When I first came across a reprint of a book written in 1860 by John Camden Hotten called A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words. I thought to myself, oh my God! This is exactly what I need! At the time, I was writing my first historical fiction pirate novel set in the early 1700s and I was looking for colourful and authentic language to salt the dialogue of my pirate crew.
The book was perfect. Not only was it about history, it was history. I ordered it on the spot and waited impatiently for it to arrive. When it did finally appear, I read the introduction and the entire -A- section with excited interest.
However, when I sat down to write with the book next to me, a problem arose. To use a dictionary, one must know the word one wants to look up. I knew the definition, not the word. For example, I wanted a colourful name for a black eye. The only way to find what I wanted would be to read the entire book.
Undaunted, I embarked upon a nine month project to categorize all the words so I could find them quickly and easily when and if I should need them. That was a number of years ago. Recently it occurred to me that this might be a useful resource for other writers and fun for any lexicographers, linguists, or lovers of old words. So after some spit and polish, here it is.
This is not a book of the namby-pamby, hoity-toity words one would expect to hear in the London drawing-rooms of the 1600s through 1800s. This is the street slang, the flash patter of seamen, street-sellers, Gypsies and thieves. As Carl Sandburg once said, "Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work."
A few of my favourite words to give you the flavour:
DIMBER DAMBER: very pretty; a clever rogue who excels his fellows; chief of a gang. Old cant in the latter sense. ─English Rogue.
KILKENNY CAT: a popular simile for a voracious or desperate animal or person, from the story of the two cats in that county, who are said to have fought and bitten each other until a small portion of the tail of one of them alone remained.
LITTLE SNAKES-MAN: a little thief, who is generally passed through a small aperture to open any door to let in the rest of the gang.
SUCK THE MONKEY: to rob a cask of liquor by inserting a straw through a gimlet hole, and sucking a portion of the contents.
KISS-ME-QUICK: the name given to the very small bonnets worn by females since 1850.
BY THE HOLY POKER AND THE TUMBLING TOM!: an Irish oath.
The organization process was subjective to say the least. I had to make a lot of decisions on what should be included where. I aimed for being inclusive rather than exclusive, in the hopes of making finding the perfect word as easy and as natural as possible. I also wanted to avoid being stuffy or formal, while still being informative and useful. I think the original coiners of these words would appreciate that. These words are a lark, I hope I've made learning about them fun as well.
Of course, being an author and an artist, I couldn't resist adding a few paragraphs of commentary and an illustration for each chapter.
While this book started out as a convenience to improve my work as a writer, it turned into a labour of love. Over the course of organizing this book I've come to adore these words. Some are lyrical, a few are frightening, many are funny, and all of them give us a glimpse into life – both the good aspects and the bad – in the 1600 and 1800s. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Catherine Thrush is a San Jose, California based writer and illustrator. Her book, A New Look at Old Words is now on Kickstarter. Her as-yet-unpublished historical fiction novel/screenplay Lady Blade has won numerous awards including 1st in Category from The Chaucer Awards, and the Emerging Talent Award from the Monterey County Film Commission. To learn more follow her blog and find Catherine on Facebook and Twitter