Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Dictionary of English Slang, circa 1699

This is great!  Fortunately, the book is available for free online, which I learned by reading through the comments on the article down at the bottom of the page.  Sometimes the comments are the best part :)

From The Chronicle of Higher Education
How to Survive a 17th-Century Mugging
November 18, 2010, 7:00 pm

Say you’re out one day on an English country road, and a roguish ruffian accosts you.

He has somehow managed to teleport from the rat-infested alleys, stinking public houses, and diseased fleshpots of 17th-century London. And, brandishing a glinting sword, he proclaims: “Fat culls like you, I whiddle the whole scrap. I’m ’ere to nim yer crap. Play the meer chub ’n’ I may whip yer through the lungs with me porker as quick as I’ll click the nab off yer ’ead.”

A better PDA instant-translation app than may ever reach the market would tip you off to his meaning: “You rich bums, I’m onto you. I’m here to rob you blind. Push your dumb luck and I may stick you with my shiv as quick as I’ll knock your hat off your head.”

Lacking adequate interpretation, however, you pause, perplexed. The blackguard persists: “I ’ave pist upon a nettle and I’ll tip yer a stoter, a rum- snitch, ’though I be romboyl’d, nab’d, thrown in clinkers, and carted off to the chates.” (I’m really cheesed off, and I’ll punch you on the schnozz, even if I’m pursued with a warrant, apprehended, clapped in irons, and carted off to the gallows.)

Perhaps your only hope of surviving the ordeal is that you’ll have boned up on The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699, originally issued in London, and now reissued by the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford and distributed in North America by the University of Chicago Press.

The volume’s original title vouches for its utility; in the haphazard typography of the day, it was: “A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, In its several Tribes of Gypsies, Beggers, Thieves, Cheats, &c. with An Addition of some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &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.”

The “canting” of its title referred to the secret language of semi-organized gangs of such ne’er-do-wells. The compiler’s stated purpose was to clue in polite Londoners to language they might encounter upon erring into the underbelly of the pestilent city.

The dictionary has been out of print for 300 years. The new volume’s text is based on a copy that the Bodleian Library unearthed in its collections. But it has been known among dictionary compilers and slang specialists, says its editor, John Simpson, an expert on slang and chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Simpson, with John Ayno, edited the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, published in 2005.

The canting dictionary has long been known to dictionary makers, says Simpson by phone from his Oxford office: “We have a facsimile copy in our library at the OED and it’s on the list of books we’ve checked religiously when we’re writing new entries for the OED.”

The dictionary collates lists that had been tucked away for up to 200 years in longer texts such as Robert Green’s Black Bookes’ Messenger of 1591.

Compiling from the disparate sources was the innovation of a certain “B.E.” Who he was will probably never be known, says Simpson: “You can’t really squeeze the information out, unfortunately, although you can just get hints of what he was like. He seems to be reasonably well read. He seems probably to have fought either in the army or to have been in the navy, at some point, to particularly like soldiers’ and sailors’ words.”

He laid claim, on the original publication’s cover, to the title of “Gent.”—gentleman—which is rather belied by the material of his volume, by his expressions of distaste for the Dutch and the Swiss, and by his admiration for the (admirable) bawdy bard and libertine John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-80).

“In the late 17th century the underworld was a thriving literary theme,” notes Simpson. In B.E.’s day, the dictionary might have served as a glossary of Restoration theater, he says: “It’s a picaresque, slightly voyeuristic view, and probably a reasonably incorrect view of lower-class life in town” yet still one that should prove useful to scholars and devotees of colorful-city-life fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries: the likes of Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, Charles Dickens, and Henry Mayhew.

Just thank Mr. E. if you do find yourself bailed up by some shag-bag (shabby fellow). Act accordingly: Just tip ’im your farting-crackers, ’e’ll ’ave ’em with your loure (pull off your britches, ’cause he’ll have them and your dough)!

And be glad he’s come alone without his whole mob of strowlers (itinerants), buffenappers (dog-stealers who sell the animals at high rates, then steal them again), mutton-mongers (sheep stealers), priggers of cacklers (poultry stealers), priggers of prancers (horse stealers), and worst of all the bloodthirsty Dimber-damber (Mr. Big).—Peter Monaghan

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