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30 Excellent Terms From a 17th Century Slang Dictionary

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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…

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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