Friday, August 13, 2010

The Elizabethan Devil's Dictionary

Caravaggio, The Cardsharps, c. 1594.

The word "slang" first appeared in print in 1756. Its origins are murky, but most linguists think it was part of what is known as "Thieves' Cant." This language of the criminal underworld was as complex and colorful as iambic pentameter. It was the secret lingo that allowed the lower class to spin a wicked web of beggars, thieves, con men, rogues, vagabonds, gamblers, cut-purses, pickpockets, prostitutes, witches, astrologers, alchemists, rakehells, card sharps, and fortune tellers. These loosely organized lowlifes used trickery and deception to fleece the gullible foreigners and greedy "respectable" citizens who were unlucky enough to wander into the taverns, brothels, gaming houses, and other dens of inequity that flourished on the shady side of the streets of London. This criminal's code was a tough one to crack, but a long lost library book holds the key.

The staff of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford uncovered the volume, which was originally published in 1699 under the title: A New Dictionary of Terms, Ancient and Modern, of the Canting Crew. Written by a scholar known only as 'B.E. Gent [gentleman],' its goal was to inform polite society of the words used by unscrupulous evil-doers to describe their wanton deeds. It was hoped this knowledge might protect the unwitting innocents targeted as "marks" by the criminal class. It was the first book of slang in dictionary form, with over 4,000 entries, including not only criminal cant, but terms used by sailors, labourers, servants, and even words and phrases used by ne'er-do-wells and reprobates of the upper classes.

Some of the words in the retitled The First English Dictionary of Slang 1699 are still commonplace, such as "chitchat" and "eyesore." But many have sadly passed into disuse, and, given their earthy humor and scruffy charm, deserve to be revived. Below is a list of a few examples, as defined by our gentlemanly guide, B.E:

Anglers, c. Cheats, petty Thieves, who have a Stick with a hook at the end, with which they pluck things out of Windows, Grates, &c. also those that draw in People to be cheated.

Arsworm, a little diminutive Fellow.

Buffenapper, c. a Dog-stealer, that Trades in Setters, Hounds, Spaniels, Lap, and all sorts of Dogs, Selling them at a round Rate, and himself or Partner Stealing them away the first opportunity.

Bumfodder, what serves to wipe the Tail.

Bundletail, a short Fat or squat Lass.

Cackling-farts, c. Eggs.

Dandyprat, a little puny Fellow.

Farting-crackers, c. Breeches.

Fizzle, a little or low-sounding Fart.

Humptey-dumptey, Ale boild with Brandy.

Grumbletonians, Malecontents, out of Humour with the Government, for want of a Place, or having lost one.

Keeping Cully, one that Maintains a Mistress, and parts with his Money very generously to her.

Knock down, very strong Ale or Beer.

Lantern-jaw’d, a very lean, thin faced Fellow.

Mawdlin, weepingly Drunk.

Mopsie, a Dowdy, or Homely Woman

Muddled, half Drunk.

Mutton-in-long-coats, Women. A Leg of Mutton in a Silk-Stocking, a Woman’s Leg.

One of my Cosens, a Wench

Pharoah, very strong Mault-Drink.

Princock, a pert, forward Fellow

Provender, c. he from whom any Money is taken on the Highway.

Strum, c. a Periwig. Rum-Strum, c. a long Wig; also a handsom Wench, or Strumpet.

Urchin, a little sorry Fellow; also a Hedgehog.

Willing-Tit, a little Horse that Travels chearfully.

B.E.'s original work is reprinted in the new publication, along with an introduction by John Simpson, chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and co-editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Slang, describing the history and culture of canting, and the evolution of English slang. The First English Dictionary of Slang 1699, edited by the Bodleian Library, will be published by Oxford University Press in September 2010.

Logophiles will love learning this lingua sinistra, and showing it off before those who can't cant. But a word to the wise: according to a 2009 article in Britain's Daily Mail, prisoners at Buckley Hall Prison in Rochdale, near Manchester, have adopted 16th century thieves cant to help them smuggle drugs and other contraband into the prison. This everything-old-is-new-again vernacular has been updated and modified for the digital age:

An astonished insider at the prison declared: "This is the most ingenious use of a secret code we have ever come across. Elizabethan cant was only used by a tiny number of people and it is quite amazing that it has been resurrected in order to buy drugs. Some inmates will try anything to get contraband into jail." Marketers of the First English Dictionary of Slang 1699 better cross prison libraries off their mailing lists...


  1. This is great! We have the first two volumes of a slang dictionary project, which are probably outdated as we "speak". Thanks - this is a feast for logophiles!

  2. Fascinating! "Grumbletonians" is being added to my vocabulary today. Should be very useful in the fall elections.
    I'd love to know how cant got introduced into the prisons--a criminal who came across an old dictionary, or an Oxford-educated linguist gone bad?

  3. Mistress Cynica (Great moniker, by the way),

    The Daily Mail article says the revival of cant was "believed to have been led by criminal members of the travelling community."
    (I added a link to the article, if you would like read more.)

    Thanks so much for your witty comments.

  4. A close link to slang is the jargon that attaches itself to any profession. While it usefully provides a shorthand way for precise descriptions, it appears from the outside to be mysterious and the uninitiated do not detect its humor.

    For example, in computers a single binary digit (0 or 1) is a bi't (bit). Eight of them is a byte, and four of them is a nibble, though variations can occur. Think of all the people today specifying tech specs for electronic equipment who have no idea of the byte in megabytes.


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