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October 2017 Update



Welcome to the fourth and latest update to the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This represents our first anniversary: just over one year since the site launched in October 2016.

Research over the last three months has added 351 new slang terms, 465 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and over 2,300 citations – including ante-dates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded. The database currently offers 54,718 headwords (within which are nested over 133,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by a total of 628,000 citations). All of this new material can be seen by subscribers; the changes that are reflected by the predates  are also shown in alterations in the approximate dating used in the absence of citations: for instance ‘late 19C’ to ‘early 19C’, ‘1980s+’ back to ‘1940s+’, and so on. But as ever, for those who want or need to access the detailed heart of the data, we have to recommend a subscription.

For an overview, in chronological order, all users of the dictionary can go here. This uses the same software as the Timelines of Slang. New terms are marked in red, ante-dates in blue.



To celebrate the First Anniversary since the launch of Green’s Dictionary of Slang in October 2016 we offer a small competition.

The following text comes from a pamphlet The New Sprees of London, or, A guide to all the flash cribs of the metropolis detailed in a night’s spree of Harry Flashton and his cousin Giles : in this valuable work will be found general maxims for a night’s spree, … peep into the night houses from west to east, … description of the cadgers’ palace …, list of accommodation houses, … economical calculations of the expense of a night’s spree. Published in 1844 it was one of many such publications, a guide to ‘low life’ amusements in the capital. Harry and Giles tip their tiles to the pioneers of such exploits: Pierce Egan’s Tom and Jerry (and their pal Bob Logic). And like Egan’s best-seller, Life in London, the New Sprees was keen to demonstrate a through knowledge of current slang as proof of its authenticity. In this introduction the anonymous author addresses his readers directly:



There are approximately 70 slang terms here (some italicised, some in roman). For the purposes of our competition, the challenge is to ‘translate’ them all into standard English and, if possible, thereby to rewrite the text ‘in English’. If a translation proves too much, then a simple list will pass muster.

All the terms should be available in the free version of GDoS. If any have escaped, then try a bit of educated guesswork – it’s what slang researchers have to do all the time. (The spelling is inevitably shaky: manty, line 18, for instance, is in fact nanty as in line 2).

The fullest translation (and failing that the best shot at a comprehensive list) to arrive by Monday 13 November will receive a one-year free subscription to the dictionary. Five runners-up get a GDoS tote bag. Mr Slang will of course be amenable to bungs, dropsy, freemans, palm oil, straighteners and any other of the 64 terms whereby slang synonymizes the bribe.

Please email your solutions to

Go it, boots, and cushty bok!



July 2017 Update

Welcome to the third and latest update to the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Research over the last three months has added 215 new slang terms, 474 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and over 2,650 citations – including predates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded. The database currently offers 54,618 headwords (within which are nested 133,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by a total of 626,000 citations). All of this new material can be seen by subscribers; the changes that are reflected by the predates  are also shown in alterations in the approximate dating used in the absence of citations: for instance ‘late 19C’ to ‘early 19C’, ‘1980s+’ back to ‘1940s+’, and so on. But as ever, for those who want or need to access the detailed heart of the data, we have to recommend a subscription.

For an overview, in chronological order, all users of the dictionary can go here. This uses the same software as the Timelines of Slang. New terms are marked in red, predates in blue.

While research continues to look at what in slang might be termed both ends of the busk, in other words both old and new (though in fact a coarse 18th century toast), the lexicographical grail of finding the earliest recorded use of a term means that we are often focused on the past. This has led us to one of the late 19th century’s stranger titles, Australia’s Dead Bird, published in Sydney, NSW, from 1889 to 1891. The title was slang, meaning a ‘dead cert’ for racecourse gamblers, and the paper can ostensibly be bracketed with the UK’s Sporting Times (aka ‘The Pink ’Un’) and America’s Spirit of the Times, also self-identified as ‘sporting’ papers, with an accent on sport in its widest senses.

