrected deformities of many “unhappy people,” were all inescapably part of those quaint old images of beautiful people in white wigs and buckled shoes, princesses amusing themselves by tending pretty white sheep and honorable warriors fighting only with swords.

If you are looking for comic relief from pain, eighteenth-century witticisms may help. “ANGLING FOR FARTHINGS. Begging out of a prison win­dow with a cap, or box, let down at the end of a long string.” “Copulation, or making feet for children’s stockings.” “”To draw in one’s horns: to retract an assertion through fear: metaphor borrowed from a snail.” “SULKY. A one-horse chaise or carriage, capable of holding but one person; called by the French a d├ęsobligeant.” “As lazy as Ludman’s dog, who leaned against the wall to bark.”

The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is recommended to responsible adults who enjoy words, comedy, and history. It is not recommended for children, or for sharing with people whose sense of humor you consider childish. This web site has no idea who may buy a book, but it has to do its auntly duty and recommend...

Anyway, several reprints of this book exist. The one photographed above is not the one I physically owned, reviewed, and sold some time before posting this review. If you don't specify a particular edition you'll get whichever one this web site can offer for our standard price of $5 per book, $5 per package, and $1 per online payment. If you buy several books at one time this does add up cheaper than buying the books directly from Amazon; otherwise, since obviously Grose has no use for a dollar, you might as well buy this one from Amazon...unless you want to add it to a package containing Fair Trade Books (scroll down to read more about them).