The Vulgar Tongue: A dictionary of filthy words
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During midnight walks, Francis Grose collected phrases in London’s slums and dockyards. BBC Culture celebrates the man who revelled in the vulgar tongue.

He was a muse to Robert Burns; a soldier with a penchant for port; and an ‘antiquarian Falstaff’ who took midnight walks through London, eavesdropping in slums, drinking dens and dockyards. Francis Grose was one of the first to record phrases like ‘fly-by-night’ or ‘birds of a feather’ – and many believe he deserves to be as well-known as that more celebrated compiler of the English language, Samuel Johnson.

“He too was a lexicographer, and his achievements equally extraordinary,” says the British language expert Susie Dent. “The two men even shared the same ambition: to record faithfully the English of their day. Yet their focus couldn’t have been more different.”

Published in 1785, 30 years after Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, Grose’s own effort at collecting the words of the time had a seedier side. As Dent says: “Grose’s sources were the ne’er-do-wells of London… His aim was to put on record a patois that had hitherto been shunned by collectors of language – an effort that was as courageous as it was unprecedented.”

In the introduction to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Grose claims to have overheard his terms from “soldiers on the long march, seamen at the capstern, ladies disposing of their fish, and the colloquies of a Gravesend boat”. According to the British Library, “Grose was one of the first lexicographers to collect slang words from all corners of society, not just from the professional underworld of pickpockets and bandits.”

Slang dunk

There are plenty of terms in cant, or the language used by criminals – such as ‘Thatch-gallows: A rogue, or man of bad character’, and ‘Anglers: Pilferers, or petty thieves, who, with a stick having a hook at the end, steal goods out of shop windows’. But The Vulgar Tongue also has a wider range of expressions. In A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries: Volume II, Julie Coleman argues: “Grose’s jargon belongs to a wide variety of occupations and pastimes, ranging from prostitutes, boxers, and cock-fighters to surveyors, stock-merchants and booksellers.”

A small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears

Inebriation is well documented, with terms ranging from ‘Hicksius Doxius: Drunk’ and ‘Emperor: Drunk as an emperor, ie ten times as drunk as a lord’ to ‘Admiral of the narrow seas: One who from drunkenness vomits into the lap of the person sitting opposite him’. Other entries focus on bodily functions. There’s ‘Fizzle: A small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs’, as well as ‘Fart catcher: A valet or footman, from his walking behind his master or mistress’.

And gallows humour is evident throughout. As Grose says in his introduction: “Many heroic sentences, expressing and inculcating a contempt of death… and various choice flowers have been collected at executions”. Some of the morbid phrases include ‘Eternity box: Coffin’ and ‘Dismal ditty: The psalm sung by the felons at the gallows, just before they are turned off’.

Portrait of Francis Grose by Nathaniel Dance (Credit: Timewatch Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

Portrait of Francis Grose by Nathaniel Dance (Credit: Timewatch Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

“Grose was one of a very small band of writers to explore popular culture at that time,” Dent tells BBC Culture. “His was the first real ‘underground’ dictionary, compiled on evidence from the streets rather than the pages of literary works.”

Crude awakening

While it was pioneering in its approach, the dictionary was also one of a long line of works that aimed to define the jargon of those on the fringes of society. Coleman, who is a professor at the University of Leicester and founder of the International Society for Historical Lexicography, tells BBC Culture: “In 1567, a man called Thomas Harman published a word list that was supposedly the secret language of beggars – and then over the next couple of centuries, the same list was presented as the secret language of criminals in London; then of highwaymen; and then of gypsies.” When Grose published his book, she says, it presented some words that were “already over 200 years old”.

Yet their motivations were very different. “Harman was a magistrate, and he said that his reason for collecting this language was because con artists were roaming around the country, trying to trick decent honest folk into giving them money – and they used a secret language to communicate among themselves,” says Coleman. “He hauled these people in front of him and threatened to whip them if they didn’t tell him their secret language.”

In contrast, “Grose was a professional antiquarian – he made a living by publishing books… and he had a particular taste for things that were rude. When he went through his sources… anything to do with sex was guaranteed to get into his dictionary.”

Some of the lewder entries include ‘Clicket: Copulation of foxes; and thence used, in a canting sense, for that of men and women’ and ‘Beard splitter: A man much given to wenching’. Grose often gave lengthy explanations: ‘Clap, a venereal taint. He went out by Had’em, and came round by Clapham home; ie he went out a wenching, and got a clap’.

He wasn’t above self-censorship, as Coleman describes in her book. “Sometimes single letters are obscured or omitted, with an increasing proportion of letters obscured according to the obscenity of the word.” And Grose refused to define some of the most obscene terms, such as ‘Bagpipe: to bagpipe, a lascivious practice too indecent for explanation’.

Rebel without a clause

His interest wasn’t just prurient, Coleman tells BBC Culture. “In the late 18th Century, people are starting to think about polite behaviour and what sort of things you should be able to talk about in company – and Grose was reacting against all of that by being as vulgar as he possibly could, and absolutely revelling in it.”