We know little of the Bird’s personnel. Its owner was one Charles Mark Curtiss, who seems to have been something of a minor press baron. Otherwise all was pseudonymous. Like the Sporting Times, which rejoiced in such signatories as The Dwarf of Blood, The Tale-Pitcher, Peter Blobbs, the Stalled Ox and many others, the Bird offered the Early Bird, the Old ’Un, the Rorty Rooster, the Prodigal, the Emu and so on. Unlike its London cousin it also boasted a pair of ‘girls’, albeit generic and serving a variety of purposes, usually with an accent, generally muted, on sex: ‘Flossie Fewclothes’ and ‘Tottie Titefit,’ with occasional walk-ons from ‘Lottie Lacepantze’. They were cast as usually chorus-girls, and ‘The Hartist,’ another pseudonym, illustrated such lovelies in as minimal garb as the era permitted.

If these names suggest a certain smuttiness, so they should. It is the world that a decade later gave us Leopold Bloom enjoying inadvertent seashore upskirts and musing over ‘wondrous gowns and costliest frillies’. The Dead Bird, to an extent that had not been seen in Australia since another off-colour  publication, the Satirist and Sporting Chronicle, had flourished very briefly in 1843, specialized in double entendres. Some took the form of elaborate puns, others were faster on the draw; all had an air of what were termed ‘smoking-room’ stories, the province of men who, for all their self-proclamation as gents (with the casual racism, wide-spectrum xenophobia and loudly paraded patriotism that went with the pose) were more accurately categorised as either bounders or cads.

This, from 28 December 1889, is typical:

Says Mrs A., ‘What are you going to have for your Christmas dinner?’ says Mrs B., ‘Well, if Joe is at home I will have a good goose, but if he is not at home I do not know what I will have’.

Or this, from August of the same year, with a nudge at slang’s take on stand:

A special grandstand is to be erected for the Shah of Persia to view the Kempton Park (England) race meeting. It is said the Shah prefers a grandstand to a temporary erection.

Moustaches were doubtless twirled and ribs nudged. The readers thought themselves fearful fellows, but the word that emerges is snigger. As for sport in its athletic sense, there was much horse-racing, some boxing and an occasional foray into cricket and lesser competitions. Bowing to the word’s more raffish definition, there was seemingly non-stop drinking, always to excess, and a near obsession with the mysteries – ideally rendered visible through the disarray that followed on a droolingly recounted trip or stumble – of women’s lingerie. There was a good deal of kissing, which, it was usually implied, was merely a preliminary to more intimate examples of yum-yum. The paper was never pornographic, but as the prosecution which closed it in January 1891 alleged, judged by contemporary prudery, it was surely obscene. For the record, the problematic par. told of a girl who had been ‘under the doctor’ for a week.

All of which is background. What matters is that the Bird was remarkably slangy. Its issues – weekly for just 16 months – offered 603 instances and of these 132 pushed our knowledge of a term’s coinage back beyond what had hitherto been recorded. Among these revised ‘first uses’ are barrack (to cheer for a team)  beer-chewer (a drunk), bumper (a cigarette end), half-a-caser  (half-a-crown), continuations (legs), cop-man (policeman), ding-dong (a fight), dolled up (dressed up), lovey–dovey (affectionate), man-eater (a sexually forward woman), straight goer (a dependable individual) and ornythorhynchus  properly a duck-billed platypus, but here an importuning creditor, ‘a beast with a bill’. Brand new terms include smock-dozzler (a womanizer), Cabbageopolis (Melbourne), gospel grabber (a preacher), nadget (the head), rinse one’s neck (to drink) and have sand in one’s teeth (to lose one’s temper).

The Dead Bird was laid to rest with the final issue of January 1891. A week later, with due fanfare and much teasing of the authorities, appeared its successor The Bird o’ Freedom.




AB&Z: Anthony Burgess’ Lost Dictionary of Slang

This is the text of a talk I gave at the international Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester earlier in July 2017. It looks at Anthony Burgess’ attempt to compile a dictionary of slang, for which he was commissioned by Penguin books in 1965. As the talk explains, despite his initial committment to the task, it did work out. Brugess abandoned the task, and returned his publisher’s advance in 1966. The dictionary then seemed to vanish. Remarkably, and quite by chance, it was rediscovered in 2012 at the bottom of an old box of the author’s bed-linen.


What follows looks at the dictionary – its slang content and its lexicography – and at Burgess’s own involvement with slang as both reviewer and collector.I would like to thank the IABF and its director Prof. Andrew Biswell for permission to post the talk here.




