Slang in the 1780s

Dovedale by Moonlight

Dovedale by Moonlight, by Joseph Wright (c. 1784). Nothing to do with the blog post other than being contemporary to the book, but a stunning work of art!

Snippets 66.  Francis Grose (1731-1791) was a noted antiquarian who wrote a series of books about medieval antiquities. Financial difficulties inspired him to branch out into other areas of writing, and his first such publication was A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, in 1785. Slang was a good choice of topic, as it would be entertaining and have a wide appeal. However, it stands as a useful record of the language in the 18th Century beyond the formal language studied by lexicographers. The following are some selected terms from letters A and B, chosen (in the spirit of the original publication) for entertainment value as much as anything. Profanities (mild by today’s standards) were sometimes censored with hyphens in the original text. I have changed these to asterisks and employed a consistent system where the original was erratic, to avoid confusion.

Adam Tiler: a pickpocket’s associate, who receives the stolen goods, and runs off with them.

Alderman: a roasted turkey garnished with sausages: the latter are supposed to represent the gold chains worn by those magistrates.

Altitudes: the man is in his altitudes, i.e. he is drunk.

Ambidexter: a lawyer who takes fees from both plaintiff and defendant.

Anchor: bring your a*se to an anchor. i.e. sit down.

Apple Dumplin Shop: a woman’s bosom.

A*se: to hang back… He would lose his a*se if it was loose: said of a careless person.

Ask my a*se: a common reply to any question; still deemed wit at sea, and formerly at court, under the denomination of selling bargains.

Bacon faced: full faced.

Ballocks: the testicles of a man or beast; also a vulgar nickname for a person.

Barnaby: an old dance to a quick movement.

Bartholemew Baby: a person dressed up in a tawdry manner, like the dolls or babies sold at Bartholemew fair.

Batch: we had a pretty batch of it last night; we had a hearty dose of liquor.

Baudrans: a cat.

Beau-nasty: a slovenly fop; one finely dressed, but dirty.

Beau trap: a loose stone in a pavement, under which water lodges, and on being trod upon, squirts it up, to the great damage of white stockings.

Beetle-browed: one having thick projecting eyebrows.

Beetle-headed: dull, stupid.

Belch: all sorts of beer; that liquor being apt to cause eructation.

Belly cheat: an apron.

Bilk: to cheat. Let us bilk the rattling cove: let us cheat the hackney coachman of his fare.

Black Monday: the first Monday after the school boys’ holidays, or breaking up, when they are to go to school, and produce or repeat the tasks set them.

Blubber cheeks: large flaccid cheeks, hanging like the fat or blubber of a whale.

Bobbed: cheated, tricked, disappointed.

Bone box: the mouth. Shut your bone box; shut your mouth.

Born under a threepenny halfpenny planet, never to be worth a groat: said of any person remarkably unsuccessful in their attempts or profession.

Bouncer: a large man or woman.

Boosey: drunk.

Bracket-faced: ugly, hard-featured.

Bub: strong beer.

Buffle-headed: confused, stupid.

There are also many slang terms which are still familiar today. Interestingly, “baker’s dozen” is listed as “fourteen; that number of rolls being allowed to the purchasers of a dozen”, rather than the more familiar thirteen. Perhaps bakers became less generous over the years!

Grose went on to write on a variety of topics, including proverbs, superstitions, army life and further works on antiquities. We will take another look at his dictionary in a future snippet.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 18th Century, Books, Britain, England, History, Humor, Humour, Language, Snippets and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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