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…

Find Your Birthday Word With the Oxford English Dictionary's Birthday Word Generator

iStock/photoman
iStock/photoman

Language is always changing and new words are always being formed. That means there are a bunch of words that were born the same year you were. The Oxford English Dictionary has created the OED birthday word generator, where you can find a word that began around the same time you did.

Click on your birth year to see a word that was first documented that year, and then click through to see what that first citation was. Then explore a little and be surprised by words that are older than you expect (frenemy, 1953), and watch cultural changes emerge as words are born (radio star, 1924; megastar, 1969; air guitar, 1983).

Does your birthday word capture your era? Does it fit your personality? Perhaps birthday words could become the basis for a new kind of horoscope.

This story has been updated for 2019.

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

iStock/crisserbug
iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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