Tag Archives: giving a Rowland for an Oliver

Cantering Through Cant (20)

The rich have always been with us and will almost certainly always be so. A cant term for the rich, according to Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), was rhinocerical, a term derived from rhino which meant money.

Ribaldry, “vulgar, abusive language”, has not changed its definition over the centuries, but our lexicographer gives an interesting insight into its derivation. He declares that it was used “by ribalds”. He then goes on to explain that ribalds “were originally mercenary soldiers, who travelled about, serving any master for pay, but afterwards degenerated into a mere banditti”.

Giving a gift is always tricky and many of us feel that we should reciprocate with a gift of equal value or worth. Had we lived in the Georgian era, we might have said that we were giving a Rowland for an Oliver. This, Grose explains, refers to two knights famous in the Romance period, Rowland and Oliver, whose achievements could not be separated.

A ruffian was the devil. An oath Grose uses to illustrate this definition went, “may the ruffian nab the cuffin queer, and let the harmanbeck trine with his kinchins about his colquarron”. It sounds more impressive when read out loud than in cold print but loosely translated as “may the Devil take the justice, and let the constable be hanged with his children about his neck”. A bad cook was described as “ruffian cook ruffian, who scalded the Devil in his feathers”.  The ruffian cly thee meant the Devil take thee.

More from Georgian Romeville aka London next time.