Saturday, July 9, 2011

The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699

In 1699, what would you do if someone offered you “A Willing-Tit”?

The Bodleian Library, which previously published Cawdrey’s “First English Dictionary,” has now published an equally welcome edition of “The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699” with an introduction by John Simpson.

It’s a great read, though not as sleazy as the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, and while claiming to offer explanations of Cant, it also includes phrases and other terms, some of which seem out of place.

For example: “Batter”: “The ingredients for a pudding or pancake, when they are all mixed and stirred together”. The OED gives examples of this from the fifteenth century. But Batter as a verb meant to beat against or bombard, and to call the stuff you beat “a batter” is an extension of meaning equal to Nooz’d: for “married”. The impression of words as static, solid objects independent of usage is a fantasy conveyed by dictionaries. Historical Slang dictionaries dispel the illusion. Not only do you get to see “standard usage” emerging from slang: “To box” is explained as “to fight with the fists” and “Bitter-Cold” is given what now seems an obvious explanation. The difference between “slang” and “standard usage” is one of convention.

The surreal effect of the dictionary is to create a context where the plainest of definitions start to seem suspect. “Rangle; when gravel is given to a Hawk, to bring her to Stomack”. Suddenly the nouns seem to be trying to hide. A hawk? It can’t be the bird? Rangle must have a hidden meaning that only an initiate, fully cognizant of the secret meanings of Gravel and Hawk can unravel. Which is off putting at first and then fun once you give in to it. (The OED explains Rangle; the gravel given to hawks to aid their digestion”). Meaning recedes down an endless chain of lexical paranoia?

If puns are the adulterers of semantics, then slang is often seen as the refuge for the demented escapees of the dictionary’s straight jacket, proof that Un Petit D’un Petit was right and you can make words mean what you want them to mean if you pay them enough. Proof too of the linguistic inventiveness of human beings and perhaps a counter argument to the idea that we are passive victims of the language we enter.

But Cant or Peddler’s French thought to be the secret language of initiate thieves, beggars, tramps and prostitutes, collectively called the canting crew. To modern ears, or mine at least, it has an odd mixture of menace, humour and daftness which I have been plundering for purposes of the current project.

Acoustically phrase and sense don’t always tally. It’s not just lexical meaning that changes but the feel of the shape and sound of the words. Something that may have once sounded downright nasty might sound silly to modern ears.
Darkman’s is the night, and the sinister Darkman’s Budge is a house creeper. That sounds rightly ominous.

The highest title in the twenty-five orders of rogues was a “Ruffler”, one step above an “Upright Man” who has a right to “Dells”. This just sounds suitably opaque to anyone who doesn’t know.

At times the words seem to have been deliberately forced in the wrong direction. “Well, you’re a dim-mort” sounds like an insult but is actually a compliment since a dim mort is a “pretty wench”.

But while I suspect the rogues and thieves of the 17th century would have been a scary bunch, the top man in the Canting Crew was called “The Dimber-Damber”.

“Right you, the Olli-Compoli says we’re taking you to the Dimber-Damber” just doesn’t sound like scary 17th Century Criminal talk. It sounds like something Sir Derek Jacoby would say during a visit to Makka Pakka and the Tombli boos in The Night Garden.

And a “Willing-Tit’? “A little horse, that travels cheerfully”. (and quickly to the OED in case “ a willing horse” means something other than a four legged animal.)

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