Green’s Dictionary of Slang News

The Slang Canon

We lack, or I certainly cannot track one down, a patron saint of lexicography. Let alone, to fine-tune, some similar figure standing guard over slang. Kory Stamper, the former doyenne of Merriam Webster, the American dictionary publisher, claimed Samuel Johnson for the former but given the eponymous Noah Webster’s disdain for the Great Cham, this seems something of a stretch. In any case, this is – in OED terms – only definition 2 of the term: ‘a person who typifies or is a prime exemplar of something.’ What I’m after is definition 1.: an actual saint, glorified by the authorities who do that sort of thing, and as such ‘chosen or regarded as a protector or intercessor for a person, place, occupation, etc.’ And nothing, I fear is doing. Which is a pity, since slang, surely, could come up with a decent advocatus diaboli.


Which is also a pity because of those of us who toil in the very lowest depths of what Johnson termed ‘the lower employments’ of the life lexicographical definitely need a bit of tutelary supervision. We are not helped, of course, by our own use of the word saint: Pierce Egan, revising Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1823, defines the word as ‘a hypocrite’. This is hardly courting support.


Indeed, none of slang’s uses of ‘saint’ are very flattering. St Bernard: a very large, hairy penis (St Peter is a penis too, but seemingly of average dimensions); St George: sexual intercourse in the rear-entry position or with the woman on top and giving the phrase ‘ride a St George’ wherein the superior female is, of course ‘the dragon’. Sex is also found in Sallenger’s Round, properly ‘St Leger’s round,’ which was a dance and thus, like many ‘dances’ adapted as a name for fucking;  St Luke’s bird is an ox and St Marget’s ale water. Rhyming slang gives St Martin’s (le Grand), a hand, St Vitus’s dance, pants or trousers and St Louis blues, shoes. St Louis flats are also shoes: flat and moccasin-like, with a design on the toe – often that of a card suit – and once popular among jazz musicians and gamblers. Others of slang’s canonized notabilities are St Johnstone’s tippet, a hangman’s noose, a St John’s Wood dona, an up-market prostitute or kept woman (the London suburb being their residence of choice) and St Peter’s sons, petty thieves, who take anything they can lay their hands on.

The short cut is probably Saint Nicholas, he of Father Christmas fame (and slang’s St Nicholas’s clergyman, a highwayman.) Nick (not to be confused with old Nick, who is allegedly that master of realpolitik Niccolo Macchiavelli, though some see a clipping on iniquity) has been assigned to whores and beer, thus signing off on two of slang’s primary topics. He seems jolly enough. Or Bibiana, who has been given hangovers (as well, among a variety of grimmer phenomena, as single women, headaches and the crazy). For her sins, or perhaps the lack of them since she died a virgin, she was tied to a pillar and beaten to death for refusing either conversion or (lesbian) sex. That said, she’s not exactly a candidate for slang’s own careless raptures: she apparently ‘endured her torments with joy’ and when her corpse was tossed to the wild beasts, nary a one felt it tasty enough for consumption.


If lexicography can be broadened to ‘writing’ then there’s always St Francis de Sales, who gave the world his Introduction to the Devout Life in 1609, a collection of homilies with such titles as ‘All Evil Inclinations Must Be Purged Away’; ‘Dryness and Spiritual Barrenness’ and ‘How to Exercise Real Poverty, Although Actually Rich’ and a jolly excursion to hell: ‘picture to yourself a dark city, reeking with the flames of sulphur and brimstone, inhabited by citizens who cannot get forth.’ And no, he’s not much for dancing either: ‘Balls and similar gatherings are wont to attract all that is bad and vicious; all the quarrels, envyings, slanders, and indiscreet tendencies of a place will be found collected in the ballroom…while you were dancing, souls were groaning in hell by reason of sins committed when similarly occupied, or in consequence thereof.’ Yet his patronage still extends to journalists.


Maybe, bereft of some pillar-chained, spit-roasted, martyred misery, whose pet cat is the one with multiple tails, we have to return to definition 2. Step aside, then, religious connections. Except perhaps English slang’s first ever compiler – however nugatory – the London printer Robert Copland, who claimed to have picked up his micro-glossary of cant while standing in the porch of what is generally seen as St Bartholomew’s church, still standing where he left it in the 1530s, fittingly sited around the midpoint of a walk from Smithfield Market (a cattle market that also hosted the uproarious St Bartholomew’s Fair and for some years created its own martyrs via the executioner’s bonfires) and the conveniently adjacent Newgate prison.




