30 Excellent Terms From a 17th Century Slang Dictionary

Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

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, B.E.’s 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.

1. ADDLE-PLOT

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.

2. AMBIDEXTER

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

An ex-thief.

4. ARSWORM

Not a particularly complimentary nickname for “a little diminutive fellow.”

5. BALSAM

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.

7. BEARD-SPLITTER

“An enjoyer of women,” according to B.E. The mind boggles.

8. BORACHIO

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.

12. CHIRPING-MERRY

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.”

13. CRAMP-WORDS

Difficult or obscure words are cramp-words.

14. DIRTY-BEAU

“A slovenly fellow, yet pretending to beauishness.” Or in other words, a man acting or dressing more prim and proper than he really is.

15. EBB-WATER

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.

19. GAPESEED

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.”

21. GUT-FOUNDERED

Extremely hungry.

22. HABERDASHER OF NOUNS AND PRONOUNS

A schoolteacher.

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.

25. MULLIGRUBS

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.

26. NIPPERKIN

A small glass of liquor (although B.E.’s definition of “small” is “half a pint of wine”).

27. PICKTHANK

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.

29. SWILL-BELLY

A heavy drinker.

30. THOROUGH-COUGH

Coughing and farting at the same time. There really is a word for everything…

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
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Why Do We Say ‘Spill the Beans’?

This is a Greek tragedy.
This is a Greek tragedy.
anthony_taylor/iStock via Getty Images

Though superfans of The Office may claim otherwise, the phrase spill the beans did not originate when Kevin Malone dropped a massive bucket of chili at work during episode 26 of season five. In fact, people supposedly started talking about spilling the beans more than 2000 years ago.

According to Bloomsbury International, one voting method in ancient Greece involved (uncooked) beans. If you were voting yes on a certain matter, you’d place a white bean in the jar; if you were voting no, you’d use your black bean. The jar wasn’t transparent, and since the votes were meant to be kept secret until the final tally, someone who accidentally knocked it over mid-vote was literally spilling the beans—and figuratively spilling the beans about the results.

While we don’t know for sure that the phrase spill the beans really does date all the way back to ancient times, we do know that people have used the word spill to mean “divulge” at least since the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest known reference of it is from a letter written by Spanish chronicler Antonio de Guevara sometime before his death in 1545 (the word spill appears in Edward Hellowes’s 1577 translation of the letter).

Writers started to pair spill with beans during the 20th century. The first known mention is from Thomas K. Holmes’s 1919 novel The Man From Tall Timber: “‘Mother certainly has spilled the beans!’ thought Stafford in vast amusement.”

In short, it’s still a mystery why people decided that beans were an ideal food to describe spilling secrets. As for whether you’re imagining hard, raw beans like the Greeks used or the tender, seasoned beans from Kevin Malone’s ill-fated chili, we’ll leave that up to you.

[h/t Bloomsbury International]