The absurd history of English slang

How foulmouthed poets and ingenious commoners redefined the English language

Published October 11, 2014 8:00PM (EDT)

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Excerpted from “The Vulgar Tongue: Green's History of Slang.”

Slang’s literary origins are widespread and ever-expanding. Its social roots, however, are narrow and focused: the city. If, as has been suggested, the story of standard English is that of a London language, so too is that of English slang. And the pattern would be repeated elsewhere as colonies became independent and rural settlements became major conurbations. London’s chroniclers had always noted the urban vocabularies, though none before the eighteenth century had rendered their discoveries lexicographical. The pioneer of such investigations, John Stow, laying out Elizabethan London in his Survey of London (1598), had barely touched on language (his text offers gong farmer, a latrine cleaner, night-walker, a thief, and white money, meaning silver coins). In time those who told London’s story would offer a far more central position to the city’s speech, alongside its population and topography. The first of these were the Jacobean city playwrights, but they suborned the language to their plays. For those whose work helped showcase the city’s particular way of speaking, one must look at the turn of the seventeenth century’s Ned Ward and Thomas Brown, and on to their successors.

Ned Ward declared himself ‘The London Spy’, while Tom Brown was a satirist of the city’s ‘Amusements Serious and Comical’. The works of both make clear the extent to which slang was interwoven with the metropolis which both created it and used it as part of daily life. Neither author was remotely canonical. In 1726 the New England puritan Cotton Mather bracketed their works with those of Samuel Butler (author of Hudibras) – all three sold well in the colonies – and enjoined his readership against ‘such Pestilences, and indeed all those worse than Egyptian Toads (the Spawns of a Butler, and a Brown, and a Ward …)’.  Lord Macaulay, in his History of England (1849), would sneer at both: of Ward he wrote, ‘I am almost ashamed to quote such nauseous balderdash; but I have been forced to descend even lower, if possible, in search of materials,’ while Brown was ‘An idle man of wit and pleasure, who little thought that his buffoonery would ever be cited to illustrate the history of his times’. He then used them both, as have historians ever since.

Edward Ward, known invariably as Ned, was born in the Midlands to an unknown family, though he always claimed a noble background. Others were unconvinced, and Theophilus Cibber in his Lives of the Poets dismissed him as ‘of low extraction and irregular education’.

He had arrived in London by 1691 (the date of his first published work: The Poet’s Ramble after Riches, a verse lament describing his own poverty). In 1697 he set out for Jamaica but as described in his pamphlet A Trip to Jamaica (1698) the trip was a failure and he was back in London the same year. It is assumed that this was a genuine trip; its successor, A Trip to New-England (1699), was pure imagination. However, the literary trip continued to appeal, although he restricted himself to what he really knew: London. Between 1699 and 1700 he produced, in eighteen monthly parts, the London Spy, a work that seems to have been based on a French original, supposedly authored by one ‘Mahmut’ and titled Letters writ by a Turkish Spy. Who lived five and forty years, undiscover’d, at Paris (translated between 1687 and 1694). As Roy Porter put it, this guide to metropolitan high and low life was ‘lapped up’ by Ward’s fellow-citizens.

