Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words

John Camden Hotten - A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words (1860)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

It's easy to get lost in these old slang dictionaries.  Some of the usages are no longer considered slang (such as "bore" as a troublesome friend) while others fell into obscurity and are entertaining to recover.  Seeing them collected isn't just a glimpse into a different time but creates a feel for the instability of language more effectively for most of us than a squad of deconstructionists could do.

This particular dictionary is the best-remembered work by author, antiquarian and publisher John Camden Hotten.  He wrote frequently for the literary press, published biographies of Thackeray and Dickens, did a study of Macaulay's histories and compiled several other reference works.  When one of Swinburne's publishers retreated after legal issues Hotten took over publication of the work.  He was also a sub rosa publisher of erotica, many of which seem to have focused on le vice anglais.  (One was included last November in Christie's auction of the Fekete collection and sold for £5000.)

The dictionary opens with an account of slang and cant along with his sources.  He was particularly focused on "gipseys" but also gets to vagabonds, rogues, "bastard Italian" and highwaymen before moving onto military, religious, legal and university slang.  Hotten also references earlier works on slang and even includes a bibliography that could well supply material for future posts.

On p251 you can find "Some Account of the Back Slang, the Secret Language of Costermongers" where it's claimed that the costers have slang that's more or less the word spelled backwards ("edgabac" is "cabbage").  It's peculiar and I wonder how truthful it is but then again I've never understood why rhyming slang exists either.  Oh, the section on rhyming slang starts on p263.

Some samples:

BUFFLE HEAD, a stupid or obtuse person.


DOG-ON-IT, a form of mild swearing used by boys.

FRUMMAGEMMED, annihilated, strangled, garotted, or spoilt.

NAP THE REGULARS, to divide the booty.

QUOCKERWODGER, a wooden toy figure, which, when pulled by a string, jerks its limbs about. The term is used in a slang sense to signify a pseudo-politician, one whose strings of action are pulled by somebody else.

SNOOKS, an imaginary personage often brought forward as the answer to an idle question, or as the perpetrator of a senseless joke.

YACK, a watch; to "church a yack," to take it out of its case to avoid detection.