Cantering Through Cant (14)

Appearing before the magistrate was an occupational hazard for many of those from whom Francis Grose garnered the words that make up his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1781). The judge was known as a fortune teller because he “told every prisoner his fortune, lot, or doom”. To go before the fortune teller was to stand trial at the assizes. Variants were to go before the lambskin men or a conjurer.  

A visit in front of the judge may result in a Friday face, a term defined as “a dismal countenance”, so called because as well as being the traditional day of abstinence, after the restoration of the monarchy, King Charles II issued a proclamation “prohibiting all publicans from dressing any suppers on a Friday”.

A freeholder was a man “whose wife accompanies him to the ale-house” where he may have felt obliged to buy her a French cream, the slang for brandy, so called, says Grose, because old dowagers and tabbies used to put it in their tea. If the bill for his fare took him by surprise, he may be tempted to take French leave, defined as “to go off without taking leave of the company; a saying frequently applied to persons who have run away from their creditors”.

A difficult day may have been made worse if he found himself Frenchified, “infected with the venereal disease”. Safer, perhaps, to be a fumbler, “an old or impotent man”.

One thought on “Cantering Through Cant (14)”

  1. Amusing how we always impute our foibles to foreigners. You probably know that the French equivalent of “to take French leave” is “filer ä l’anglaise” which means, very roughly, “to take English leave”!

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