How to speak improper

A plate of oysters by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) Oyster: "a gob of thick phlegm, spit by a consumptive man"
A Plate of Oysters by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827)
Oyster: “a gob of thick phlegm, spit by a consumptive man”

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
Foreword by Max Harris
Senate / Studio Editions 1994 (1811)

No, that’s not good enough. The title page of the original (a facsimile is included in this edition) is much more informative as well as entertaining, and is worth reproducing, after a fashion.

Lexicon Balatronicum

Buckish Slang, University Wit,

Compiled originally by Captain Grose.

Hell-Fire Dick, and James Gordon, Esqrs. of Cambridge; and William
Soames, Esq. of the Hon. Society of Newman’s Hotel.

So just what is this Lexicon Balatonicum and what was its purpose? To answer the last first: it was a spoof dictionary, a compilation of obscure and not so obscure words and phrases put together for a laugh. The clue is in its first title: a ‘balatron’ is a joker, a clown, a buffoon. Max Harris’ 1980 foreword informs us that its 1785 precursor was put together by Francis Grose, who died in 1791 (yes, there are a lot of dates here). “The merit,” as Hell-Fire Dick and his colleagues tell us, “of Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue has been long and universally acknowledged. But its circulation was confined almost exclusively to the lower orders of society…” So the 1811 editors incorporated a few extra entries for an audience which could include “the man of worth”, who was now able to “swear with a good grace” and to “talk bawdy before their papas without the fear of detection”.

Moreover, the editors tell us earnestly that the lexicon’s moral influence will be more effective than a Methodist sermon, for by learning how to phrase remarks in this alternative lingo “improper topics can with our assistance be discussed” between brothers and servants of a family in front of the ladies “without raising a blush on the cheek of modesty”. For females, this Dictionary avers, will never comprehend the true meaning of terms such as twiddle diddles…

To be sure, a large proportion of this book of reference is devoted to bodily functions and the like. Even now, two centuries and more later, it’s very hard to acknowledge without the use of asterisks a notoriously vulgar term that is here famously defined as “a nasty name for a nasty thing”, though heaven knows there are enough synonyms for it throughout these pages, such as the quaint euphemism “the Monosyllable”. And I will now never ever knowingly use the term nincompoop, so thank you Max Harris for drawing attention to it. And now I have done the same for you.

But, for the social historian and the linguist, there are plenty of other riches. Here are some terms and customs plucked at random from the pages, which might be used with great advantage even today.
CROW FAIR. A visitation of the clergy.
KITTLE PITCHERING. A jocular method of hobbling or bothering a troublesome teller of long stories.
PIGEON’S MILK. Boys and novices are frequently sent on the first of April to buy pigeon’s milk.
RIBALDRY. Vulgar abusive language, such as was spoken by ribalds. Ribalds were originally mercenary soldiers…

Some of the longer entries are fascinating, such as the twenty-three “orders” of the “canting CREW”, from rufflers to priggers, bawdy baskets to doxies; or the unpleasant custom of Riding Skimington. This edition presents the text in facsimile, which adds to its attractiveness, even if the mere recitation of some of the Dictionary’s entries underlines the unattractiveness of contemporary attitudes to all and sundry. At least no one is spared the whips of scorn so none need feel left out of the general opprobrium displayed in all its tawdry glory.

7 thoughts on “How to speak improper

  1. Now you’ve got me worried, as I’ve just used the nin-word in a children’s book I’m writing. It sounds so ridiculous. Am I going to have to remove it?


    1. I shouldn’t worry, Julia, it’s perfectly innocent now, having lost its connotations over two centuries — and if it’s in a modern dictionary without vulg or obscene next to it then you’re perfectly safe!


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