Ward’s portrait, resplendent in full-bottomed wig, may be designed to emphasize his literary side, but pamphleteering, even for one who had written some 100 examples of the genre over fourteen years and achieved at least one best-seller, cannot have brought him sufficient money; in 1712 he embarked on a parallel career: as a publican, opening a punch-house near Clerkenwell Green. As he teased himself in The Hudibrastick Brewer (1714), ‘Men of Sense must own ‘tis better to live by Malt, than starve by Meter.’ He was obviously conscious of the job’s lowly image. When Alexander Pope, far more famous but still willing to engage in a feud with a lesser scribbler, mocked him as an ale-house keeper, Ward hit back with Apollo’s Maggot in his Cups, verses  that added a prose postscript denying the poet’s allegations. He did not sell lowly ale, his house, the Bacchus, was a tavern rather than a pub and anyway, Pope had drunk there himself. Ward was one of several victims attacked in The Dunciad, where Pope claimed that Ward’s verses were only good to be sent off to the colonies, where they were traded for second-rate tobacco. It was a long-term feud: in 1705 Ward had published the satirical Hudibras Redivivus. In 1706 he was charged with seditious libel for this anti-government attack and fined 40 marks (£26 13s. 4d.) and condemned to stand twice for one hour in the pillory. Here he was given a hard time by the mob, so much so that Pope had coined the term ‘as thick as eggs at Ward in the pillory’. Ward’s best shot came in 1729, but his anti-Pope play Durgen: a Plain Satyr upon a Pompous Satirist flopped. ‘Durgen’ meant ‘dwarf ’ – Pope was tiny – but Ward lacked his rival’s literary stature.

He died in 1731 at the British Coffee House in Fullwood’s Rents near Gray’s Inn, where he had moved around 1730 after some thirteen years at the Bacchus, and is buried in St Pancras churchyard. A dedicated High Tory, Ward is an important source for social historians: ‘Though vulgar and often grossly coarse,’ sniffs the original DNB, ‘his writings throw considerable light on the social life at the time of Queen Anne, and especially on the habits of various classes in London.’ These writings, while not invariably so, are regularly repositories of slang, and while the eighteenth-century lexicographers might ignore them, their successors were more appreciative. These few titles give a taste of what he offered, and there was much: Female Policy detected, or the Arts of a designing Woman laid open (1695), A Step to Stir-Bitch [i.e. Stourbridge]  Fair, with Remarks upon the University of Cambridge (1700), Adam and Eve stripped of their Furbelows, or the Fashionable Virtues and Vices of both Sexes exposed to Public View (1710), The Secret History of Clubs (1709), The Delights of the Bottle, or the Compleat Vintner (1720) and fifty-four Nuptial Dialogues and Debates (1710).

Like John Taylor, another ‘explorer’ who turned his travels into pamphlets and poems, Ward appreciated the appeal of popular language. His works offer nearly 1,000 slang terms, of which almost 250 come from the London Spy alone.

He eschews most obscenity, although one does f ind arse (and bum), balls and fart, but is compendious in his references to low life. A prostitute is variously an apron, baggage, bangtail,  belfa, blowse, brimstone, commodity, crack, doxy, Drury Lane vestal, flap-cap, jilt, ladybird, lechery-layer, mumper, night walker, petticoat, quean, socket, suburb-jilt, tickle-tail and tickle-tail function, trugmoldy, trull and wagtail. He notes their male accomplices the town stallion, town-bully, town trap, or cock-bawd (all pimps) and the bully-huff, who specializes in intimidating the client, the cully. The flogging-cully is a fan of modern ‘fladge’. Intercourse is almost as well represented: the verbs bounce, bum-feague, clip, have, pump, shoot, sink, tread, plus nouns basket-making and the buttock-ball (an orgy). And he enjoys a little literary euphemism: to dance Adam’s jig, Sallinger’s round or the shaking of the sheets, as well as the nudge-nudgery of the whore who can ‘show you how the Water-men shoot London-Bridge, or how the Lawyers go to Westminster’, eighteenth-century forbears of ‘Agnostics do it disbelievingly’, ‘drillers do it boringly’ and so on. There are madams: Mother Damnable, Mother Knab-Cony, Mother Midnight, and mother of the maids, and homosexuals: the boretto-man, the buggeranto and the bum-firker, and sodomy is defined as ‘Italian’. There are plentiful terms for the vagina and the penis.

