I have a copy of delightfully titled The Dictionary of Slang; or, the Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and “Fast” Expressions of High and Low Society. Many with their Etymology, and a Few with their History Traced which was published in London in 1867. This copy is the third edition of the book; the original was published in 1859 and went through several editions and reprintings. It was collated and published by the English publisher and bibliophile John Camden Hotten (1832-1873).
The Dictionary of Slang begins with a history of cant, the ‘secret’ language of vagabonds, ‘those who go from place to place picking up a precarious livelihood by petty sales, begging, or theft’. It includes a ‘cadger’s map’ complete with the heirogyphics often made with chalk on ‘the entrances to the passages in any town’.
From page 15 Hotton reproduces in full what he says is the first ‘Canting Dictionary’ complied by Thomas Hardman ‘who lived in the days of Queen Elizabeth’. It only runs to four and a half pages but although most of the words are unrecognizable, there are a few that are either poetic or plain amusing.
DARKMANS, the night.
LIGHTMANS, the day.
MARGERI PRATER, a hen.
PRAUNCER, a horse.
TO FYLCHE, to steal.
TO THE RUFFIAN, to the Devil.
The final chapter before the dictionary proper examines the history of slang, the language of ‘street humour, of fast, high, and low life’. Within this chapter there are short sections on the slang of various groups such as the military, universities, the theatre, shopkeepers, working men, drinkers and even the religious. Glossaries of back slang and rhyming slang are also included.
The dictionary itself is a veritable treasure trove of words and meanings. There are many words no longer in use but, in quite a few cases, their meaning and etymology is amusingly obvious.
ABSQUATULATE, to run away, or abscond; a hybrid American expression, from the Latin ab, and ‘squat’, to settle
BONE PICKER, a footman.
CAT-LAP, a contemptuous expression for weak drink. [To a degree still in use with the latter part modified to heighten the contempt felt for weak drink.]
CUSTOMHOUSE-OFFICER, an aperient pill.
GUT-SCRAPER, a fiddler.
MOLROWING, ‘out on the spree’, in company with so-called ‘gay women’. In allusion to the amatory serenadings of the London cats.
PENSIONER, a man of the most degraded morals who lives off the miserable earnings of a prostitute. [I hate to think what an old age pensioner is.]
RUSTY GUTS, a blunt, rough, old fellow. Corruption of RUSTICUS.
SCANDAL-WATER, tea; from old maids’ tea-parties being generally a focus for scandal.
What is interesting is the vast number of words that have made their way into everyday English; some, even, would not be out of place in formal written English. This is the joy of a living adaptable language.
Below is a small selection of mid-19th century cant or slang words that are now an unexceptional part of ordinary English (with their definitions from The Dictionary of Slang).
ALMIGHTY DOLLAR, an American expression for the ‘power of money’, first introduced by Washington Irving in 1837.
BACK OUT, to retreat from a difficulty; the reverse of GO AHEAD. Metaphor borrowed from the stables.
BOOZE, to drink, or more properly, to use another Slang term, to ‘lush’, viz., to drink continually, until drunk, or nearly so. The term is an old one. Harman, in Queen Elizabeth’s days, speaks of ‘BOUSING (or boozing) and belly-cheere’. The term was good English in the fourteenth century, and came from the Dutch, BUYZEN, to tipple.
BUBBLE AND SQUEAK , a dish composed of pieces of cold boiled meat and greens, and afterwards fried, which have thus first BUBBLED in the pot, and then SQUEAKED or hissed in the pan.
CHATTER-BOX, an incessant talker or chatterer.
DOGS, TO GO TO THE, to be commercially or socially ruined. Originally a stable term applied to old or worthless horses, sold to feed hounds.
EGG, or EGG ON, to excite, stimulate, or provoke one person to quarrel with another, &c. Corruption of edge, or edge on. — Ancient.
GLUM, sulky, stern; ‘to look glum’, to appear annoyed or disconcerted.
LINGO, talk, or language. Slang is termed lingo, amongst the lower orders. Italian, LINGUA. — Lingua Franca.
MARINE, or MARINE RECRUIT, an empty bottle. This expression having once been used in the presence of an officer of marines, he was at first inclined to take it as an insult, until someone adroitly appeased his wrath by remarking that no offence could be meant, as all that it could possibly imply was, ‘one who had done his duty, and was ready to do it again’ — Naval. [My father used to refer to empties as ‘dead marines’.]
MATE, the term a coster or low person applies to a friend, partner, or companion ; ‘me and my MATE did so and so’, is a common phrase with a low Londoner. — Originally a Sea term.
NAB, to catch, to seize; ‘NAB the rust’, to take offence. — Ancient, fourteenth century.
NIPPER, a small boy. Old Cant for a boy cut-purse.
NOUSE, comprehension, perception. — Old, apparently from the Greek, VOUS. Gaelic and Irish NOS; knowledge, perception.
QUANDARY, described in the dictionaries as a ‘low word’, may fittingly be given here. It illustrates, like HOCUS POCUS, and other compound colloquialisms, the singular origin of Slang expressions. QUANDARY, a dilemma, a doubt, a difficulty, is from the French, QU’EN DIRAI-JE? — [Stephen] Skinner.
SCARPER, to run away. — Spanish, escapar, to escape, make off; Italian, SCAPPARE. ‘SCARPER with the feele of the donna of the cassey’,to run away with the daughter of the landlady of the house; almost pure Italian, ‘SCAPPARE COLLA FIGLIA DELLA DONNA DELLA CASA’. — Seven Dials and Prison Cant, from the Lingua Franca.
SPICK AND SPAN, applied to anything that is quite new and fresh.
TOUCHY, peevish, irritable. [Samuel] Johnson terms it a low word.
WHEEDLE, to entice by soft words. ‘This word cannot be found to derive itself from any other, and is therefore looked upon as wholly invented by the canters.”— Triumph of Wit, 1705.
WOOL-GATHERING, said of any person’s wits when they are wandering or in reverie. [John/Giovanni] Florio.
Digitized versions of the 1864 edition of The Dictionary of Slang can be found at archive.org.