Otherwise, no. Though if one is to take a general dictionary-maker, and with all respect to Dr J, then my money would be on the great Ambrogio Calepino, a lexicographer-monk, and still memorialized in the French calepin: a notebook. Calepino’s own calepin, limited to Latin, appeared in 1502. Multiple editions followed across Europe, peaking in 1599, in a version that offered every headword in eleven languages, every entry a marvellous combination of fonts and typography. Canonical much.


Back in 2009 (the book, a sort of ‘lexico-memoir’, came out five years later but such is publishing), I mused on what I decided might best be termed a craft.


There is something modernist in lexicography’s focus on reduction: I cannot speak for others but for me there is at the heart of what I do a vital element of cutting off/paring down/stripping away.  It is this reductionism that makes me see myself as above all a craftsmen. Craftsman: ‘a maker,  an artificer, inventor or contriver.’ One writes a dictionary, thus the direct translation of ‘lexicographer’, but one also makes it. The word is also synonymous with artist, when ‘artist’ implies a general sense of being skilled. I am one who has no physical skills, for whom the term cack-handed might well have been invented;  cooking aside, the plastic arts defeat me. Yet, and this is doubtless overly romantic, as I work on the dictionary I see invisible tools. A scalpel, to slice out extraneous matter, pliers to tug a miss-positioned citation and set it down in its proper place, files and planes to smooth the definitions, sandpaper to put on the finishing touches. The perfect lemma – the entirety of a single headword and all that pertains to it – should display the same elegance as a perfect item of furniture. I would not dare suggest that all my efforts are so successful, but sometimes, especially with a ‘big’ word, such as hot with its 40 columns of definitions, of sub-definitions, of derivations, compounds and phrases, there is a sense of having made something not just of words, but in some way a physical, tangible and most important of all, a useable object.


Nearly a decade on and I wonder. Craftsman or maybe, on second thoughts, cleaner? Forget the fancy-pants toolkit, what we need here is a dustpan and brush.


Making a dictionary, which I saw as this essay in assemblage, all cutting and fitting and polishing and varnishing, was something else again. That novel that we were told – by Jean Cocteau? – that was no more than a dictionary out of order, reduced back to its single-word essence. Stripping, eviscerating, stacking, piling, filing, listing and shelving. Cleaning up after the party and putting away.


Because what I am doing, over and above all, is slash and burn. You never see it more than when reading a book on screen. I have 5,500 on shelves, I hate the idea of selling any off, but I cannot sidestep a limit. If only of shelving. I need a bit of personal slash and burn too. So there you are, paging away through some cheaply downloaded title on Kindle, highlighting as and when necessary. Finish the book, bring up the highlights, all else falls away. Plot, characterization, authorly skills. Fugedaboudit!


So maybe what we want is St Zita. The patron saint of maids and domestic servants, waitresses and those ridiculed for their excessive piety. The one you call on when you’ve managed to lose your chatelaine of keys. Keys to doors, but maybe figurative keys as well. Let’s call them… etymology. I like it. It’s the usual story: suffering, in this case a la Cinderella with too much work and no rewards, though the exploitative and ill-favoured sisters are simply her fellow slaveys. Frankly, do we blame them. The biography tells us how in the face of their meanness Zita offered ‘meek and humble self-restraint’. She also gave away her master’s food: the other servants grassed her up but when the family threw open the kitchen door (Zita was out tending to the poor), what did they find but angels, knocking out some extra loaves. She would, as they say, have made a saint blaspheme. By the time she had died – of natural causes though who would have really blamed the servants’ hall – there were 150 attested miracles. Her body, exhumed three centuries after her death was, of course, incorrupt. You can see it now, mercifully clothed, in a glass box in a church in Lucca.




In the end if slang is to own a patron of religious bent, that there’s only one real contender: St Giles. After all, doesn’t St Giles Greek itself mean slang, while a St Giles’s bird is a criminal and thus one of St Giles’s breed, while a St Giles buzzman is a pickpocket who specializes in stealing handkerchiefs and a St Giles’s carpet a sprinkling of sand on the street, presumably to mask the puddles of blood and vomit.


St Giles was the 18th and early 19th century’s most notorious criminal slum, found at the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. The area was first host to a leper hospital and a plague pit and the local church which had  for hygiene’s sake originally stood deep in its own fields outside the city walls was named for St Giles, a second-division Saint Francis in this case nurturing but a single wounded deer, who was named patron saint of cripples. The spire stands in the background of Hogarth’s Noon.




