Monday, May 25, 2015

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)

     [A Member of the Whip Club] Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) Foreword by R. Cromie, 1971. This version is based on an earlier one, with additions and corrections. Obviously hastily printed, with numerous typos, and bleeding ink on many pages. This is a photolithographed copy of the original.
     Anyone who likes to know how the language develops will find this a useful source. Besides, it’s entertaining, which I think was the intention of the compilers. Like any specialised dictionary, it’s also a snapshot of the culture. To judge from this list, the 18th and early 19th century was a brutal time. There are multiple words for hanging, for theft (a trade with many specialties); begging; prostitution and prostitutes; copulation; drink; jokes and japes, many of them cruel; and frauds. There are many more words for women’s than for men’s private parts, which either reflects the fact that a man compiled the book, or that women aren’t as interested in talking about men’s parts as men are in talking about women’s.
     The picture of daily life and its dangers and pleasures is a good antidote to the romanticised one that most readers of Austen take from her books. But it also helps us grasp the subtext of 18/19th century literature better. Many words and phrases have improved or worsened in meaning; some have become innocuous colloquialisms in one of their senses. “Rum” has become a negative. “Quip” has become to mean a one-line joke. “Plump” was slang or cant back then, and is now ordinary usage. And so on. We still fear burglary, theft, and robbery, but it was much more of a daily (and nightly) threat then than it is now.
     Many of the terms are “jeering appellations” of people suffering from some physical flaw or disability, or merely the effects of age. “Hopping Giles” referred to as man with a limp, as St Giles was the patron of lepers, etc. I don’t know if we are kinder now, but we don’t have near the number of such terms as are listed here.
     There are a few surprises. “Yorkshire Dolly” refers to a contrivance for washing, by means of a wheel fixed in a tub, which being turned about, agitates and cleanses the linen put into it, with soap and water. A washing machine, which is not as modern an invention as we may think.
     The net effect of reading through this list of words is the feeling that life is a lot safer and more pleasant now. ***

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