Heroes and Heroines of Slang 6: Sir Thomas Urquhart


The Translator: Sir Thomas Urquhart


Of the many canards that assail the object of the slang lexicographer’s toil and linguistic affections is that of verbal inadequacy, the mockery by the loquaciously well-endowed of the size of one’s lexis. To use slang, they sneer, is to demonstrate communicative inadequacy. You and whose dictionary, ripostes the wounded drudge, brandishing 133,000 slang variations. The counter-language is in fact vastly inventive, creative some might suggest, given its admitted focus on certain themes, to the point of satiety.


It is true that this may not have been apparent in slang’s earliest days, when faint hearts omitted it from the printed page and what was recorded focused strictly on the jargon of the world of crime, but earliest days pass, and comes the hour comes the man or woman. Slang, as this expanding list of heroes and heroines is intended to demonstrate, has many such. Thus, as the latest example of slang’s brightest stars, I offer the word-obsessed courtier and author Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611-60).


A Scottish aristocrat and unabashed cavalier, he was knighted by Charles I, and inherited his father’s estates, but also his debts. He attempted to deal with them by writing. In the way of his century, Urquhart’s works boasted splendid titles. Among them were the Pantochronochanon, or, A Peculiar Promptuary of Time, which explained his family genealogy,  the Ekskubalauron, or, The Discovery of a most Exquisite Jewel, which pushed Urquhart’s hatred of presbyterianism – the family were always episcopalians – and simultaneously touted a wide range of Scottish heroes, not all of whom may in fact have existed. A third important work was the Logopandecteision, or, An Introduction to the Universal Language. This promoted the universal language that had been invented, if never popularized, by the linguistic scholar Francis Lodwick.


This last title had barely appeared when this ‘logofascinated spirit’ as he described himself, took upon himself the publication of ‘The Works of Master Francois Rabelais doctor in physick … now faithfully translated into English.’ Rabelais (c. 1494-1553) was French and had written in a contemporary version of that language the work known as Gargantua and Pantagruel, the first books of which appeared in 1534 authored by one ‘Alcofribas Nasier’ – an anagram of the author’s name. Books one and two of Urquhart’s translation appeared in 1653, book three in 1693; the last two books, edited and translated by Peter Motteux, came in 1694 and 1708. Sir Thomas remains the canonical interpreter of an ‘Englished’ Rabelais.


The literary merits of his work (among other things one of the more censored productions of the last half millennium) are irrelevant here. What matters is the language he used, or more properly the language into which Urquhart, a devotee of  ‘metonymical, ironical, metaphysical and synecdochical instruments of elocution’ – or ‘meaningful words’, as the less circumlocutious might put it – rendered it in his translation.


A good example is one of Urquhart’s (and Rabelais’) lists, all items of which refer to what the translator initially terms the ‘you know what’, a piece of careless vaguery applicable to many aspects of sex, and in this case the giant Gargantua’s penis. When Urquhart wrote, aside from its medico-Latin self, the primary synonym for penis was yard. Its roots lie in number of terms, typically the Old Teutonic gazdjo, all of which mean a thin pole and which as such may possibly be linked to the Latin hasta, a spear, and even to the Italian cazzo, also slang for penis. (Certainly 17th century slang’s gadso and catso borrow from the Italian original and like a number of similar terms mean both penis and rogue or villain.) The first dictionary use comes in John Florio’s New World of Words of 1598: ‘Priapismo, […] pertaining to a mans priuities, or the standing of a mans yard), but it can be found much earlier, e.g. in Wyclif’s 1682 translation of the Bible (where, in Genesis, it is found in the story of the first circumcision). Though Urquhart does not disdain yard, he had Rabelais’ vast linguistic inventiveness to deal with. He proved an able pupil.



The Translated: ‘Alcofribas Nasier’


The list derives from a scene in which that same penis, an object of both wonder and delight, is being dandled by an enthusiastic gaggle of court ladies. So gross a member doubtless merited so extensive a list: ‘One of them would call it her pillicock, her fiddle-diddle, her staff of love, her tickle-gizzard, her gentle-titler. Another, her sugar-plum, her kingo, her old rowley. her touch-trap, her flap dowdle. Another again, her brand of coral, her placket-racket, her Cyprian sceptre, her tit-bit, her bob-lady. And some of the other women would give these names, my Roger, my cockatoo, my nimble-wimble, bush-beater, claw-buttock, evesdropper, pick-lock, pioneer, bully-ruffin, smell-smock, trouble-gusset, my lusty live sausage, my crimson chitterlin, rump-splitter, shove-devil, down right to it, stiff and stout, in and to, at her again, my coney-borrow-ferret. wily-beguiley, my pretty rogue.’


