Ephemera: A Book.

A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and
Vulgar Words

By a London Antiquary.

Second Edition, London, John Camden Hotten, Picadilly, 1860.

This is a fascinating old book! The title page carries this voluminous subtitle:

Used at the Present Day in the Streets of London; the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; the Houses of Parliament; the Dens of St. Giles; and the Palace of St. James
Preceded by a
History of Cant and Vulgar Language;
Glossaries of Two Secret Languages,
Spoken by the wandering tribes of London, the Costermongers, and the Patterers

The author of this "interesting little book," who chose to remain anonymous, secured the services of "chaunters and tramps" and other "low people" in order to collect what was, in its day, a comprehensive dictionary of "cant" and "slang words" used by the lower class -- and an ethnic group known as 'Gypseys.'

(Another secret spoken language, known as Parlari, was used in "British circuses," and included words "that definitely come from the Gipsy language Romani and others that sound like familiar words from other European languages." See Peter Bendall's page here.)

"Cant" is defined as a secret language used to "conceal [the] designs" of vagabonds, would-be robbers, cut-purses, and the like -- "the vulgar language of secrecy". By comparison, "slang" is defined as "low or vulgar language of any kind," including 'cant' terms which became part of everyday language -- a process still very much going on today. Many of these terms are, in the author's words, "vulgar and often very objectionable, but still terms in every-day use, and employed by thousands."

What is interesting is how many slang words and phrases in common use in 1860 (and before; this is the second edition) are still in use today.

Any comments of mine are [set apart like this] -- otherwise, the definitions below are verbatim.

From "Vulgar Words from the Gipsey"
BAMBOOZLE, to perplex or mislead by hiding.
GIBBERISH, the language of Gypseys, synonymous with SLANG.
DRAWERS, hose or "hosen" - in 1860, "the lining for trousers."
FYLCH, to rob

Old English Words turned to Cant
"...ancient nobles used to 'get each other's dander up' before appealing to their swords -- quite FLABERGASTING (also a respectable old word) the lookers-on..."
" ...to do anything GINGERLY was to do it with great care."

Words from the Dictionary Itself, "Many with their etymologies traced"
A1, first rate, the very best; "she's a prime girl she is; she is A 1." -- Sam Slick
AN'T, or AIN'T, the vulgar abbreviation of "am not," or "are not."
BAKER'S DOZEN. This consists of thirteen or fourteen; the surplus number, called the inbread, being thrown in for fear of incurring the penalty for short weight. To "give a man a baker's dozen," in a slang sense, means to give him an extra good beating or pummeling.
BOBBY, a policeman. Both BOBBY and PEELER were nicknames given to the new police, in allusion to the christian and surnames of the late Sir Robert Peel, who was the prime mover in effecting their introduction and improvement. The term BOBBY is, however, older than the Saturday Reviewer, in his childish and petulant remarks, imagines. The official square-keeper, who is always armed with a cane to drive away idle and disorderly urchins, has, time out of mind, been called by the said urchins, BOBBY the Beadle. BOBBY is also, I may remark, an old English word for striking or hitting, a quality not unknown to policemen. -- See Halliwell's Dictionary.
JAW, speech, or talk; "hold your JAW," don't speak any more; "what are you JAWING about?" i.e. what are you making a noise about?
JAZEY, a wig. A corruption of JERSEY, the name for flax prepared in a peculiar manner, and of which common wigs were formerly made.
JEMMY, a crowbar. [Now known as a "jimmy" -- as in "Let's jimmy the lock."]
JOB, a short piece of work, a prospect of employment. Johnson describes JOB as a low word, without etymology. It is, and was, however, a cant word, and a JOB, two centuries ago, was an arranged robbery. Even at the present day it is mainly confined to the streets, in the sense of employment for a short time. Among undertakers a JOB signifies a funeral; "to do a JOB," conduct any one's funeral; "by the JOB," i.e., piece-work, as opposed to time-work. A JOB in political phraseology is a Government office or contract, obtained by secret influence or favoritism.
KIBOSH, nonsense, stuff, humbug; "it's all KIBOSH," i.e., palaver or nonsense; "to put on the KIBOSH," to run down, slander, degrade, &c; - see BOSH.

