I’d intended to write this blog post about a dictionary of late 18th-century slang that I’ve been consulting for the past several months–I’m writing a novel set in 1807, and some of my characters are of the rougher sort. Always on the lookout for good blog material, I’ve been keeping a list of colorful terms that I thought would make for amusing reading.
But I seem to have been done in, to a certain extent, by 21st-century technology. I had the dictionary (which I found online through Google books) “bookmarked” on my old computer, which recently died a slow and rather painful death. My new computer is way healthier, but it’s never heard of my old bookmarks. And when I Googled what I remembered as the title of the dictionary–A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue–I got plenty of results, but none of them matched the dictionary I’d been taking notes on.
So, rather than being able to search for fuller definitions of the terms I jotted down, I’m reduced to a couple of small scraps of paper where I made the jottings. But I will forge ahead, in antiquated fashion, and try to write a blog post based on scrawled pencil-and-paper notes.
Many of the terms I wrote down had something to do with sex and/or prostitution, because one of my characters is a prostitute. Some of these terms interested me because they haven’t changed, or haven’t changed much. The term “short-heeled wench,” to describe a woman of easy virtue, sounds a lot like the modern (or at least relatively modern) “round heels.” And it’s pretty easy to deduce the meaning of the phrase “touch up a woman,” meaning “to have carnal knowledge of her.”
But then there are the phrases that, despite their colorfulness, have gone out of use. “To join giblets,” for example, strikes me as a nifty euphemism for having sex. Maybe we can bring it back? And then there’s the term “larking,” which my now irretrievably lost dictionary defined, tantalizingly, as “a lascivious practice that will not bear explanation.”
I also came across some intriguing terms to describe a woman who (as they used to say) has “gotten herself” pregnant: to have a white swelling, to have sprained her ankle. Then there’s the phrase “in her tantrums,” which, alas, I neglected to write down the definition for. I guess I’ll never know.
Some non-sexual phrases haven’t changed: shoplifter, skinflint, shilly shally, ship shape (I must have been scrolling through the “s”s that day). There’s also “the parleyvous lingo” as a term for French–no surprises there.
Then there are words that are still in use, but have taken on a different meaning. “Vamp,” for example, which has come to mean (among other things) a woman who seduces men, used to mean “to pawn anything.” And, at the risk of antagonizing an entire country, I confess that I was amused by the phrase “the urinal of the planets” to denote Ireland–presumably inspired by its rainy climate, but no doubt also inspired by prejudice against its inhabitants.
That’s about all I can say for the mysteriously vanished dictionary, since I’m unable to consult it further. But, as they say, when one door closes, another one opens. None of the terms I’ve mentioned above are in the dictionary that predominates in my search results for the term “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” a volume that dates to 1811. But on the other hand, it contains a whole new world of slang waiting to be explored.
Just looking around at random, for example, I came across the following entry for “Cundum,” apparently an archaic version of the word condom. “The dried gut of a sheep,” the dictionary helpfully explains, “worn by men in the act of coition, to prevent venereal infection, said to have been invented by one Colonel Cundum.” Who knew?
There’s more–apparently these “machines” were sold “by a matron of the name of Phillips, at the green canister in Half-moon-street”–but I’ll save the remainder of the entry for another blog post. Those of you who are yearning for more ancient slang, and perhaps fresh insight into some of the terms in use today, watch this space! Or, alternatively, you can just Google “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” yourself.