6 Places Where Lexicographers Find Old Slang


Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green’s massive, three-volume Dictionary of Slang is the most authoritative work on the back roads and byways of the English language. His database of slang contains about 54,000 headwords collected from centuries’ worth of materials. If you include the various phrases and derivations those words participate in, the total number comes up to to 125,000.

Historical slang research is made difficult by the fact that slang comes from the unwritten side of life. Words develop in casual (often criminal) contexts and may never be put into lasting written documents, especially when they are deemed unfit for polite society. Luckily, there are places where slang’s past has been preserved, but they may not be easy to find.

Green’s latest book, The Vulgar Tongue, is a history of slang that explores the places where it flourished and, more importantly, was set down on paper. Here are just a few of the places where the slang of yesterday lives on.


From the 14th to 16th century in Europe, there were many books and pamphlets circulating that purported to warn good people about the tricks that beggars might use to manipulate them. Their popularity, however, was not due to their usefulness as much as their entertainment value. John Awdeley’s The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561) gives terms like Abraham man (a guy who acts crazy and walks around with a “pack or wool, or a stick with bacon on it, or such like toy”), ruffler (someone who pretends to have fought in the wars to get sympathy), prigman (someone who steals clothes or poultry and then gambles it away at the pub), and ring-faller (trickster with a copper ring who pretends to find a gold ring and then sells it to bystander).


The seedy underworld of London was a favorite subject for 17th century English playwrights, and audiences delighted in dialogue such as the following, from Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girlie (1611): “I have, by the salomon, a doxy that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben bouse, and eat a fat gruntling cheat.”


Thinly disguised as moral lessons or deathbed confessions about regrets of ill-lived lives, criminal memoirs both entertained and titillated the respectable readers of the 17th century. They were full of cant and jargon and often came with glossaries. They had great titles such as The Life and Death of Gamaliel Rasey, a Famous thief of England; Ratseis Ghost. Or the second Part of his madde Prankes and Robberies; and Memoirs of the right villainous John Hall, the late famous and notorious robber.


Early 19th century reporting on prize fighting and horse racing was filled with “flash,” the hip, city slang, no longer associated primarily with the underworld, but with the knowing cool kids of various classes. A fighter might get his nozzle barked, his peepers darkened, and hit in the bread basket. Later American sports writing gave us terms like applesauce (nonsense), chin music (talk), and skidoo (go away).


The magazine Down Beat covered the slang-rich world of jazz, and in 1935 they published a glossary titled “The Slanguage of Swing: Terms the ‘Cats’ Use.” It contained still current musical terms like lick, break and jam, as well as gems like dog house (upright bass), moth box (piano), grunt-horn (tuba), rock crusher (accordion), syringe (trombone), woodpile (xylophone), and squeak box (violin).


People have always been fascinated by slang, and have long enjoyed lists of slang terms just for the fun of it. Many books and pamphlets in the above areas contained glossaries along with the text, there have also been full dictionaries of slang since 1699 when B.E. Gent (as in gentleman) compiled A New Dictionary of the Terms, Antient and Modern, of the Canting Crew, in its several Tribes of Gypsies, Beggers [sic], Theives, Cheats, &c.: useful for all sorts of people (especially foreigners) to secure their money and preserve their lives besides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New which is how we know about terms like bear garden discourse (“common filthy, nasty talk”), cacafuego (“shite fire”), and cracker (“a little or low-sounding fart”). In 1785, Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue recorded birthday suit, gam, shag, and slag. In 1819 James Hardy Vaux, who had been sent to Australia as a punishment for petty crimes, preserved some early Australian terms in his New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. In 1859 John Hotten gave the etymological treatment to the words in his Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, while at the same time the U.S. got its first slang dictionary with Vocabulum: or, the Rogue’s Lexicon, Compiled from the Most Authentic Sources by former New York City police chief George Washington Matsell.

Now we can benefit from the collected wisdom of all these sources in Green’s own 15 pound dictionary. The Vulgar Tongue, which tells the story of those sources, makes a great companion to the dictionary, taking us behind the words to the places where they were born.

A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts

In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.


The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.


According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.


History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.


Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.


The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."


Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”


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