Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green’s massive, three-volume Dictionary of Slang is the most authoritative work on the back roads and byways of the English language. His database of slang contains about 54,000 headwords collected from centuries’ worth of materials. If you include the various phrases and derivations those words participate in, the total number comes up to to 125,000.
Historical slang research is made difficult by the fact that slang comes from the unwritten side of life. Words develop in casual (often criminal) contexts and may never be put into lasting written documents, especially when they are deemed unfit for polite society. Luckily, there are places where slang’s past has been preserved, but they may not be easy to find.
Green’s latest book, The Vulgar Tongue, is a history of slang that explores the places where it flourished and, more importantly, was set down on paper. Here are just a few of the places where the slang of yesterday lives on.
1. COLLECTIONS OF WORDS USED BY VAGABONDS AND THIEVES
From the 14th to 16th century in Europe, there were many books and pamphlets circulating that purported to warn good people about the tricks that beggars might use to manipulate them. Their popularity, however, was not due to their usefulness as much as their entertainment value. John Awdeley’s The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561) gives terms like Abraham man (a guy who acts crazy and walks around with a “pack or wool, or a stick with bacon on it, or such like toy”), ruffler (someone who pretends to have fought in the wars to get sympathy), prigman (someone who steals clothes or poultry and then gambles it away at the pub), and ring-faller (trickster with a copper ring who pretends to find a gold ring and then sells it to bystander).
2. THEATER DIALOGUE
The seedy underworld of London was a favorite subject for 17th century English playwrights, and audiences delighted in dialogue such as the following, from Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girlie (1611): “I have, by the salomon, a doxy that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben bouse, and eat a fat gruntling cheat.”
3. CRIMINAL MEMOIRS
Thinly disguised as moral lessons or deathbed confessions about regrets of ill-lived lives, criminal memoirs both entertained and titillated the respectable readers of the 17th century. They were full of cant and jargon and often came with glossaries. They had great titles such as The Life and Death of Gamaliel Rasey, a Famous thief of England; Ratseis Ghost. Or the second Part of his madde Prankes and Robberies; and Memoirs of the right villainous John Hall, the late famous and notorious robber.
4. SPORTS WRITING
Early 19th century reporting on prize fighting and horse racing was filled with “flash,” the hip, city slang, no longer associated primarily with the underworld, but with the knowing cool kids of various classes. A fighter might get his nozzle barked, his peepers darkened, and hit in the bread basket. Later American sports writing gave us terms like applesauce (nonsense), chin music (talk), and skidoo (go away).
5. MUSIC WRITING
The magazine Down Beat covered the slang-rich world of jazz, and in 1935 they published a glossary titled “The Slanguage of Swing: Terms the ‘Cats’ Use.” It contained still current musical terms like lick, break and jam, as well as gems like dog house (upright bass), moth box (piano), grunt-horn (tuba), rock crusher (accordion), syringe (trombone), woodpile (xylophone), and squeak box (violin).
6. EARLY SLANG DICTIONARIES
People have always been fascinated by slang, and have long enjoyed lists of slang terms just for the fun of it. Many books and pamphlets in the above areas contained glossaries along with the text, there have also been full dictionaries of slang since 1699 when B.E. Gent (as in gentleman) compiled A New Dictionary of the Terms, Antient and Modern, of the Canting Crew, in its several Tribes of Gypsies, Beggers [sic], Theives, Cheats, &c.: useful for all sorts of people (especially foreigners) to secure their money and preserve their lives besides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New which is how we know about terms like bear garden discourse (“common filthy, nasty talk”), cacafuego (“shite fire”), and cracker (“a little or low-sounding fart”). In 1785, Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue recorded birthday suit, gam, shag, and slag. In 1819 James Hardy Vaux, who had been sent to Australia as a punishment for petty crimes, preserved some early Australian terms in his New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. In 1859 John Hotten gave the etymological treatment to the words in his Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, while at the same time the U.S. got its first slang dictionary with Vocabulum: or, the Rogue’s Lexicon, Compiled from the Most Authentic Sources by former New York City police chief George Washington Matsell.
Now we can benefit from the collected wisdom of all these sources in Green’s own 15 pound dictionary. The Vulgar Tongue, which tells the story of those sources, makes a great companion to the dictionary, taking us behind the words to the places where they were born.