Looking at his choice of images, one sees many that would recur in slang’s treatment of the penis: the colour of pink flesh (brand of coral, crimson chitterlin), the idea of consumption whether by vagina or mouth (the crimson chitterlin again, the sugar-plum, live sausage or tit-bit), the idea of the penis as attacking the woman (fiddle-diddle – the fiddle, aside from suggesting interference, is also something upon which the lover ‘plays’), tickle-gizzard, touch-trap, bush-beater, claw-buttock, rump-splitter ) or simply rummaging in her garments  (placket-racket, smell-smock, trouble-gusset – racket, smock and gusset all doubling as garments and genitals in a variety of slang terms); it can come from hell (old rowley, shove-devil, bully-ruffin; whether the sailors who nicknamed the 19th century warship HMS Bellepheron the ‘Bully-Ruffian’ were aware of this is unknown); it can show its shape (Cyprian sceptre, staff of love, stiff and stout), it can be cunning (picklock, pioneer, coney-borrow-ferret, wily-beguiley, my pretty rogue) and simply metonymize the rampant male (down right to it, in and to, at her again). And of course none, none at all actually use the word in question.



The Translation: a 19th century edition with illustrations by Doré


It is a wonderful list – and Rabelais/Urquhart produce many similar, and often in the context of the pleasures of sex or food. As noted, a couple of culinary images feature in the penis-list. What Urquhart termed a live sausage, was, and remains in French, an andouille, and he took what Rabelais termed a couille bredouille (literally ‘an empty-handed testicle’), and translated it as a chitterling, properly an animal intestine, another meaty delight and a staple of soul food. Sausages also take centre stage in Book Four of the epic, where over eight chapters the author presents the fantastical history of the satirical War of the Andouilles, in which the army of tripe-stuffed sausages, worshippers of a flying pig, and its allies the ‘savage Blood Sausages and the Mountain Sausages’, combined its literal, gustatory meaning with its penile one, and offered the mix as an attack on Protestantism.


Urquhart’s translation was both literal – some of its words already existed – and inventive, a far larger number were his coinages; it was a skill that he had already demonstrated in his Trissotetras, or, A most exquisite table for resolving all manner of triangles (1645) in which of the 200 words he used to ‘simplify’ Pythagoras’ theorem (which had required only 23), the bulk were of his own making.


On the level of pure imagery Urquhart’s coinages are not especially exceptional. But in many cases they represent themes that would embed themselves (and in some cases were already embedded) in slang. Meanwhile the subject of his list – the male member, no more, no less, and synonymized to such variegated degrees – was certainly still unique. No slang dictionary – or more properly glossary, since no dictionary of slang proper would appear for another 45 years – had yet approached sex so freely. The 16th century whores and villains whose careers had been itemised in the canting lists obviously had sex, but as regards the bits and bobs, the human giblets required to get the job done, then the canting crew, at least in print, were often as puritan as the establishment they defied. There was jockum for penis and wap for have sex, but little else. That Urquhart was one of that establishment, a member of the Scottish landed gentry and intimate of King Charles I, merely underlines an irony. That Rabelais, the fount of Urquhart’s creativity, was French went without saying: the belief that one had to cross the Channel if one wanted to get that ‘dirty’ stuff uncensored was a truism (if not a truth) that appealed to 17th century Britons as effectively as its always has to their successors.


Carry on Up the Khyber

James Lambert & Jonathon Green



Adventures of a Qui-Hi


British India is a somewhat loose term used to describe India under colonial rule, which began in a minor way at certain key trading ports such a Surat, Calicut, Bombay, Calcutta, etc., from the 17th century onwards under the control of the British East India Company, later to become known colloquially as John Company. Its size and territory waxed and waned over the years, and at its greatest extent British India included present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and even Burma.


