Green’s Dictionary of Slang News

Update #16 1 August-30 September 2020

Welcome to the 16th upgrade of this on line version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. It also marks the 10th anniversary of its initial, three-volume hardbacked publication. Acute users will note that it offers only two months of research. This is to link future updates to a given year (four per: Jan.-Mar., Apr. to June, etc)) rather than, as has been the case, overflowing from one year to another (i.e. Nov.-Jan.).

As ever the update offers a mix of new terms, whether from the past or as near present as research can achieve, and a number of predates of existing terms, each one gnawing yet further at that most desirable of bones, the first recorded use. Since there are sufficient statistics below I shall skip the usual counts. Unfortunately the demise of the Timeglider software means that again and for the future the list of all these additions will no longer be available in their established blue for predate and red for neologism, but as a pair of Excel files, which can be found here and here.

Research over the last two months has focused on three major sources: a 1910s Australian newspaper, a mid-20th century list of ‘Thieves [sic] Slang’ and a very recent novel, long-listed for the current Booker Prize, which is perhaps the first such work to be written almost wholly in Multi-cultural London English (MLE).

The newspaper, The Sport, a weekly launched in Adelaide in 1911 (research has so far covered 1911-1914) has the dubious role of joining such papers as the mid-19th century New York ‘flash press’ and its London equivalents, plus a number of Australian contemporaries, notably the Sunday Times of Perth but also any paper that offered a column (often a page) headed with some version of  the titillating phrase ‘They Say’. These were plentiful and used such columns to parade a succession of what were essentially scurrilous anecdotes, usually featuring the amatory doings of well-known local figures in what skated the very thin line between gossip and libel. The excuse was that all such pars were submitted by friends of the named (named, that is, through initials which were doubtless wholly transparent in the communities from which they came).  It is not to slang’s credit that examples of its use can be found spattered over the texts, but this is slang’s world and such scurrility regularly offered terms that had yet to be recorded elsewhere.

The Thieves Slang lists – created as part of training their detectives by the Birmingham Police force of the time – were brought to my attention by a tweet from Ben Griffin, lecturer in modern British  history at Cambridge. He was kind enough to make and then send me a copy of the 1947 edition. This was then trumped, most politely, by the West Midlands Police Museum, where WMP Heritage Project Manager Corinne Brazier turned up a predecessor, seemingly the same list but with a publication date of 1935. I am very grateful to them both. The list has come up with 450-odd citations, of which many are either predates or what (nearly 150 examples) to me was new material. All are available via the update and can be searched out. Detail aside, what comes across is that this was still very much an English English slang. One can see that American words – as they were doing in the wider world –  were beginning to creep in, but the vast majority are straight out of Fabian of the Yard or Dixon of Dock Green and the world of quota quickies. All that’s missing is ‘put the bracelets on, guv, it’s a fair cop’. (No bracelets, but darbies, which goes back to 1676, is there).

Finally the novel: Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze. Reviews have been plentiful and uniformly positive, if somewhat shocked by the author’s portrait of a world that, as he points out, exists wholly parallel to that of ‘respectable’ society, except for when the former targets the latter in the hope of pillaging its wealth. Plot aside – a series of vignettes that stem from the author’s own experiences and, quite deliberately, sidesteps the slightest gesture towards morality or regret – the book offers over 400 examples of MLE, with its mix of English slang, language that has emerged from American rap and British grime, Caribbean patois and local invention. It is perhaps a niche preoccupation to class a creative work by the density of slang therein, but for lexicographical purposes, Who They Was is exemplary.



Green’s Dictionary of Slang was published in late 2010. Its three volumes were priced at £300 (though amazon seemed able to reduce this radically and for a while such reductions saw it top the various charts in which it was eligible). It was well-reviewed and won the 2012 Dartmouth Medal of the American Library Association as ‘a reference work of outstanding quality and significance.’ In 2016, after many dead ends, the dictionary – as had always been intended – went on line. The initial plan was to make the barebones information free, but to ask for a subscription to unlock the citations or usage examples that underpinned the headwords and their various senses. It was assumed that this latter would be acceptable to academic users and their institutions, although individuals would probably not need the detailed information. The truth was that without marketing expertise, and support from a publisher, these hopes proved unfounded. As of October 2018 the dictionary was offered in its entirety to all users and for free. It has gradually expanded, on the basis of the three-monthly updates (starting in October 2016 when the digital launch included all additions since print publication), which are posted on line and incorporate the latest advances in research, whether these be additions, improvements or corrections.