There is, unsurprisingly, a good deal of drinking. One may be addled, boozy, bottlenosed, drunk as a lord, elevated, foggy, fuddled, liquored, mellow and pot-valiant. Alcohol itself is belch, brewer’s fizzle, the devil’s piss, go- down (i.e. the throat), guzzle, nappy ale, tipple, tiff, and when hungover, the hair of the dog (that bit one). To drink is to swill. He is not a great recorder of novelties – 30% of his uses can be found in the still recent B. E. – but there are some. Looking at the letters F–H, one finds these: fat-arse (fat, large-buttocked), fig-leaf (an apron), flame (venereal disease), flash in the pan (an abortive effort or outburst), frontispiece (the face), fuddle (an act of drinking, a state of intoxication; also to make drunk), funk (tobacco and as a verb to smoke or to make a stink), goggle-eyed (wearing spectacles), grizzle (a whinger or grumbler), guzzle (beer), half-pint (undersized), Her Majesty’s pictures (money and thus a distant predecessor of rap’s dead presidents), hole (any small, dirty, clandestine place) and huffle (to fellate; to perform frottage with the armpit).

Tom Brown, born the son of a Shropshire farmer in 1663, may have had a marginally better reputation than Ned Ward, but he is perhaps even less well remembered. The verse

‘I do not love thee Dr Fell
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know and know full well, I do not love thee, Dr Fell.’

was his, and is still well-known,  but few would know its writer. Brown penned this parody of Martial’s epigram 1.32 (‘Non amo, te, Sabidi’) around 1680, in a successful attempt to save his career at Oxford, where he had antagonized his college dean, Dr John Fell, and faced being sent down. He arrived in London in 1684 and though his first publication was a poem, his skills were soon diverted to satire with the first of several attacks on Dryden: Reason of  Mr Bayes Changing his Religion. Unlike Ward (whose London Spy was for some years misattributed to his contemporary – even so far as the fact being chiselled into his gravestone), Brown had been educated in the classics and used his skills to make a number of translations; classical knowledge underpinned much of his prose and verse. In an era when for the first time a writer could attempt to exist without patron or private wealth, Brown survived by producing a wide range of material, often at his booksellers’ dictate. Before his early death in 1704 he wrote prose, verse, squibs and pamphlets, as well as three stage plays: Physic Lies a Bleeding, or, The Apothecary Turned Doctor (1697), The Stage Beaux Toss’d in a Blanket (1704), and The Dispensary (1697), and in 1692 co-authored a journal, the short-lived Lacedemonian Mercury. He was the first person to adopt what would become the default satirical style: removing the vowels from proper names when their use might have brought legal problems. Thus in 1717 Addison commented in the Spectator: ‘Some of our Authors indeed, when they would be more Satyrical than ordinary, omit only the Vowels of a great Man’s Name, and fall most unmercifully upon all the Consonants. This way of writing was first of all introduced by T-m Br-wn of facetious memory, who, having gutted a proper name […] made as free with it as he pleased without any danger of the statute.’

Yet Addison, and others including Swift, are now seen to have been indebted to Brown, whose own work may not have survived, but whose methods of satire, hitherto unexplored, lie behind a number of their own, far more polished and incisive productions. Swift mentions  Brown in the introduction to A Treatise on Polite Conversation (1738). Writing as ‘Simon Wagstaffe, Esq.’ he boasts of having read ‘Mr. Thomas Brown’s works entire’, and even having had ‘the honour to be his intimate friend, who was universally allowed to be the greatest genius of his age’.

‘Wagstaffe’ also claims to have read ‘Mr Ward’. But Swift was being satirical in his turn and he had been openly critical in the pamphlet of 1713 in which he put forward plans to establish an English Academy. Here he attributed much of what he saw as slovenly modern speech to ‘monstrous productions, which, under the name of Trips, Spies, Amusements, and other conceited appellations, have overrun us for some years past. To this we owe that strange Race of Wits, who tell us they write to the Humour of the Age.