For the bulk of the colonial era British India was divided into three ‘presidencies’: The Madras Presidency in the south, the Bombay Presidency in the north west, and the Bengal Presidency in the north east, of which the capital was Calcutta. There was some degree of rivalry amongst these presidencies and this is reflected in the derogatory terms for residents of each of them. Those of the Bengal Presidency were known as Qui-hi’s, based on the common call “Qui hi?” (“Is anyone there?”) used to summon a servant to do one’s bidding, a wry comment on the arch-colonial attitude towards the local servile class. Another disparaging term for inhabitants of the Bengal Presidency was Ditcher, referring to a then well-known epic military fail in the form of a three-mile defensive ditch dug around the outskirts of Calcutta in 1742. It was originally meant to supply protection from a local band of marauders called the Bargis, who never actually attacked the city, and then later proved to be spectacularly useless when the city was attacked in 1756 by an entirely different group. The ‘ditch’ later became a dumping ground for refuse and garbage and by 1893 had been completely filled in.


Residents of the Bombay Presidency were known as Ducks, or, in full, Bombay Ducks, referring to a type of dried fish commonly eaten there (a name which in turn must have been jocular in origin, mixing up avian and aquatic lifeforms as it does). Last in the presidency pecking order seems to have been Madras, the residents of which were called Mulls, a shortening of Mulligatawny, the famous spicy soup of India’s south. No doubt, the term Mull conjures up the negative vibes associated with the verb to mull, to make a mess of. Worse still, Madras was also known as the Benighted Presidency, and collectively the residents there were simply the Benighted, from the point of view of the Ducks and the Qui-his at any rate.


The prevailing Indian languages of the presidencies were Tamil (Madras), Hindustani (Bombay), and Bengali (Bengal), though a host of other languages prevailed in different regions and sub-regions. In the north, however, Hindustani was especially prevalent and was used as a lingua franca to a certain extent. During this era, before Independence and Partition in the mid-twentieth century, it is more correct to speak of Hindustani as the language had not yet split into the Hindi (used in India and heavily augmented by Sanskrit) and Urdu (used in Pakistan and heavily augmented by Arabic) so familiar in the subcontinent today.While many of the colonials became fluent speakers of local languages, a great deal more learned only a smattering or nothing of them.


April 2017 Update

Welcome to the April 2017 update of Green’s Dictionary of Slang Online.

As in the January update, the broad-brush goal has been to continue slang research, both historical and contemporary. To that end 296 new terms have been added to the database, 314 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and well over 2,000 citations – including predates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded. All of this new material can be seen by subscribers; the changes that are reflected by the predates  are also shown in alterations in the wide-spectrum dating: for instance ‘late 19C’ to ‘early 19C’, ‘1980s+’ back to ‘1940s+’, and so on. But as ever, for those who want or need to access the detailed heart of the data, we have to recommend a subscription.

For an overview, in chronological order, of all new terms and predates, all users can go here. This uses the same software as the Timelines of Slang. New terms are marked in red, predates in blue.

As well as researching new material, the last quarter has also seen a new project, like the Timelines devoted to a new ways of visualizing the slang lexis. This project, Slang Family Trees, has so far covered the following (highly popular) areas of slang:

and the most recent ‘tree’, another one requiring two parts:

For the purposes of this quarter’s update, we have focused on the slang of Britain’s colonial era in India. The best-known dictionary of that language, Hobson-Jobson by Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell, was published in 1886. In terms of bare statistics the database now covers 79 words/senses OED does not, and 50 words/senses that did not find a place in Hobson-Jobson itself. Moreover, of the 47 terms that are in OED, GDoS has now been able to antedate some 45%. Approximately 1,000 new citations have been added to this lexical subset.

Rather than deal fully with that here, we offer a separate post, co-written with fellow lexicographer James Lambert, which explains what has been done, and looks at a few of the words.


Heroes & Heroines of Slang 5: Mary ‘Moll’ Frith


It is time for another of slang’s heroes. Or rather, heroines: this week Mary Frith, who bestrode both criminal London and the stage as her alter ego: ‘Moll Cutpurse.’


Frith was born near Ludgate in the City of London around 1584. For one who would go on to become a real-life ‘queen of crime’ her first recorded appearance was fittingly in a court record, accused of stealing a purse. No verdict is recorded, but there were further court appearances, again for thefts, at all of which she managed to obtain a verdict of ‘not guilty’.  In 1612, however, her luck seems to have run out. It is not certain when her nickname arrived, but it was certainly in place by that year when, writing to his friend Sir Dudley Carleton on 12 February, John Chamberlain told him how:


‘Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants) was brought to [Paul’s Cross], where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but yt is since doubted she was maudelin druncke, beeing discovered to have tipled of three quarts of sacke before she came to her penaunce.’ The punishment was for wearing ‘indecent dress: which as Chamberlain  makes clear, referred to Frith’s frequent sporting of male clothing.


