Cantering Through Cant (29)

Welch rabbit, as it was known in Francis Grose’s time, was bread and cheese roasted, according to his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785). The Welsh, he notes, are so fond of cheese that “in cases of difficulty their midwives apply a piece of toasted cheese to the ianua vitae to attract and entice the young Taffy, who on smelling it makes most vigorous efforts to come forth”.   

The dictionary is full of quaint customs, many of which can rebound to the detriment of the participants. One such was whip the cock. Popular at wakes, fairs and horse races in Leicestershire, a cock was tied or fastened into a basket and half a dozen carters would be blindfolded and armed with their whips. They would be placed around the hat containing the cockerel and then spun round a few times. The object of the exercise is for one of them to strike the hat with their whip and make the cock cry out, an achievement that wins them the bird. However, in reality, Grose observes, what happens is that the participants are so disorientated that they set about whipping each other.

We are familiar with the use of white feather as a symbol of cowardice. Grose attributes its usage to an allusion to “a game cock, where having a white feather is a proof that he is not of the true game breed”. Another form of insult was to call someone a winter’s day, short and dirty. Insults seemed much more inventive in those days.

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