Read A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a Hilarious & Informative Collection of Early Modern English Slang (1785)

A deep appre­ci­a­tion for pro­fan­i­ty may rate high as a mark of a sophis­ti­ca­tion and authen­tic­i­ty. Cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist Steven Pinker has made the neu­ro­science of swear­ing an object of study; leg­endary com­ic actor, writer, and “lan­guage enthu­si­ast” Stephen Fry declares the prac­tice a fine art; stud­ies show that those who swear may be more hon­est than those who don’t; and if you have any doubt about how much swear­ing con­tributes to the lit­er­ary his­to­ry of the Eng­lish lan­guage, just do a search on Shakespeare’s many pro­fane insults, so rich and var­ied as to con­sti­tute a genre all their own.

Not all vul­gar speech is con­sid­ered “swear words,” ref­er­enc­ing sex acts and bod­i­ly func­tions, but many a crit­ic and lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er has nonethe­less decid­ed that slang, obscene or oth­er­wise, doesn’t belong in polite com­pa­ny with for­mal dic­tion. Samuel John­son, the esteemed 18th-cen­tu­ry essay­ist, poet, and com­pil­er of the 1755 Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage deemed slang “unfit for his learned tome,” writes The Pub­lic Domain Review. So, enter Fran­cis Grose to cor­rect the error thir­ty years lat­er with his Clas­si­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Vul­gar Tongue, a “com­pendi­um of slang” chock full of hilar­i­ous idioms of every kind.

There is the bawdy (“Sug­ar stick—the vir­ile mem­ber”), the scat­o­log­i­cal (“Cack­ling farts—eggs”), the odd­ly obscure (“Kit­tle pitchering—to dis­rupt the flow of a ‘trou­ble­some teller of long sto­ries’ by con­stant­ly ques­tion­ing and con­tra­dict­ing unim­por­tant details, espe­cial­ly at the start”). Puns make their inevitable way in (“Just-ass—a pun­ning name for jus­tice [judge]”), as of course do com­ic images for body parts (“Tallywags/Whirligigs—testicles”). Much of this Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­lish slang sounds to Amer­i­can ears just as col­or­ful­ly askew as con­tem­po­rary Eng­lish slang does (“Dog booby—an awk­ward lout”; “Cap­tain queernabs—a shab­by ill-dressed fel­low”).

Grose, com­pil­er of the dic­tio­nary, “was not one for library work” and pre­ferred to col­lect his spec­i­mens in the field where slang lives and breathes—the streets, pubs, and hous­es of ill-repute. “Sup­port­ed by his trusty assist Tom Cock­ing [your joke here],” Grose “cruised the water­ing holes of Covent Gar­den and the East End, eat­ing, booz­ing, and lis­ten­ing. He took plea­sure in hear­ing his name pun­ning­ly con­nect­ed to his rotund frame. And he pro­duced a book brim­ming with Fal­staffi­an life.” Very much a Shake­speare­an bon vivant, Grose appears as some­thing of a rib­ald dop­pel­ganger of the rotund, yet moral­is­tic and often scowl­ing Dr. John­son. (See his por­trait here.)

The so-called “long 18th-Century”—a peri­od last­ing from the restora­tion of the Monar­chy after the Eng­lish Civ­il War to around the French Revolution—presents a tra­di­tion of lewd wit­ti­cism, from the poet­ry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, to Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dress­ing Room,” to the sor­did fan­tasies of the Mar­quis de Sade. Such porno­graph­ic humor and rude earth­i­ness offered a coun­ter­weight to heady Enlight­en­ment phi­los­o­phy, just as Shakespeare’s insults pro­vide need­ed com­ic relief for his bloody tragedies. Grose’s dic­tio­nary can be seen as adding need­ed com­ic local col­or to the many seri­ous dic­tio­nar­ies and stud­ies of lan­guage that emerged in the 1700s.

But A Clas­si­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Vul­gar Tongue is also an impor­tant aca­d­e­m­ic resource all its own, and “would strong­ly influ­ence lat­er dic­tio­nar­ies of this kind,” notes the British Library—those like J. Red­ding Ware’s 1909 Pass­ing Eng­lish of the Vic­to­ri­an Era: A Dic­tio­nary of Het­ero­dox Eng­lish, Slang, and Phrase. We can see in Grose’s work how many slang words and phras­es still in com­mon use today—like “baker’s dozen,” “gift of the gab,” “birds of a feath­er,” “birth­day suit,” and “kick the bucket”—were just as cur­rent well over 200 years ago. And we get a very vivid sense of the world in which Grose moved in the many metaphors employed, most involv­ing food and drink. (A “butcher’s dog,” for exam­ple, refers to some­one who “lies by the beef with­out touch­ing it; a sim­i­le often applic­a­ble to mar­ried men.”)

But we needn’t wor­ry too much about schol­ar­ly uses for Grose’s work. Instead, we might find our­selves moti­vat­ed to do as he did, hit the streets and the bars, and maybe bring back into cir­cu­la­tion such locu­tions as “Bet­wat­tled” (sur­prised, con­found­ed, out of one’s sens­es), “Chimp­ing mer­ry” (exhil­a­rat­ed with liquor), or, per­haps my favorite so far, “Dicked in the nob” (sil­ly, crazed).

Page through Grose’s dic­tio­nary above or read it in a larg­er for­mat (and/or down­load as a PDF or ePub) at the Inter­net Archive.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Largest His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Eng­lish Slang Now Free Online: Cov­ers 500 Years of the “Vul­gar Tongue”

The Very First Writ­ten Use of the F Word in Eng­lish (1528)

Peo­ple Who Swear Are More Hon­est Than Those Who Don’t, Finds a New Uni­ver­si­ty Study

Stephen Fry, Lan­guage Enthu­si­ast, Defends The “Unnec­es­sary” Art Of Swear­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.