By then she was indeed notorious. In a male-dominated hierarchical society she had come to epitomize much that that world feared and thus condemned. Her cross-dressing in ‘mans apparell’ was seen as undermining the established separation of genders, her frequenting of tobacco houses – the first woman recorded as so doing – and her later boast that it was a lifetime’s consumption of the weed that had ensured her longevity, was similarly subversive: women should not smoke. In these contexts, modern studies of her life have claimed her as a proto-feminist. In addition there was her image as a 17th century ‘Moriarty’, that fictional ‘Napoleon of crime,’ controlling every aspect of contemporary villainy. In her role as both receiver and broker of stolen goods she resembled her 18th century successor Jonathan Wild, who would finally be hanged for playing both ends of law-breaking against his own greedy middle.  Thus the modern historian John McMullen:


‘She acquired some control over the organization of thieving… and established a warehouse to handle stolen property. Her subordinates were paid higher rates and worked mainly for her; she in turn returned the stolen goods to their owners. Her influence as a receiver and thief-taker was institutionalized. Her informers and accomplices advised her about robbers and pickpockets, and advertised her reputation. She cultivated specific crimes, instigating a lucrative trade in stealing and returning shopbooks and account ledgers that had specific value only to business owners. She established a market in high-value items such as personal jewels, rings, and watches. Her influence in the underworld stemmed from her power as defender of the public interest…she provided shape and discipline to thieving gangs and she expanded the frontiers of theft.’



Inevitably Frith became a symbol, and was as such celebrated and/or vilified in the contemporary media. In 1610 the writer John Day composed, but it would appear did not publish a pamphlet entitled The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Banckside with her Walkes in Mans Apparrell and to what Purpose. Four years Thomas Freeman wrote that:


‘They say Mol’s honest, and it may bee so,

But yet it is a shrewd presumption no;

To touch but pitch, ’tis knowne it will defile,

Moll wears the breech, what may she be the while?

Sure shee that doth the shadow so much grace,

What will shee when the substance comes in place?


A few years later John Taylor, the Water-Poet (named for his day job: rowing Londoners across the river Thames), praised her as a contrast to those whose lives were dominated by ephemeral fads and fashions:


Moll Frith doth teach them modesty,

For she doth keepe one fashion constantly,

And therefore she deserves a Matrons praise,

In these inconstant Moone-like changing dayes.


Frith’s finest hour came not in print, but on stage: Middleton and Dekker’s play The Roaring Girle, or Moll Cutpurse, first performed in 1611. There was no pretence about the heroine’s identity and Frith, perhaps egged on by the playwrights for purposes of publicity, even appeared on stage at the Fortune Playhouse. She was dressed as a man and closed the evening’s performance with a jig. Critics have argued over the play: some see it as an early demonstration of feminism in action; others, given the final scenes in which ‘Moll’ is re-absorbed into law-abiding society, as a sell-out, a means of ensuring that the audience left the theatre in the comforting knowledge that all was right in the larger worlds and the underworld was no more real, let alone threatening, than a stage performance. More important for our purposes is Moll’s cheerful revelation of the supposedly secret language of the underworld, its cant.


In the first scene of Act V the Roaring Girl meets a fellow low-lifer, one Tearcat, and as her guests, a gaggle of aristocrats, look on, puts him through an interrogation:


Moll: And Tearcat, what are you? a wild rogue, an angler or a ruffler…?

Tearcat: Brother to this upright man, flesh and blood, ruffling Tearcat  is my name and a ruffler is my style, my profession.