Although these figures are by the dictionary’s evolving nature temporary, at this moment, its 16th update and 10th birthday, the database that provides the on line material now runs to 55,719 headwords, which cover 137,235 nested senses, derivatives, compounds, phrases and exclamations. These are underpinned by some 679,874 citations, 101,853  of which have been researched since print publication. There have also been many predatings of existing terms, but since these can have multiple examples for the same term as new discoveries push the ‘first use’ into the past, it is hard to make a count. Certainly the database as a whole far surpasses its printed predecessor, both as to quantity and, I hope, quality.

All of which should offer a moment of pleasure. It does, but it is also marred by the backstory. If it has reached this position, it is not through a loyal editor, a supportive publisher or any of the professional helpmates that a work that I am constantly informed is of such excellence, should receive. The reality is that I have been given no such help. Individual support, yes, and I am hugely grateful; institutional, nothing but what slang terms the soldier’s farewell, and that long since.

Reviewing the print edition, the cultural commentator Jonathan Meades said of slang that its role was not to offer what we are ‘enjoined to think, but what we actually do think.’ There is nothing especially revelatory to be added but I offer a few words on the dictionary’s history. If those concerned object, tough. I appreciate that it is, even in contemporary England where all previous bets seem long since off, still considered vulgar to say what one thinks. Laugh and laugh and be a villain tends to be the way. Or at least bite one’s (stiff and doubtless upper) lip. I cannot, frankly, be fucked. But then, but for the accident of geography, I am not English.

Forty years ago I chose the gig (albeit under very different circumstances) and come what may I continue to revel in it. This, I am wholly aware, is a privilege. (Though not one determined by accident of birth, skin colour, racial background, gender preference or any of the other identities currently so obsessing the pure in heart. Like slang, I lack such zealotry.) In any case, what matters is the database and the website that offers it a public life. If this is of use, it is its own justification. The backstory, while unsatisfying, is no different from many in the world of reference, where the fate of some of its most important projects  —  Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)  are prime examples — has been to be abandoned by publishers for whom the bottom line demands immediate satisfaction and all else can be tossed away regardless. Lexicography is a long-term game, sometimes very long-term indeed, and we live in a short-term world; one can expect little else. (The welcoming line from my own ultimate publishers, landed with the project through the vagaries of takeovers, was ‘You know we don’t want to to publish this book.’). Even the OUP, supposed guardian of the OED, may be faltering. Anyone one who knows the story of that mighty enterprise knows too that relations between the bean-counters and the arrogant supervisory dons of late 19th century Oxford and those who actually rose each day to continue the remarkable work of making the dictionary were always fraught. But the OUP always came through, however reluctantly. It is to be hoped, worrying rumours notwithstanding, that this remains the case.

This book was commissioned at the end of the Nineties and followed on what might be seen as a trial run, a single-volume, non-cited version that in turn had been commissioned in 1993. For whatever reason, I could not have chosen a worse period to sustain a lengthy project. Within three years the company for whom the book was to be published had gone, and with it my pair of rabbis, as some New Yorkers term their professional ‘friends at court’. My then agent asked what the new owners’ plans might be. The answer: ‘we’ll publish…if we have to.’ That, it would prove, was the best I would hear. But I was effectively a decade into the game, hitting ‘delete’ was not an option. I started looking for other patrons (the cries of ‘No, don’t go!’ were deafening in their absence). A lengthy entanglement with the OUP proved futile: we almost reached the altar, but their pre-nup was just too demanding. Back to square one. In the end I was picked up by Chambers, one of the great reference publishers that emerged in late 19th century Scotland. In 2008 they published a revised single volume. I kept working on the big ’un.

Publication was finally scheduled for late 2010. Twelve months earlier, with new research paused and proofing proceeding, I was informed that Chambers too had now gone. The uber-publisher, Hachette (based in Paris, and who had already dumped the work once when Cassell, another of their properties, was killed off) promised that somehow there would be a dictionary. But for now: don’t call us, we’ll call you. Not until the new year – publication year – did I meet my new publisher. As I said, they were less than enthusiastic. But eventually there it was. I had a shirt made, and hosted a party – no-one else, it was made clear, wished to do so – and there they sat there amid the ranks of wine: three large, green volumes.

