Cantering Through Cant (11)

No gentleman in the 18th century would be seen out in public without wearing a wig. Hair hygiene being somewhat rudimentary, most shaved their pates to rid themselves of greasy, nit-infested locks and a splendid wig hid their baldness. Not unsurprisingly, there was a dearth of synonyms for a wig in the argot of the day. Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) informs us that a cauliflower was “a large white wig, such as is commonly worn by the dignified clergy, and was formerly by physicians”.

Cauliflower, though, also had a different and less obvious meaning, “the private parts of a woman”. Grose explains all by recounting a tale, whether apocryphal or grounded in fact I know not; “a woman, who was giving evidence in a cause wherein it was necessary to express those parts, made use of the term cauliflower; for which the judge on the bench, a peevish old fellow, reproved her, saying she may as well call it artichoke. Not so, my lord, replied she; for an artichoke has a bottom, but a c**t and a cauliflower have none”.

It is fascinating to observe how words change their meaning over time. Take caterwaul. Now we take it to mean to wail or screech like a cat; it has very much a sonic context. However, in Grose’s time caterwauling was defined as “going out in the night in search of intrigues, like a cat in the gutters”.

Clearly, there is more about a caterwaul than making a noise.

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