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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…

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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