Swift was right: Brown as much as Ward was willing to embellish at least some of his work with slang when he saw that it did indeed reflect ‘the humour of the age’. Brown had an intimate acquaintance with low-life London, and it is perhaps symbolic that although he had a wife and children, they remain wholly anonymous. He used his experiences to pen some of his most popular works: Amusements Serious and Comical (1700), Comical View of the Transactions That Will Happen in the Cities of London and Westminster (1705), and the posthumous Letters from the Dead to the Living (1708). Of these the Comical View represented cod-astrological prognostications (for instance ‘Doleful procession up Holborn-Hill about eleven. Men handsome and proper […] arrive at the fatal place by twelve.’  […] ‘If rainy, few night-walkers in Cheapside and Fleet-street.’ […] ‘Shoals of country-puts come to town about five’). With the Amusements Brown echoed Ward in more than just offering a supposed  tour d’horizon of louche London. Just as Ward had cribbed from a French work that was allegedly penned by an Arab, so did Brown use as his inspiration the French author Charles Dufresnay’s Amusements Sérieux et Comiques (1699) supposedly written by ‘un Siamois’. Large portions were simply translated direct.

On the whole slang is a bottom-up creation, a language of the streets. Ward’s and Brown’s writings – in which the slang speakers are never of the élite – make that clear. But it is not invariably so. Swift’s Treatise on Polite Conversation, ostensibly a satire on what was known as ‘courtesy literature’, shows that the nobs can enjoy slang as much as the yobs. Eric Partridge, in the introduction to his 1963 edition of the book, believed that Swift’s pages ‘manifestly … contain large chunks of conversation that bears every mark of having been recorded verbatim’ and as such form ‘by far the best single record of polite English spoken at any given period, not merely up to and including that of Swift himself, but also, indeed, after him’. The majority of commentators see it is deliberately contrived and far from reportage. As Swift himself  notes, ‘The Flowers of Wit, Fancy, Wisdom, Humour and Politeness scattered in this Volume, amount to one thousand, seventy and four.’ Partridge notwithstanding, it is hard to believe that the three conversations that make up the book were anything but ‘set pieces’. Swift’s parade of proverbs and clichés also place him in the line of Flaubert’s Dictionnaire  des idées reçues (written c. 1870, published  1911) and Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1911), both of which mock in their own styles the banalities of received wisdom.

Swift’s book can be seen as complementary to an earlier pamphlet: A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, which had appeared in 1712. In this Swift had suggested that Britain set up an Academy on the lines of the Académie française, which had been established since 1634. It would not happen, although there were those who believed that Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary would set out language as it should be, even if Johnson himself, while excluding what he termed ‘cant’, still admitted that the likelihood of freezing a ‘perfect’ language had as little chance of success as catching the ever-moving sun. Swift’s campaign had begun in a Tatler essay (28 September  1710), in which he railed against declining usage and specified such terms as mob, phiz, pozz, rep, banter and bamboozle as symptomatic of that decline. For Swift, a good Tory, imperfections in language marked those of a society increasingly filled with nouveaux riches whose advance, and detestable linguistic innovations, undermined the established order.

Written by ‘Simon Wagstaffe, Esq.’, presumably one of those same arrivistes (and, given that staff was well established as a slang synonym for penis, possibly a coarse joke), the 10,000 word introduction to Polite Conversation, set down in the finest mock-pompous style, brought such terms up again. This time, however, Swift posed them as exemplars of refined speech. Taking the ‘Stamp of Authority from Courts, Chocolate-Houses, Theatres, Assemblies, Drawing-Rooms, levees, Card Meetings, Balls, and masquerades’, ‘Wagstaffe’ attributed his linguistic advice to ‘the chief Patterns of Politeness, at Court, at Levees, at Assemblies, at Play-houses, at the prime visiting Places, by young Templers, and by Gentlemen Commoners of both Universities, who have lived, at least, a Twelve-month in Town, and kept the best Company’. He promised to spell ‘the Words in the very same Manner that they are pronounced: such as Jommetry for Geometry, Verdi for Verdict, Lard for Lord, Larnin for Learning’, and added ‘some Abbreviations exquisitely refined: As, Pozz for Positively, Mobb for Mobile, Phizz for Physiognomy, Rep for Reputation, Plenipo for Plenipotentiary, Incog for Incognito, Hipps, or Hippo for Hypocondriacks, Bam for Bamboozle, and Bamboozle for God knows what’.

