The first dictionaries were the secret language of rogues, beggars and vagabonds
For lexicographers, lowlives and librarians

dictionary

Are you an “arsworm” (“a little diminutive Fellow”) or a “bundletail” (“a short Fat or squat Lass”)?

Dictionaries of slang have been delighting lexicographers, lowlives and librarians since the sixteenth century.

Actually, much longer than what we think of as a “proper” dictionary.

The Canting Crew Slang Dictionary

In 1699, an anonymous lexicographer known only as “B. E., Gent.” published the first comprehensive dictionary of English slang.

English gentility was fascinated by the crude, mysterious vocabulary of the ‘canting crew.”

The “Canting crew” were gypsies, beggars, thieves, and cheats.

Canting language was prurient, rude and witty.

Thieves had their own cryptic vocabulary.

People would buy these dictionaries so they could understand what thieves were talking about.

According to its full title, the dictionary was intended to be “useful for all sorts of people (especially foreigners) to secure their money and preserve their lives.”

Knowing what “Fib the Cove’s quarrons in the Rum-pad, for the Lour in his Bung” meant might avoid getting your pocket picked – or worse.

It means “Beat the Man in the High-way lustily for the Money in his Purse”.

In other words, slang could save your life—or your wallet.

The slang dictionary was also, of course, meant to amuse and titillate the polite London classes.

FARTING CRACKERS

Breeches. The best synonym for trousers you’ll ever run into.

A GOOD VOICE TO BEG BACON

Telling someone they’ve “a good voice to beg bacon” is the 17th-century version of “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

THOROUGH-COUGH

Coughing and farting at the same time. Fart humor is eternal

CRAMP-WORDS

Difficult or obscure words are cramp-words.

PICKTHANK

A gossiping telltale or someone who spreads malicious rumors in order to “curry favor.”

FIDDLER’S PAY

Being thanked and bought a drink, but not being paid for your work, is fiddler’s pay.

CHIRPING-MERRY

Feeling in a good mood because you’re having a drink with friends?

You’re chirping-merry—or, as B.E. put it, “very pleasant over a glass of good liquor.”

GRUMBLETONIANS

This one is particularly relevant today.

It describes “Malecontents, out of Humour with the Government, for want of a Place, or having lost one”.

 

Happy World Dictionary Day, October 16th.

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.