It was a sensibility that appealed to the Scottish poet Robert Burns. The pair met in 1789, becoming friends – Burns even wrote a poem about Grose. “They positioned themselves in opposition to a society that was becoming more and more proper and correct, and liked to see themselves as rebels and outsiders,” says Coleman.

Arsy varsey: To fall arsy varsey, ie head over heels

Grose saw what he was doing as a celebration of British democracy, arguing in his introduction: “The freedom of thought and speech arising from, and privileged by, our constitution, gives a force and poignancy to the expressions of our common people, not to be found under arbitrary governments, where the ebullitions of vulgar wit are checked by the fear of the bastinado, or of a lodging during pleasure in some gaol or castle.” Quite a justification for bringing together ‘Arsy varsey: To fall arsy varsey, ie head over heels’ and ‘Gollumpus: A large, clumsy fellow’.

“Grose definitely understands that slang is a form of rebellion,” says Coleman. “It exists in opposition to standard language. It arguably wasn’t possible to publish a slang dictionary before Johnson had published his dictionary of standard language – until you had a dictionary of standard language, you didn’t know what you were positioning your dictionary against.”

Bards and brothels

According to Dent, that tension offers us better insight into the time. “Precisely because of their vastly different approaches, Johnson’s and Grose’s dictionaries deliver together a far more complete snapshot of 18th-Century English than either of them singly could hope to offer,” she wrote in a 2013 Oxford University Press blog post. “While Johnson looked to the poets and bards to exemplify his terms, Grose’s sources were the London taverns, brothels, slums, and gambling-houses he visited during his midnight walks. It was from their occupants that he learned that to ‘blow the groundsils’ was ‘to lie with a woman on the floor’, that ‘abel-whackets’ were ‘blows given on the palm of the hand with a twisted handkerchief; a jocular punishment among seamen, who sometimes play at cards for wackets’, and that ‘ballocks’, besides being ‘the testicles of a man or beast’, was ‘also a vulgar name for a parson’.”

While Johnson looked to the poets and bards to exemplify his terms, Grose’s sources were the London taverns, brothels, slums, and gambling-houses he visited during his midnight walks.

Although placed at a lower value than standard language, the terms in Grose’s dictionary are an important tool for interpreting the past. “Slang is more interesting because some of it is so ephemeral and of its time that it reflects something wider happening in society,” says Coleman. “Why was there an explosion of terms for prostitutes at a particular time, or for gin? It offers a barometer for the things that people are feeling anxious about.”

The successive attempts to document supposed ‘secret languages’ were caused by social change, she argues. “Thomas Harman was worried about beggars because this was a period in which you could only get poor relief in your home parish, which acted as a disincentive to charity. Poor people were more likely to be driven away if there was any excuse to do so, meaning there were hordes of beggars wandering around the countryside trying to find someone who would help them.”

Highwaymen Dick Turpin and Tom King, 1735 (Credit: Lordprice Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

Highwaymen Dick Turpin and Tom King, 1735 (Credit: Lordprice Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

In turn, the focus shifted as anxieties moved on. “Later, people were worried about different things – so in the 18th Century they were worried about highwaymen. If you lived in the country and you were going to your London house, the only way of transporting money was carrying it in a bag – there weren’t any cheques or bankbooks. That made it very profitable to hang around by roadsides and steal money from people.”

Cutpurses and cardsharps

Coleman explains in her book how The Vulgar Tongue also addressed contemporary issues. “Grose’s dictionary was a shrewd appeal to the concerns of its time. The out-of-towner coming to London, as so many did during this period, needed to understand the language used there. Customers wanted to be alert to tradesmen’s tricks. Property-holders could be encouraged to fear the plottings of the menacingly large underclass. Justices of the Peace had to keep track of criminal ingenuity,” she writes. “On the other hand, those enjoying the dynamic fast-moving world liked to be up to date in their speech and manners as well as their clothes. The disreputable of all social classes enjoyed a dirty story and a good joke.”

It’s a reminder of the power of slang. “Sometimes it acts as a melting pot,” Coleman tells BBC Culture. “In the US, all these different people with different family backgrounds came together and these words were tried out – if they passed muster they became part of standard American English. We tend to talk about slang as polluting or degrading in British English, whereas in the US it’s seen as enriching.”

Grose never saw the words he collected as a form of verbal pollution. Instead, he revelled in them, and his dictionary continues to be relevant today. Many words are still in common usage, including babble, bamboozle, cat call, chatter box, cock and bull story, curmudgeon, flabbergasted, and gibberish. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first edition of The Vulgar Tongue 487 times. “Grose’s collection of slang from the streets has had a lasting legacy, arguably influencing every slang glossary published since,” says Dent.

Despite the bawdiness and puerility – or perhaps because of it – Grose’s book is more than a dictionary, lending poetry to common phrases and philosophy to wordplay. “Few would ever think of reading a dictionary: we see them as quick reference sources to dip in and out of,” says Dent. “But read one entry from Grose’s dictionary and it will draw you in, and before you know it you’ve spent an hour exploring the results of his nightly conversations with the cutpurses, cardsharps, and revellers of London.”

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