The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Author: Francis GrosePublisher: Hesperus Press

Imagine yourself as a respectable gentleman lying in some East End gutter in the nineteenth century, after a night of too many knock-me-downs. To your surprise, you find yourself next to a wagtail in vampers you are unacquainted with. You discover you are all Saint Audrey except for want of your inexpressibles, smelling of taplash and a member mug. As you jerrycummumble about with your jobbernole feeling like lead, suddenly, a light-fingered word grubber straight from limbo hawks at you. While pointing his snappers at you, in a lingo unbeknownst to you he threatens to blast your top lights if you don’t hand over all your rhino. After he has reversed you for all your King’s pictures – calling you an uppish wiseacre in the process – you find yourself unable to hold your own accounts and shoot the cat in his general direction. At that very moment, the aforementioned lathy wench wakes up, and out of nowhere proceeds to curse you, stating that you are indeed a pug-nosed fellow, fit for the three-legged mare. Finally, madder than Old Harry, she slaps you in the face, and says:

“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”

If by chance you would find yourself in such an unlucky situation, then have no fear: Because this is the book for you!

Full of colourful phrases and cheeky colloquialisms, The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is a feast of language that would make Jane Austen’s nerves shatter. Compiled in 1811, its fascinating foreword rejoices in presenting Britain’s first compendium of naughty and boorish words – outmatching the wit of the French peasantry by far, of course. As a cautionary note, its creator, Captain Grose begs those of a gentler constitution not to take too much offence at what should purely be considered a scientific catalogue.

When you think about it, this was essentially a gentleman’s guide to the foreign country that the dockyards and dodgy alley’s of Cockney London must have represented for the upper classes. Throughout the ages, slang has been a code language, a way of speaking clearly among an in-crowd while appearing to speak gibberish to outsiders. This dictionary was a way for the gentry to unlock the secrets of the folks downstairs – perhaps to make sure that none of them were secretly plotting against their employers!

Unfortunately, as a new publication, it hasn’t aged well. While its 21st century packaging might give the impression that this is a novelty booklet fit for light dinner conversations or to delight in during private sanitary moments, it is a quick modern reprint of the Georgian equivalent. While the vulgar language exemplified throughout the book has mostly gone out of fashion two-hundred years ago, the language used to translate it into standard English is also antiquated – and sometimes difficult to understand for modern speakers. Because of this, the booklet is not as useful or funny as it could have been.

Yes, this booklet has its moments and is good for a few giggles; but it is rather unlikely to hold the interest of even the most avid language lover for very long. Yet, as a historical artefact, it is worth reprinting, as well as rereading.

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