I had signed the contract in 1998 and knew, even then, that what was termed an ‘e-book’ would be absolutely vital. (Even if no-one yet knew exactly what such a thing was meant to be – the OED’s entry suggests that the primary use then referred to the electronic reader, rather than the texts it would offer). If reference publishers were becoming an endangered species, then reference itself was as vital as ever and its logical home, with limits on neither space nor the possibilities of sophisticated search, not to mention almost instant updating if one wished to do so, was due to become the only game in town. A clause was inserted into the deal: when time permitted, there would be a digital version. But as I said, the ultimate publishers, fearing even further depredations of their bottom line, refused to follow through. I didn’t like it? Then fuck off: we won’t publish you at all. It was interesting, however, that when I said, OK, let me have the electronic rights back since you don’t wish to exploit them, the gun returned to my head and a deal was made, over my opposition, for a digital facsimile – no revisions, no updates, and thus pretty much pointless – to be sold elsewhere. It was hoped, I assume, that the publisher could recoup some of their outlay. Only then was I permitted access to what was mine.

It took six years to launch a proper on-line version. I touted the project to business people, who naturally asked ‘what’s in it for me?’ and who who greeted my suggestion that there might be something in simply helping sustain a worthwhile piece of work with what social media would term ROFL and a speedy escort of this madman from the premises. I tried universities, who excused themselves: ‘wonderful idea, but we haven’t a spare penny’.  One did flirt optimistically for 12 months only to admit that in the end they hadn’t a clue of how best to do the job and must renege. Various young helpfuls emerged from Silicon Roundabout and other tech utopias, took me to high places, showed me the world, and eventually slipped away, nothing achieved other than fattening their pockets through my gullibility.

In the end the job was done. A young coder came out of nowhere (i.e. Twitter) and volunteered. The details are secondary and they are credited elsewhere here, but my gratitude is permanent. Which brings me to the point. If no institution has seen fit to support the work, then I remain hugely indebted to a number of individuals. Some are ‘in the business’, a number have written on line and in print about the work, and others are simply sympathetic and some, of course, are my loyal friends. I am also grateful to everyone who finds the dictionary useful. Were I less senescent I should produce a lengthy list, but I must beg forgiveness. Put it down to an old man’s eroding memory and my terror of overlooking anyone. The lexicography of slang has always been a solitary trade, but that needn’t make it a lonely one. It is all of you who convince me that even if at times I may believe it to be so, I am not merely an old fart sitting in a small room grubbing up yet another synonym for wanking.

Thank you.

[*‘Speak Bitterness’ (诉苦) was a form of intensive propaganda session (like all propaganda a mix of governmental diktat and the manipulation of mass ignorance and gullibility) aimed at uniting the peasants against the ‘class enemies’ (i.e. landlords) whose lands had been confiscated. The attacks were the prelude to longer, ‘struggle sessions’ which invariably incorporated stage-managed violence. My comments are nothing of the sort, but I can’t deny a certain affection for the phrase.]

What Makes a Bonzer Etymology?

Exploring the mysteries of bonzers, boshters, boskers, and bontodgers

James Lambert



[James Lambert is the Contributing Editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. In this special guest blog he has been looking into the etymology of one of Australia’s quintessential slang words: bonzer and with it a variety of associated terms. The conclusions he draws, based on extensive research, take our knowledge of this unique group of superlatives to a new level. Now read on. JG]


The Etymologist’s Art

Etymology is the science/art of determining the origin of words. As a discipline, it requires recourse to various linguistic subfields, especially phonology and semantics, but also an equal amount of historical research.

I say science/art quite deliberately as the wide-ranging field covers both ends of the spectrum. But, in all honesty, the watchword of all good etymologists is ‘common sense’. That common sense, however, must be predicated on cold hard evidence, without which etymological speculations are nothing more than speculations, and very often very poor speculations at that, not only because they lack any solid evidentiary basis, but because they often fly in the face of what evidence there is. In other words, etymology works best when the etymologist has a very deep understanding of the history and development of the language or languages involved (there is frequently more than one) and is also able to draw on considerable linguistic evidence.

In this blog we will examine some of the essential tools of the etymologist and see how they can be applied to sift through different and competing suggestions so that unverified and unverifiable speculations are sidelined and we are left with more realistic and likely theories.

