In 1699, an anonymous lexicographer known only as “B. E., Gent.” published the first comprehensive dictionary of non-standard English. Although shorter word lists and glossaries of slang terminology had been published previously, A New Dictionary of the Canting Crew listed over 4000 words and phrases, and is credited with being the first such publication resembling a modern dictionary. As a result, it remained the standard reference work for English slang and jargon for almost another century.
According to its full title, the dictionary was intended to be “useful for all sorts of people (especially foreigners) to secure their money and preserve their lives.” Clearly, B.E.’s intention was that anyone unfamiliar with the cryptic language used by “beggars, thieves, cheats, &c.” to outsmart their targets could educate themselves accordingly—although he added to the subtitle that the collection was also intended merely to be “very diverting and entertaining” too.
So if you’ve ever wanted to talk like a 17th-century swindler, now’s your chance: Here are 30 choice entries from B.E.’s groundbreaking collection.
B.E. defined this as a “Martin Mar-All,” and in doing so, name-checked the title character of a 1667 comedy by John Dryden that would have been popular at the time. But in modern terms, an addle-plot is someone who spoils or ruins the progress of any undertaking—a spoilsport.
If you’re ambidextrous, you’re able to use both hands equally well. But if you’re an ambidexter, you’re “one that goes snacks [divide profits] in gaming with both parties”—or, put another way, an untrustworthy double-dealer.
3. Antiquated Rogue
Not a particularly complimentary nickname for “a little diminutive fellow.”
Ready money or cash. One explanation is that dispensing chemists always held a lot of cash, but according to slang lexicographer Eric Partridge, it’s more likely this alluded to the “healing properties” of being wealthy.
6. Banbury Story
A ridiculous story, or a tale that rambles on without going anywhere, is a Banbury story or Banbury tale. According to etymological folklore, this was the original “cock and bull” story (it’s also called the Banbury story of a cock and bull)—so called because of two pubs with those names close to the village of Banbury in Oxfordshire, England—but just how true that theory is remains debatable.
“An enjoyer of women,” according to B.E.
A drunkard, so called because this was originally a word for an animal skin used to hold wine.
9. Brother of the Quill
A professional writer. A brother of the blade was a swordsman or soldier, and a brother of the string was a musician.
10. Brown Study
When you're deep in thought.
11. Chameleon Diet
Because chameleons move so slowly, they were once believed to get all the nutriment they need from the air—and as a result, a chameleon diet was a missed meal or a particularly meager diet.
Feeling in a good mood because you’re having a drink with friends? You’re chirping-merry—or, as B.E. put it, “very pleasant over a glass of good liquor.”
Difficult or obscure words are cramp-words.
“A slovenly fellow, yet pretending to beauishness.” Or, in other words, a man acting or dressing more prim and proper than he really is.
An allusion to the receding waters of a tide, ebb-water is a lack of money.
16. English Manufacture
A euphemism for “ale, beer, or cider.”
17. Farting Crackers
… is the best synonym for trousers you’ll hear all year.
18. Fiddler’s Pay
Being thanked and bought a drink, but not being paid for your work, is fiddler’s pay.
Any astonishing sight is a gapeseed.
20. A Good Voice to Beg Bacon
Telling someone they’ve “a good voice to beg bacon” is effectively the 17th-century version of “don’t quit your day job.”
22. Haberdasher of Nouns and Pronouns
23. Heathen Philosopher
A messy or shabbily attired man whose underwear can be seen through the holes in his trousers.
24. Jumble-Gut Lane
Any rough or bumpy road that shakes you around as you travel down it is a jumble-gut.
Being down in the dumps has been known as being in the mulligrubs since the late 1500s, but according to B.E., by the late 1600s it was being used to mean “a counterfeit fit of the sullens”—or in other words, a faked or exaggerated bad mood.
A small glass of liquor (although B.E.’s definition of “small” is “half a pint of wine”).
A gossiping telltale or someone who spreads malicious rumors in order to “curry favor.”
28. Roast Meat Clothes
Because of the traditional English Sunday roast, your roast meat clothes are your Sunday best—namely, your best or most expensive outfit.
A heavy drinker.
Coughing and farting at the same time. There really is a word for everything …
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2021.