Can You Tell Your Croaker
From Your Fator or Your Papler from Your Fromenty?
If you write or read about the Georgian and
Regency era sooner or later you are going to come across examples of the rich
culture of slang, cant and lingo used by the underworld, sportsmen and the
gentlemen who patronised both.
Slang and cant were a source of fascination
to ‘polite society’ from the 1770s onwards and, as the century drew to a close
and the new morality and better crime fighting threatened the violent and
colourful Georgian underworld, scholars, dictionary-makers and the curious
began to collect those worlds and phrases together.
Francis Grose (1731-1791) is perhaps the
best known of these dictionary-makers, although by no means the first. He
produced the first edition of his Classical
Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785. A second edition appeared in 1788
and a third in 1796, five years after his death.
Grose was the son of a Swiss jeweller,
although he was born in Middlesex. He received a classical education and
inherited a comfortable income of which he was exceedingly careless. He was very
fat (described by the Dictionary of National Biography as ‘a sort of
antiquarian Falstaff’) and must have made a noticeable figure when he ventured
with his servant Batch into the slums and rookeries and hells of London,
notebook in hand.
Grose used existing dictionaries extensively,
some dating as far back as 1608, as well as his own observations, to produce
his collection of ‘Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence.’
After his death The Lexicon Balatronicum appeared in 1811. Based on the second edition
of Grose it had about three hundred additional definitions.
In 1823 Pierce Egan, the sporting
journalist and author of the famous Life
In London (1821) produced what he called a third edition of Grose’s Vulgar Tongue using the Lexicon as his basis, although he did
not acknowledge it, reprinting instead the frontispieces to Grose’s first and
second editions. This version brings in many of Egan’s trademark sporting terms
and phrases and also draws on a number of contemporary sources.
John Badcock, another sporting writer and a
less-successful competitor of Egan’s, produced Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, The Ring, The Chase, The Pit, of
Bon-Ton and the Varieties of Life… in 1823 under the nom de plume of John
Bee. His introduction includes a vitriolic attack on Egan and his text includes
a wider variety of sources.
Not surprisingly, crime and punishment
feature large in the terms collected – 28 terms for conning someone, over 30
for various aspects of picking pockets and 27 for being hanged. Drink and
drunkenness are also major themes and the section on food reveals a
preoccupation with roasting pigs’ heads!
Terms relating to sex and prostitution are,
unsurprisingly, common, including some for ‘lascivious practices which will not
Besides the categories above and a variety
of topics such as insults, money-lending and boxing, there are a wealth of
delightful discoveries to be found – a cherry-coloured cat is black; a
moon-curser is a link boy (who gets less trade when the moon is full); the
House of Lords is the House of Noodles; to be in good health is to be in plump
currant and rain is dog soup.
Armed with any of the dictionaries you
could order a meal or a snack in some low area of London (if you hadn’t had
your pocket picked first.) If all you can afford is ‘buster and beeswax’ or
bread and cheese, it will taste better if it has been toasted to make a ‘Welsh
rabbit’ or, failing the cheese, you may have to make do with a ‘scratch
platter’ or ‘tailor’s ragout’ of bread and sliced cucumbers slopped in vinegar.
And the terms in the title? Both faytors
and croackers were fortune tellers, papler is milk pottage and frumenty is
wheat boiled to a jelly. Delicious!