Some Terms Haven't Changed...
  • BETTER, more; "how far is it to town?" "oh, bettern'n a mile." -- Saxon and Old English, now a vulgarism.
  • BLUBBER, to cry
  • BOOZE, to drink until drunk
  • FILCH, to steal, or purloin. Originally a cant word, derived from the FILCHES, or hooks, thieves used to carry, to hook clothes, or any portable articles from open windows
  • HANG OUT, to reside, - in allusion to the ancient custom of hanging out signs.
  • KICK THE BUCKET, to die
  • KID, an infant, or child; or, to joke, to quiz, to hoax anybody.
  • NAB, to catch. Ancient, fourteenth century
  • PLOUGHED, drunk [Spelled 'plowed' now]
  • POT, "to go to pot," to die; from the classic custom of putting the ashes of the dead in an urn; also, to be ruined -- often applied to tradesmen who fail in business
  • POT-LUCK, just as it comes; to take POT-LUCK, i.e., one's chaunce of a dinner, - a hearty term used to signify whatever the pot contains you are welcome to.
  • SHARK, a sharper, a swindler. Bow-street term in 1785, now in most dictionaries
  • SNOBBISH, stuck up, proud, make believe.
  • TODDLE, to walk as a child.
  • TOPSY-TURVEY, the bottom upwards. Gross gives an ingenious etymology of this once cant term, viz., "top-side turf-ways," -- turf always being laid the wrong side upwards.
SIXES AND SEVENS, articles in confusion are said to be all SIXES and SEVENS. The Deity is mentioned in the Towneley Mysteries as He that "sett all on seven," i.e., set or appointed everything in seven days. A similar phrase at this early date implied confusion and disorder, and from these, Halliwell thinks, has been derived the phrase "to be at SIXES AND SEVENS." A Scotch correspondent, however, states that the phrase probably came from the workshop, and that amongst needle makers when the points and eyes are "heads and tails" ("heeds and thraws"), or in confusion, they are said to be SIXES AND SEVENS, because those numbers are the sizes most generally used, and in the course of manufacture have frequently to be distinguished.

...Others Have Vanished Altogether
  • BEARGERED, to be drunk
  • CAT AND KITTEN SNEAKING, stealing pint and quart pots from public-houses
  • FAWNEY, a finger ring
  • FLESH AND BLOOD, brandy and port in equal quantities
  • HEN AND CHICKENS, large and small pewter pots
  • HOP THE TWIG, to run away, or BOLT, which see
  • IT'S GOOD ON THE STAR, it's easy to open
  • PUDDING SNAMMER, one who robs a cook shop

The Oldest "Rogues Dictionary:"
The author says this is "the first Canting Dictionary ever compiled... the work of one Thos. Harman, a gentleman who lived in the days of Queen Elizabeth."
  • BAUDYE BASKETS, bee women who goe with baskets and capcases on their armes, wherein they have laces, pinnes, nedles, whyte inkel, and round sylke like gyrdels of all colours.
  • BYNGE A WASTE, go you hence.
  • KYNCHING MORTE, is a little gyrle, carried at their mothers' backe in a slate, or sheete, who brings them up sauagely. [Could that be 'snugly'?]
  • MYLE, to robbe.
  • PRYGGES, dronken Tinkers, or beastly people.
  • QUIER CUFFIN, the iustice of peace. [Now spelled 'justice']
  • TYB OF THE BUTERY, a goose
  • YANNAM, bread

Some Account of the Rhyming Slang,
The secret language of Chaunters and Patterers

"There exists in London a singular tribe of men, known amongst the 'fraternity of vagabonds' as Chaunters and Patterers. Both classes are great talkers. The first sing or chaunt through the public thoroughfare ballads -- political and humorous -- carols, dying speeches, and the various other kinds of gallows and street literature. The second deliver street orations on grease-removing compounds, plating powders, high polishing blacking, and the thousand and more wonderful pennyworths that are retailed to gaping mobs from a London kerb stone. [Sounds a little too much like TV commercials!]

"They are quite a distinct tribe from the costermongers; indeed, amongst tramps, they term themselves the 'harristocrats of the streets,' and boast that they live by their intellects. Like the costermongers, however, they have a secret tongue or Cant speech, known only to each other.

"This Cant, which has nothing to do with that spoken by the costermongers, is known in Seven Dials and elsewhere as the RHYMING SLANG, or the substitution of words and sentences which rhyme with other words intended to be kept secret. The chaunter's Cant, therefore, partakes of his calling, and he transforms and uses up into a rough speech the various odds and ends of old songs, ballads, and street nick-names, which are found suitable to his purpose.

"Unlike nearly all other systems of Cant, the rhyming Slang is not founded upon allegory; unless we except a few rude similes, thus -- I'M AFLOAT is the rhyming Cant for boat, SORROWFUL TALE is equivalent to three months in jail, ARTFUL DODGER signifies a lodger, and a SNAKE IN THE GRASS stands for a looking-glass -- a meaning that would delight a fat Chinaman, or a collector of Oriental proverbs.

"But, as in the case of the costers' speech and the old gipsey-vagabond Cant, the chaunters and patterers so interlard this rhyming Slang with their general remarks, while their ordinary language is so smothered and subdued, that, unless when they are professionally engaged and talking of their wares, they might almost pass for foreigners..."

     -- from the book

Examples of The Rhyming Slang
  • APPLES AND PEARS, stairs
  • BONNETS SO BLUE, Irish stew
  • BROWN BESS, yes - the affirmative
  • BROWN JOE, no - the negative
  • COWS AND KISSES, mistress or missus
  • JACK DANDY, brandy
  • MACARONI, a pony
  • NEVER FEAR, a pint of beer
  • OVER THE STILE, sent for trial
  • PLOUGH THE DEEP, to go to sleep
  • SALMON TROUT, the mouth (mout')
  • SUGAR AND HONEY, money
  • TURTLE DOVES, a pair of gloves

For more about Cockney Rhyming Slang, click here or here.

If anyone is curious about unfamiliar words in their family history, I'll be happy to see if they are in this book -- just email me.

Links to other online slang dictionaries: