30 Excellent Terms From a 17th Century Slang Dictionary

Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

In 1699, an anonymous lexicographer known only as “B. E., Gent.” published the first comprehensive dictionary of non-standard English. Although shorter word lists and glossaries of slang terminology had been published previously, B.E.’s New Dictionary of the Canting Crew listed over 4000 words and phrases, and is credited with being the first such publication resembling a modern dictionary. As a result, it remained the standard reference work for English slang and jargon for almost another century.

According to its full title, the dictionary was intended to be “useful for all sorts of people (especially foreigners) to secure their money and preserve their lives.” Clearly, B.E.’s intention was that anyone unfamiliar with the cryptic language used by “beggars, thieves, cheats, &c.” to outsmart their targets could educate themselves accordingly—although he added to the subtitle that the collection was also intended merely to be “very diverting and entertaining” too.

So if you’ve ever wanted to talk like a 17th century swindler, now’s your chance: Here are 30 choice entries from B.E.’s groundbreaking collection.

1. ADDLE-PLOT

B. E. defined this as a “Martin Mar-All,” and in doing so name-checked the title character of a 1667 comedy by John Dryden that would have been popular at the time. But in modern terms, an addle-plot is someone who spoils or ruins the progress of any undertaking—a spoilsport.

2. AMBIDEXTER

If you’re ambidextrous, you’re able to use both hands equally well. But if you’re an ambidexter, you’re “one that goes snacks [divide profits] in gaming with both parties”—or, put another way, an untrustworthy double-dealer.

3. ANTIQUATED ROGUE

An ex-thief.

4. ARSWORM

Not a particularly complimentary nickname for “a little diminutive fellow.”

5. BALSAM

Ready money or cash. One explanation is that dispensing chemists always held a lot of cash, but according to slang lexicographer Eric Partridge, it’s more likely this alluded to the “healing properties” of being wealthy.

6. BANBURY STORY

A ridiculous story, or a tale that rambles on without going anywhere is a Banbury story or Banbury tale. According to etymological folklore, this was the original “cock and bull” story (it’s also called the Banbury story of a cock and bull)—so called because of two pubs with those names close to the village of Banbury in Oxfordshire, England—but just how true that theory is remains debatable.

7. BEARD-SPLITTER

“An enjoyer of women,” according to B.E. The mind boggles.

8. BORACHIO

A drunkard, so called because this was originally a word for an animal skin used to hold wine.

9. BROTHER OF THE QUILL

A professional writer. A brother of the blade was a swordsman or soldier, and a brother of the string was a musician.

10. BROWN STUDY

When you're deep in thought.

11. CHAMELEON DIET

Because chameleons move so slowly, they were once believed to get all the nutriment they need from the air—and as a result, a chameleon diet was a missed meal or a particularly meager diet.

12. CHIRPING-MERRY

Feeling in a good mood because you’re having a drink with friends? You’re chirping-merry—or, as B.E. put it, “very pleasant over a glass of good liquor.”

13. CRAMP-WORDS

Difficult or obscure words are cramp-words.

14. DIRTY-BEAU

“A slovenly fellow, yet pretending to beauishness.” Or in other words, a man acting or dressing more prim and proper than he really is.

15. EBB-WATER

An allusion to the receding waters of a tide, ebb-water is a lack of money.

16. ENGLISH MANUFACTURE

A euphemism for “ale, beer, or cider.”

17. FARTING CRACKERS

… is the best synonym for trousers you’ll hear all year.

18. FIDDLER’S PAY

Being thanked and bought a drink, but not being paid for your work, is fiddler’s pay.

19. GAPESEED

Any astonishing sight is a gapeseed.

20. A GOOD VOICE TO BEG BACON

Telling someone they’ve “a good voice to beg bacon” is effectively the 17th century version of “don’t quit your day job.”

21. GUT-FOUNDERED

Extremely hungry.

22. HABERDASHER OF NOUNS AND PRONOUNS

A schoolteacher.

23. HEATHEN PHILOSOPHER

A messy or shabbily-attired man whose underwear can be seen through the holes in his trousers.

24. JUMBLE-GUT LANE

Any rough or bumpy road that shakes you around as you travel down it is a jumble-gut.

25. MULLIGRUBS

Being down in the dumps has been known as being in the mulligrubs since the late 1500s, but according to B.E., by the late 1600s it was being used to mean “a counterfeit fit of the sullens”—or in other words, a faked or exaggerated bad mood.

26. NIPPERKIN

A small glass of liquor (although B.E.’s definition of “small” is “half a pint of wine”).

27. PICKTHANK

A gossiping telltale or someone who spreads malicious rumors in order to “curry favor.”

28. ROAST MEAT CLOTHES

Because of the traditional English Sunday roast, your roast meat clothes are your Sunday best—namely, your best or most expensive outfit.

29. SWILL-BELLY

A heavy drinker.

30. THOROUGH-COUGH

Coughing and farting at the same time. There really is a word for everything…

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
iStock.com/PaulReevesPhotography

If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

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