Wednesday, September 26, 2012

An 18th Century Urban Dictionary

A friend recently clued me in to the existence of a valuable reference for reenactors, historians and anyone who’s interested in the common language of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Francis Grose, esq’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was first published in 1785, and went through many editions. Below is an example hosted on archive.org from 1823:
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Some of my favorite phrases or terms from early 19th century Britain include…

“All Nations” A composition of all the different spirits sold in a dram-shop, collected in a vessel into which the drainings of the bottles and quartern pots are emptied.

“Ambassador of Morocco” A shoemaker.

“Bug Hunter” An upholsterer.

“To dance upon nothing” To be hanged.

“Firing a Gun” Introducing a story by head and shoulders. A man, wanting to tell a particular story, said to the company, “Hark; did you not hear a gun?—but now we are talking of a gun, I will tell you the story of one.”

“Flam” A lie or sham story: also, a single stroke on a drum. To flam; to hum, to amuse, to deceive. Flim flams; idle stories."

“Gingerbread Work” Gilding and carving; these terms are particularly applied, by seamen on board Newcastle colliers, to the decorations of the sterns and quarters of West-Indiamen, which they have the greatest pleasure in defacing.

“Hen House” A house where the woman rules; called also a she house, and hen frigate: the latter, a sea phrase, originally applied to a ship, the captain of which had his wife on board, supposed to command him.

“High Jinks” A gambler at dice, who, having a strong head, drinks to intoxicate his adversary, or pigeon.

“Huzza” Said to have been originally the cry of the huzzars, or Hungarian light horse; but now the national shout of the English, both civil and military: in the sea phrase termed a cheer; to give three cheers being to huzza thrice.

“Rabbit Catcher” A midwife.

“Rag Carrier” An ensign (!).

“Rollers” Horse and foot patrol, who parade the roads round about London during the night, for the prevention of robberies.

“Turnpike-Man” A parson; because the clergy collect their tolls at our entrance into and exit from the world.

“Used Up” Killed; a military saying, originating from a message sent by the late General Guise, on the expedition at Carthagena, where he desired the commander-in-chief to order him some more grenadiers, for those he had were all used up.

“Wife” A fetter fixed to one leg.

There’s even a 19th century English version of Fight Club (!)

P.C. Pugilistic Club; a society of gentlemen, founded in 1814, expressly for the purpose of keeping alive the principles of courage and hardihood which have distinguished the British character, and to check the progress of that effeminacy which wealth is apt to produce. Men of rank, associating together, learn to prize the native and acquired powers of human nature. The incitement which they produce to noble deeds of hardihood and bravery,and the high respectability which they confer by the patronage of their rank and fortune, is of inestimable benefit. This club consists of about 120 subscribers.

Of course, there are probably more different terms for prostitutes than for any other person or thing listed in this book. See Barber’s Chair, Public Ledger, etc. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of an American version of this book. The diverse and sprawling geographical regions of the early United States gave rise to heterogeneous dialects and slang. It's hard to say which English phrases and vulgar words would have been uttered on the streets of say, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati during the War of 1812.

American soldiers developed their own slang. "Uncle Sam", the famous term for government supplies and equipment, supposedly came from an Army contractor in upper state New York named Samuel Wilson. However, Kentucky militia soldiers crossing the Ohio River at Newport, KY used the term as early as 1814. Another great term comes from the siege of Fort Erie that summer, when British round shot was tumbling dangerously through the American encampment. Every time a near miss rolled past, some wag would announce: "that went as swiftly as any goose egg!" For some reason, the goose egg did not last as long in the popular lexicon as Uncle Sam did...