I’m Not Waiting For The Paperback, This Time

The first dictionary of slang, out of print for 300 years, is being published by the Bodleian Library, Oxford from a rare copy unearthed in its collections.Originally entitled A New Dictionary of Terms, Ancient and Modern, of the Canting Crew, its aim was to educate the polite London classes in ‘canting’ – the language of thieves and ruffians – should they be unlucky enough to wander into the ‘wrong’ parts of town.

With over 4,000 entries, the dictionary contains many words which are now part of everyday parlance, such as ‘Chitchat’ and ‘Eyesore’ as well as a great many which have become obsolete, such as the delightful ‘Dandyprat’ and ‘Fizzle’. Remarkably, this landmark of English from 1699 was compiled and published anonymously, by an author who has left us only his initials – ‘B.E. Gent [gentleman]’.

Playfully highlighting similarities and contrasts between words, B.E. includes entries ranging from rogues’ cant, through terms used by sailors, labourers, and those in domestic culture, to words and phrases used by the upper classes. In his introduction to the Dictionary, John Simpson, the Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, explores B.E.’s decision to interweave rogues’ cant with the everyday insults and slang of his day:

‘Cant was the secret language of the rogues, beggars and vagabonds who peopled the underworld of early England. The word ‘slang’ itself is not recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary until 1756. … Short lists of canting vocabulary had been available in print since at least the early sixteenth century, but they had always been tucked away in longer texts. B.E. was the first person to present the canting tongue in dictionary form.’

B.E.’s dictionary is a lost gem. It offers real insight into life during the period and bristles with humorous and eminently quotable definitions, many of which reveal the earthier side of seventeenth-century London. Now available to the general reader, this book offers a tantalising glimpse of the linguistic richness of English, at a time when slang was being codified.

Sample Entries

Anglers, c. Cheats, petty Thieves, who have a Stick with a hook at the end, with which they pluck things out of Windows, Grates, &c. also those that draw in People to be cheated.

Arsworm, a little diminutive Fellow.

Buffenapper, c. a Dog-stealer, that Trades in Setters, Hounds, Spaniels, Lap, and all sorts of Dogs, Selling them at a round Rate, and himself or Partner Stealing them away the first opportunity.

Bumfodder, what serves to wipe the Tail.

Bundletail, a short Fat or squat Lass.

Cackling-farts, c. Eggs.

Dandyprat, a little puny Fellow.

Farting-crackers, c. Breeches.

Fizzle, a little or low-sounding Fart.

Humptey-dumptey, Ale boild with Brandy.

Grumbletonians, Malecontents, out of Humour with the Government, for want of a Place, or having lost one.

Keeping Cully, one that Maintains a Mistress, and parts with his Money very generously to her.

Knock down, very strong Ale or Beer.

Lantern-jaw’d, a very lean, thin faced Fellow.

Mawdlin, weepingly Drunk.

Mopsie, a Dowdy, or Homely Woman

Muddled, half Drunk.

Mutton-in-long-coats, Women. A Leg of Mutton in a Silk-Stocking, a Woman’s Leg.

One of my Cosens, a Wench

Pharoah, very strong Mault-Drink.

Princock, a pert, forward Fellow

Provender, c. he from whom any Money is taken on the Highway.

Strum, c. a Periwig. Rum-Strum, c. a long Wig; also a handsom Wench, or Strumpet.

Urchin, a little sorry Fellow; also a Hedgehog.

Willing-Tit, a little Horse that Travels chearfully.

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