The supposedly sophisticated interchanges between his stereotypes Mr Neverout, Lords Sparkish and Smart, Colonel Atwit and Sir John Linger, the Ladies Smart and Answerall and Miss Notable contain a good deal of contemporary slang. As one would expect, and as ‘Mr Wagstaffe’ makes clear, it is almost always genteel, with none of the usual double- entendres (‘they often put Ladies upon affected […] Ignorance’) or oaths (‘because both the Male and Female Oaths, are all perfectly well known’).

The Treatise was responsible for the first recorded use of a number of slang terms: to live high, i.e. comfortably and securely; dead, of an empty bottle (Swift also has a dead man for the empty), no chicken, a woman, no longer young and/or attractive, spill, to cause to fall, and phrases such as all the world and his wife, is your father a glazier? used  to embarrass one who is obstructing one’s view, the devil’s books, a pack of cards, drive one’s hogs to market, to snore, stare like a stuck pig and quarrel with one’s bread and butter, to act against one’s own best interests. His talkers were keen drinkers, and knew its terminology: have a drop in one’s eye, to be tipsy, put a churl upon a gentleman, to drink ale immediately after drinking wine (which reflects the supposed links between social class and drinking habits) and whip-belly vengeance, very thin beer which ‘revenged itself ’ upon the digestion. There are the brimmer and the bumper, both full glasses, half seas over for drunk, the hair of the dog (that bit one) and the phrase  drunk as David’s sow.

Swift’s use of slang extended beyond the Treatise and can be found in The Tale of a Tub (1704) and in his Journal to Stella (1710–36). To look only at terms that he was the first to record, one finds spalpeen, a rogue and doubtless picked up in Ireland, a thumper, a major lie, a clinker, something exceptional of its type, to palm on, to pass something off, to dish out, to apportion or hand out; while yahoo, a boorish lout, was of course of his own invention for Gulliver’s Travels. He uses shit on, albeit as beshit on, to mean to humiliate or abuse, and the phrase burn it blue, to act outrageously, possibly by speaking coarsely, may be the first instance of blue meaning obscene.

Yet Swift’s focus on the slang of society is ultimately anomalous. Slang still found its roots and its home much lower down the social order. A playwright such as Samuel Foote might follow in Swift’s footsteps, using their language to tease the pretensions of the rising bourgeoisie in such plays as The Englishman in Paris (1753), The Minor (1760), The Mayor of Garratt (1771) and The Bankrupt (1773), and in Tom Jones (1749) the novelist Henry Fielding might parody the riper expostulations of a country squire, as well as including the slang his hero encounters in London society, but slang’s reality lay on the ground. For all society’s ‘politeness’ much of London remained rough and tough and had the language to accompany it.

Symbolic of this other London was Newgate, the great prison sited in the Old Bailey, on the western edge of the City and just to the south of Smithfield, where not that long before martyrs had been burnt at the stake. Newgate, known as Whittington’s College or The Whit, had been exploited in a variety of seventeenth-century prison writings, and regularly featured in a number of ballads and gallows-side ‘last words’ and ‘confessions’, but it had yet to attain the stage. This now changed. Writing on 30 August 1716, Swift suggested to Pope, ‘What think you of a Newgate pastoral among the whores and thieves?’ and wondered whether ‘our friend [John] Gay could fancy it’. Gay rejected the pastoral, but opted for a comedy: The Beggar’s Opera. Premiered on 29 January 1728, the Opera was phenomenally  successful, enjoying what was then a lengthy run of sixty-two nights in its opening season. Like Pierce Egan’s Life in London almost a century later, Gay’s satire, mocking the fashionable contemporary obsession with Italian opera (which the smart set promptly abandoned), and with its plot set against the London underworld, inspired an infinity of clones, parodies and what would now be termed merchandising tie-ins, such as playing cards, fans and fire screens. Gay was already successful, but the opera made him richer: he took £693 13s. 6d (approximately  £73,000) from the production, a then substantial sum. Lavinia Fenton, who played the heroine, ‘Polly Peachum’, did perhaps better: she became the mistress of the Duke of Bolton with a stipend, so Gay claimed, of £400 a year.