Trapdoor: 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 all whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben bouse, and eat a fat gruntling cheat, a cackling cheat and a quacking cheat




All good stuff no doubt – no less than nineteen  discrete cant terms in this brief example and the whole scene carries on in the same way – but it reads less like a feasible dialogue and more like a cursorily dramatized slang glossary, bereft only of alphabetical order and explanatory definitions. In parts it echoes Harman’s canting dialogues, throwing in as many strange terms as possible into a supposedly spontaneous dialogue. Nonetheless Middleton and Dekker, who had already issued his cant-based pamphlets, were making cant available to yet another audience. The on-stage aristocrats are initially appalled by the language: ‘The grating of ten new cart-wheeles,’ complains one, ‘and the gruntling of five hundred hogs comming [sic] from Rumford market, cannot make a worse noyse then this canting language does in my eares’, but distaste leads to fascination. It is likely that the off-stage audience were similarly fascinated and equally keen to learn. The play contains some 117 terms, many of them in this contrived scene. Dekker, ever-fascinated by the underworld scene, drew on what he knew: nearly three-quarters of the words can be found in his canting pamphlets The Bellman of London or in Lanthorne and Candlelight. Several more are pre-dated by his play, The Second Part of the Honest Whore (1609). There are eleven first uses, none of them cant. To make ducks and drakes, to make a mess; fadoodling, used to mean sexual intercourse and offered as euphemistic explanation of wapping and niggling, both of which are spoken but not further explained, fleshfly, a whore, a heap, a good deal, e.g. of money;  hog-rubber, a peasant;  muzzle-chops, one who has a prominent mouth and nose; a nipping Christian, a cutpurse; puggard (from SE pug, to pull or tug), a thief; tearcat, a thug; and whisking, brisk or smart. Finally the play is the first to use moll to mean a woman, usually with overtones of promiscuity. Moll, of course, has lived on, notably in the compound gangster’s moll. The term was especially popular in the mid-19th century when it was reclaimed by cant, stripped of any sexual overtones and used in such compounds as moll-tooler, moll wire or moll whiz, a female pickpocket, square moll, an honest woman and moll-buzzer, a street thief specialising in purse-snatching.


The Roaring Girle, was not Frith’s only on-stage representation. Later in 1611 Nathan Field staged his play Amends for Ladies. It was, as the title suggests, a response to the Middleton/Dekker play, and Moll appears in a much less kindly light. Nor does she play a central role, offering merely a cameo which may be seen as Field’s attempt to profit from The Roaring Girl’s success. Compared with the leading female roles, the Widow, the Wife and the Maid, and the story of their relations with their lovers, Moll’s subversive, transgressive personality, its parading of the sins of thieving and lust, has been clearly introduced only for vilification. Such subversive attitudes must be punished and Moll is duly pilloried as an emblem of everything seen as wrong with the over-independent female.


In 1614 Frith married one Lewknor Markham, probably son of the author Gervase Markham (apostrophised as ‘the earliest English hackney writer’). As one might expect, she kept her maiden name and the marriage did not last. She established a fencing school, but this was probably a front and perhaps ‘fencing’ (the underworld use of word was first recorded in her lifetime) was a pun. In 1624 she was summoned before the Star Chamber: her crime an unpaid bill, but the evidence focussed on her subversiveness.  In 1644 she was listed among those recently discharged from Bethlem Hospital, better known as ‘Bedlam’; it appeared that at least for a while she had been considered mad. She died on July 26 1659.


A biography appeared three years later. As the ODNB notes, it managed to muddle virtually every known fact. But by then the facts were academic. Moll Cutpurse, the embodiment of so many transgressions, had been taken up for moralising and myth.





Slang Family Trees. Number 5: The Penis

Just added to the Slang Family Trees, 1332 terms for the Penis, arranged as to semantic/thematic linkage. A .pdf can be found here:


Slang Family Trees



A Sample of ‘Drunk’

Events beyond my control are making the next installment of Heroes and Heroines of Slang a little late. In the meantime dictionary users might enjoy a new and on-going project: Slang Family Trees. The aim of this is twofold. On the one hand, and like the Timelines of Slang, it is another way of visualizing the slang database. On the other, the product of that visualization is to present some of slang’s primary themes – such as sex, the parts of the body, drunkenness or the police – in terms of the way slang sees them. If the Timelines put the many synonyms in chronological order, the Family Trees show the way these underlying images extend out from the central theme. In this way of seeing the vocabulary, the vagina, for instance, is not simply a hole, but an abyss, a ring, an entrance, a passage, a road, a container and a box. Slang has terms that fit each of these sub-sets and many more. The system can applied to any of slang’s themes.

These are the current family trees:

The ‘penis’ family tree will be posted soon. The aim is to cover all those topics that slang has developed to a greater extent than has any other linguistic register.



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