Not all vulgar speech is considered “swear words,” referencing sex acts and bodily functions, but many a critic and lexicographer have nonetheless decided that slang, obscene or otherwise, doesn’t belong in polite company with formal diction. Samuel Johnson, the esteemed 18th-century essayist, poet, and compiler of the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language deemed slang “unfit for his learned tome,” writes The Public Domain Review. So, enter Francis Grose to correct the error thirty years later with his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a “compendium of slang” chock full of hilarious idioms of every kind.
There is the bawdy (“Sugar stick—the virile member”), the scatological (“Cackling farts—eggs”), the oddly obscure (“Kittle pitchering—to disrupt the flow of a ‘troublesome teller of long stories’ by constantly questioning and contradicting unimportant details, especially at the start”). Puns make their inevitable way in (“Just-ass—a punning name for justice [judge]”), as of course do comic images for body parts (“Tallywags/Whirligigs—testicles”). Much of this Early Modern English slang sounds to American ears just as colourfully askew as contemporary English slang does (“Dog booby—an awkward lout”; “Captain Queernabs—a shabby ill-dressed fellow”).
Grose, compiler of the dictionary, “was not one for library work” and preferred to collect his specimens in the field where slang lives and breathes—the streets, pubs, and houses of ill-repute. “Supported by his trusty assist Tom Cocking [your joke here],” Grose “cruised the watering holes of Covent Garden and the East End, eating, boozing, and listening. He took pleasure in hearing his name punningly connected to his rotund frame. And he produced a book brimming with Falstaffian life.” Very much a Shakespearean bon vivant, Grose appears as something of a ribald doppelganger of the rotund, yet moralistic and often scowling Dr Johnson. (See his portrait here.)
The so-called “long 18th-Century”—a period lasting from the restoration of the Monarchy after the English Civil War to around the French Revolution—presents a tradition of lewd witticism, from the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, to Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” to the sordid fantasies of the Marquis de Sade. Such pornographic humour and rude earthiness offered a counterweight to heady Enlightenment philosophy, just as Shakespeare’s insults provide needed comic relief for his bloody tragedies. Grose’s dictionary can be seen as adding needed comic local colour to the many serious dictionaries and studies of language that emerged in the 1700s.
But A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is also an important academic resource all its own, and “would strongly influence later dictionaries of this kind,” notes the British Library—those like J. Redding Ware’s 1909 Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase. We can see in Grose’s work how many slang words and phrases still in common use today—like “baker’s dozen,” “gift of the gab,” “birds of a feather,” “birthday suit,” and “kick the bucket”—were just as current well over 200 years ago. And we get a very vivid sense of the world in which Grose moved in the many metaphors employed, most involving food and drink. (A “butcher’s dog,” for example, refers to someone who “lies by the beef without touching it; a simile often applicable to married men.”)
But we needn’t worry too much about scholarly uses for Grose’s work. Instead, we might find ourselves motivated to do as he did, hit the streets and the bars, and maybe bring back into circulation such locutions as “Betwattled” (surprised, confounded, out of one’s senses), “Chimping merry” (exhilarated with liquor), or, perhaps my favorite so far, “Dicked in the nob” (silly, crazed).
Page through Grose’s dictionary above or read it in a larger format (and/or download as a PDF or ePub) at the Internet Archive.
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.
By Elaine Mansfield
“Go to bed,” I told myself. “You need to sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.”
My mind was blurry and jumpy, on the edge of dizzy. I needed stamina and a clear head for my TEDx talk dress rehearsal the next morning. I’d been practising alone and with friends for months, but still didn’t trust I could pull it off.
Why had I applied to give this talk? I didn’t know how to give a long talk without notes. Why had they accepted my proposal? Why was I torturing myself? I knew I’d get emotional and forget everything I wanted to say, but it was too late to back out.
Since I was too wound up to sleep, I decided to clear off a kitchen counter. Order always helps, right? I shuffled through a pile of papers and found a small photo of my first meditation teacher. It was a copy of the same photo I taped to my husband Vic’s chest during his last days. When I washed and shrouded Vic’s body six hours after his death, I taped the photo over his heart. His copy of the photo was cremated with him.
How did my copy of this precious photo end up in a messy pile? How could I be careless with the photo I wanted to be cremated with me? I usually carried it in a hidden pocket of my old red wallet where I’d stashed a few treasures.
Contents of the hidden pocket varied over time from quotes by Rumi with photos of the Dalai Lama and Marion Woodman, but this photo of Vic’s and my first spiritual teacher Anthony Damiani was always there. More wired than ever, I emptied the pocket to put the photo where it belonged.
Behind a flap, I noticed a corner of the yellow paper. It was neatly folded and tucked inside a plastic card holder. Was it a quote I wanted to remember? I didn’t know.
I unfolded the paper, making sure not to tear the deep creases. In my husband’s handwriting, I read:
You are the centre of my life. Never doubt my love.
It was a note from Vic, who had died six years before. A love note was written in his clear Catholic school handwriting delivering words I needed to hear that night.
He must have left it on the kitchen counter or dining room table when he was alive. Did he write it when he was sick and death was near? Did I tuck it into my treasure compartment knowing there wouldn’t be more love notes?
I didn’t know. So much was forgotten in those frantic days.
I had been the centre of Vic’s life, especially in his last two struggling years when I circled him with love. Even dead, he was still the centre of my inner worlds.
After his death, his support continued. A handwritten comment pencilled into the margin of a book or an email written to a friend who forwarded it to me. I dreamed of Vic often and thought of him every day, but this note was a gift from the Other Side.
As I read the words, again and again, tears rolled down my cheeks. Thank you for your love, Vic. Thank you, frazzled Elaine, for saving this note. Thanks to the unseen forces that revealed the note tonight.
The next day, I went through my talk at the dress rehearsal with surprising calmness despite a few glitches. The day after, I walked on the TEDx Chemung River stage and delivered “Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss.”
Grief is an inevitable part of life. Grief is a teacher. Grief is another stage of love.
I didn’t fall apart or forget what I wanted to say. Vic’s love was with me, giving me the support I needed. I didn’t need to understand why I found the note at that moment. I didn’t need to remember when or why he wrote it. I found it when I was scared, doing the most daring thing in my new life, and sharing the hardest experiences.
I knew just what to do.
Before walking on stage, I slipped Vic’s love note in my bra, right over my heart.
Elaine Mansfield’s book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief won the 2015 Independent Publishers Book Award Gold Medal for Aging, Death, and Dying. Her TEDx talk is “Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss” now has over 115,000 viewers. Elaine facilitates workshops, volunteers with hospice, spends time in the forest with her dog and tree-hugging family and friends and writes a blog.