The Beggar’s Opera terrified the moralists who found it subversive, especially since ‘the agreeableness of the entertainment, and its being adapted to the taste of the vulgar, and set to easy tunes (which almost every body can remember) makes the contagion spread wider’.

Equally bad was the way criminals, its subject, loved it. In his supposed ‘autobiography,’ The Life and Actions of James Dalton (1730),’ the author claimed that he and his gang ‘used to go to the Play-house, dressed like Gentlemen’, and that once, during The Beggar’s Opera, ‘Captain Macheath’s Fetters happening to be loose’, one of them ‘call’d out, Captain, Captain your Bazzel is undone’. As Andrea McKenzie, who recounts this anecdote, concludes, ‘The real thieves, having shown up the actors with their superior knowledge of both irons and cant, then retired in style to an alehouse, “in four Chairs, with six Lights before each Chair”’. This was not what the theatre was supposed to inspire.

Dalton’s tale is, of course, exactly the kind of thing that those who attack slang claim is one of its failings: it keeps such objectionable company. Foreshadowing Egan again, Gay used slang to increase the Opera’s appeal,  and underline the knowingness of his work. As he had used well-known popular tunes for the songs (which were originally to be sung unaccompanied, an extension of the plot’s overall rawness), so did he use popular language. Though for a plot that made a highwayman its hero, and featured the doings of whores, pickpockets, beggars and sundry villains, plus a ‘Mr Big’ who was a thinly disguised version of the recently hanged fence and thief-taker Jonathan Wild, there is little cant. This was no Squire of Alsatia where the audience had to be helped out with a glossary.

A good deal of the cant that Gay did use is in his cast-list. The chief villain Mr Peachum comes from peach, to inform; among his gang are Nimming Ned (nim, to rob), Ben Budge (budg, a housebreaker) and Harry Paddington (reminiscent of padding, highway robbery, though the then village of Paddington was synonymous with the Tyburn gallows, upon which one might ‘dance the Paddington frisk’). Of the female characters, the surnames Trapes, Doxy, Slammekin and Trull all signify whore and/or sloven. Mrs Coaxer, Molly Brazen and Sukey Tawdrey are self-evident, if in standard English. And Jenny Diver was the criminal pseudonym, literally ‘Jenny Pickpocket’, of the real-life Mary Young (born  c. 1700), who was hanged for street robbery  in 1741. Other canting terms that the audience may or may not have understood included bit, robbed, fetch, a trick, filch, a thief, in keeping, used of a prostitute who is kept by a client, lock, a repository for stolen goods, nick and pick, to steal, to speak to, an ironic euphemism for to rob and wheedle, to cheat.

In the main the Beggar’s Opera uses more general slang, a number of which terms have survived. Examples include the era’s seemingly inevitable bamboozle; beast, an unpleasant person, chap, charmer, come down with, to hand over (usually money), deep, sly, hard, to a great extent, mechanic, used as a term of abuse, pump, to interrogate, puss, a whore, set upon, shotten herring, a good-for-nothing, sou, a small amount of money, tally-wife, the woman with whom one cohabits, tip, to give a gratuity, tip off, to die, on the town, working as a prostitute, and the Tyburn tree.

Excerpted from “The Vulgar Tongue: Green's History of Slang” by Jonathon Green. Copyright © 2014 by Jonathon Green. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.

By Jonathon Green

Jonathon Green is a lexicographer and author of "Green's Dictionary of Slang," "Casell's Dictionary of Slang" and "Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made"

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