Tag Archives: A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Cantering Through Cant (30)

Many of the entries in Francis Grose’s fascinating A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) have left me in the wood. This phrase, he informs us, means to be “bewildered, in a maze of troubles, puzzled or at a loss what course to take in any business”. To look over the wood is to ascend a pulpit to preach while to look through the wood is to stand in a pillory. A wooden ruff Norway neckcloth is a pillory and a wooden habeas is a coffin. A man who dies in prison is said to go out in a wooden habeas.

To be wrapt up in warm flannel is to be drunk with spirituous liquors whereas to be wrapt in his mother’s smock is said of someone who has great success with the ladies. To be wrapt in someone is to have a good opinion of someone or to be under their influence.

Something to avoid is Womblety Croft, said to be to the indisposition of a drunkard after a debauch, no doubt after drinking by word of mouth, out of a bottle or bowl rather than a glass.

A word pecker was one who plays upon words and a word grubber is avocal critic or one who uses hard words in discourse”. In case I am accused of word grubbery, I shall close this insight into the world of 18th century slang.

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.

Cantering Through Cant (28)

To tip the velvet, Francis Grose informs us in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), meant to put one’s tongue into a woman’s mouth. To be upon velvet was to have the best of a bet or match and a later edition reports that a popular toast amongst Irish Tories and Catholics at the time was to the little man in velvet. This was a reference to a mole which threw up a hill which caused King William’s horse, Crop, to stumble. Perhaps in a case of tit for tat Ireland was known as the urinal of the planets on account of the amount of rain that fell in that country.   

An ungrateful man was a euphemism for a parson, the reason being that at least once a week he abused his best benefactor, the devil. More grateful, we assume, were the boys of parishes in London who were given each Whit Monday by the churchwardens points in the form of tags. Made from different coloured worsteds, they were twisted together to form a thick cord and tagged together at each end with tin. They were then affixed to a pair oon account of the amount of rain that fell in that country. f trousers. To untruss a point was to “let down one’s breeches in order to ease one’s self”.  

When the truth is too uncomfortable to tell, we often resort to euphemisms. To have gone to visit his uncle was a phrase used to describe someone who, early on in his marriage, has left his wife. Goods left at your uncle’s or laid up in lavender were really at the pawnbrokers. Someone who had waddled out of Change Alley like a lame duck was a gamblerwho had been unable to pay their debts and so were forced to sell their shares at the Stock Exchange in Change Alley and no longer count as an investor. If the funds so raised were still insufficient, a trip to their metaphorical uncle was on the cards.

Cantering Through Cant (27)

If you wereattending a wake or fair in Derbyshire in the 18th century, you might have been tempted to engage in a spot of Tup running. This, Francis Grose informs us in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), involved “a ram, whose tail is well soaped and greased, [being] turned out to the multitude; anyone, who can take him by the tail and hold him fast, is to have him for his own”. I imagine that not many rams were claimed that way.

Tyburn was notorious for being the place where rapscallions were hung in London. A Tyburn blossom was a “young thief or pickpocket, who in time will ripen into fruit borne by the deadly never green”. It gave them something to aim for, I suppose.  

Wigs came in all shapes and sizes and in a bewildering range of styles. A Tyburn top or foretop was one where the foretop was “combed over the eyes in a knowing style; such being much worn by the gentleman pads, scamps, divers and other knowing hands”. It was presumably a type of wig favoured by those Tyburn blossoms who were close to ripening.

We have all probably met a vainglorious or ostentatious man but for those whose argot was cant it meant, metaphorically, someone who pisses more than he drinks. Someone best avoided was a Vice admiral of the narrow seas whom Grose defines as “a drunken man that pisses under the table into his companion’s shoes”. It was worth wearing a pair of waders when out drinking, it would seem.

Cantering Through Cant (26)

The act of travelling can be rather boring. In order to while away the time I remember as a child being encouraged to play I-Spy or a form of cricket where runs and wickets were determined by what we passed. Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) records a predecessor of this rather engrossing game, travelling piquet.

This he defines as “a mode of amusing themselves, practiced by two persons riding in a carriage, each reckoning towards his game the persons or animals that pass by on the side next to them”. He then gives an example of a scoring system.

Seeing a parson riding a grey horse with blue furniture or an old woman under a hedge would be sufficient to win you the game outright. Spotting a cat looking out of a window would score you sixty points and a buggy containing a man, woman, and child would net you forty. A man with a woman behind him would score thirty, but just seeing a solitary man or woman would only be worth one. A flock of sheep would score twenty, while a flock of geese warranted just ten. A post chaise was worth five points and a horseman two. Presumably, it was up to the competitors to determine what the target point score was.

Grose records another game, tray trip, which he likens to scotch hop (or hopscotch as we would know it), “played out on a pavement marked out with chalk into different compartments”. It may have been a street version of an old dice game, tray-trip, where success depended upon throwing a trey or three. The older game is referred to in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; “shall I play my freedom at trip-tray?” (Act 2, scene 5, line 205).

More anon.