By 1750 merely impoverished St Giles had become notoriously criminal St Giles. It was the first, or most celebrated rookery, which meant a criminal slum and plays either on some metaphorical, avian criminality (and perhaps blackness), or on the verb rook, to cheat. Looking back from 1852 one Thomas Beames, writing in The Rookeries of London characterised it as offering ‘the lowest conditions under which human life is possible.’ It was largely Irish, though the church was resolutely C0fE, and the locals turned to more alluring Scarlet Women than she of Rome, even if the stereotype of Catholic piety gave it the name of Holy Land or Holy Ground. St Giles was seen as a sanctuary for evil-doers – the authorities were loathe to enter – and thus another source for ‘holy ground’. Sited mid-way between Newgate prison and the Tyburn gallows it offered passing villains, processing in their tumbril, a traditional stop-off for a last beer before moving on to choke down their ‘vegetable breakfast’ (an ‘arti-choke’). The church-wardens bought the round: it was known as the St Giles’ bowl. Some of the condemned probably knew the area already. ‘For we are the boys of the Holy Ground’ sang the balladeers. ‘We dance upon nothing and turn us around.’ Like Aldous Huxley’s Savage the hanged, still unaided by the drop’s merciful dispatch, would spin slowly in the wind, displaying what the wits termed ‘a wry face and pissen britches’. There was a local jail, St Giles’ Roundhouse, from which Jack Shepherd escaped in 1724. First of the celebrity villains he would go on to greater evasions from Newgate before he too made the fatal trip. A well-known local tenement was known as Rats’ Castle and doubtless justified its name, while the spinniken or workhouse (from the Dutch spinnhuis, literally a ‘spinning house’ and as such referring to a woman’s house of detention) was coined to define the institution in St Giles.


There were other names than Holy Land: it could be Calmuck Tartary (though why, who could say; perhaps it seemed as alien as the Mongol Empire from which the nickname came?) and  Palestine in London which played on the ‘holy’ rather than on the usual Middle East-Jew link. To dine with St Giles and the Earl of Murray was to go without one’s dinner: the earl in question was buried in the churchyard.




Ned Ward, writing his Compleat and Humorous Account of All the Remarkable Clubs and Societies in 1709, introduced readers to the buttock ball, a local entertainment which ‘was begun, above thirty Years since, by a half-bred Dancing-Master, over the Cole-Yard Gateway into Drury-Lane; a Place so conveniently seated among Punks and Fidlers, that the Mungrel Undertaker was always sure of Musick, and equally certain of a Crowd of Whores to Dance to it.’ It seems to have been a precursor of the modern meat market, each one seeking a complaisant other, but Ward was more elegant, or at least elaborate, terming the ball both a ‘School of Venus’ and a ‘Diabolical Academy’; its regulars were ‘a mottl’d Diversity of Rakes, Beaus, grave Hypocrites, and Apprentices; Pimps, Bullies, Stallions, Valets, Butlers, and disguis’d Livery-Men; Thieves, Gamesters, Sweetners, Town Traps and Highwaymen; Procurers, Punks, Cooks, Jades and Chambermaids; damn’d filing Whores, sill Sows and Fireships; lewd Widows, wicked Wives and whorish Daughters; these Larded, by Chance, with here and there, a maid, but the fewest of that Sport of any.’


Like Egan’s fictional Tom and Jerry (of Life in London) Dickens –  as Boz – visited St Giles but less tolerant than Egan, or more bound to the evangelical moralising of his time, he shuddered at the ‘filth and squalid misery’ but admitted to the excellence of its gin palaces, selling ‘The Cream of the Valley’, ‘The Out-and-Out’, ‘The No Mistake’, ‘The Good for Mixing’, ‘The Real Knock-Me-Down’, ‘The Regular Flare-Up’ and ‘a dozen other, equally inviting and wholesome liqueurs’. But by Dickens’ time St Giles was already suffering architectural assault: New Oxford Street was driven through in 1847, removing as it came the riper alleyways. That Mudie’s, the epitome of Victorian sanctimony, established its first lending library there is suitably ironic. Its reputation is slightly improved by the weekly appearance of the scholar Frederick Furnivall who recruited at the local ABC teashop for the rowing eight of shop-girls whom he coached on the Thames. While thus employed Furnivall did other things, among them founding the Oxford English Dictionary.