One of the major analytic heuristics is analogy. The basic idea here is that if a certain sound or sense or spelling development is known to have occurred with a certain word or set of words some time in the past, then it is reasonable to assume that the same development could happen again. For example, take the relatively new word newb, meaning ‘a newcomer or novice’, which first appears in the 1990s. We can suggest a tentative etymology, namely, that newb is a clipping of the word newbie, which has the same meaning. Now, it doesn’t take an etymologist, nor a rocket scientist for that matter, to intuitively know that this suggested derivation is 100% correct – even to the untrained eye it is clear that newb is obviously a shortening of newbie. However, one of the reasons we can be so sure is analogy. For when we ask ourselves if there are any analogous examples, the answer is a resounding yes, there are countless analogous examples: pug ‘a boxer’, clipped from pugilist (1858); pub, clipped from public house (1800), rhino and croc clipped from rhinoceros (1858) and crocodile (1884); gym, from gymnasium (1871), and so on. One of the earliest examples being gent, a clipping of gentleman dating back to the 1600s.

In fact, the process of foreshortening words is a common formative process in the English language (and other languages besides), and as English speakers, we know this. This knowledge is part of our overall comprehension of our language and it is on the basis of our knowledge of these many analogous examples that we can be confident that newb is a shortening of newbie.

You will have noticed that I have given the examples of clipped words followed by a year in parentheses. These are, as you will of course have already discerned, the year of earliest record for each of the terms. This brings us to the next tool of the etymologist, namely, chronological precedence. Quite simply put, if a certain term is meant to be the origin of another term, then the first (called the etymon) must have existed prior to its derivative. This is just common sense. Importantly, all the examples of clippings I have given above antedate the appearance of newb, thus showing that the process of forming neologisms by clipping was already in place in the language.

Nevertheless, as common sensical as this may seem, amateur etymologists often put forward theories that completely ignore this essential point. A good example of a chronologically impossible (and therefore incorrect) etymology is for the birdwatcher’s term jizz, meaning ‘the overall structure of a bird’. The erroneous theory goes that this word was originally an acronym GISS, standing for General Impression, Shape, and Size, which was used by fighter pilots in the Second World War in reference to a method of recognising aeroplane types. The fatal problem with this theory is that the birdwatcher’s term was first used in the 1920s, considerably before WWII.

This leads us to the next implement in the etymologist’s toolbox, namely documentary evidence. As etymologies are by and large dealing with the speech habits of the past, sometimes the very ancient past, our only access to the way words were formerly used is if they happen to survive in historical texts. This is one essential that good etymologists always rely on. For example, with the jizz/GISS etymology discussed above, we know it must be wrong because there is documentary evidence that jizz was used in the 1920s (it occurs in the Manchester Guardian of the 6th of December 1921), and there is no documentary evidence that GISS was used before WWII. However, if, for instance, there were no surviving copies of the Manchester Guardian from 1921 – if say they had all destroyed during the Manchester blitz of 1940 – then the GISS derivation would have seemed eminently plausible, rather than entirely impossible.

This of course shows a weakness in etymological research – that is, it can only be as good as the documentary evidence allows. Etymologists, and lexicographers as well, are bound by the resources available to them. One can never see every use of a word, especially as most language takes place in speech and is for all practical purposes lost forever once it is spoken. Only the thinnest minuscule modicum of the daily language of billions gets written down or electronically recorded, and then only a paltry sampling of what is recorded ever passes under the gaze of the lexicographer or etymologist.

So, to conduct high quality etymology, one must have recourse to historical texts, and the more the better. Thankfully, these days more and more historical texts are being digitised and made available, and the task of the etymologist is becoming ever more easier with respect to accessing documentary evidence upon which they can conduct their careful and often painstaking detective work. And, as we shall see below, this can either make or break an etymology.

Another important string to the etymologist’s bow is historical knowledge, both linguistic and sociocultural; a knowledge of who was in contact with whom, of what languages or dialects or lingos were formerly in use and when and where they were. An absence of this can result in highly improbable folk etymologies, which, while often providing a pleasing story, are utterly ridiculous. A classic example of this I once experienced was the origin of the word pothole put forth by a tour bus driver in Bath, England. His theory, presented as absolute fact, of course, was that during the Roman occupation of England (roughly 43–84 AD) the native Celts needed clay to make pots and they took advantage of a ready supply of good clay by excavating it from Roman-built roads, leaving ‘potholes behind. This explanation was generally received with much interest and ‘oohing’ from the bus occupants, while I bit my tongue reasoning that one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story and that to deflate the tour guide in front of everyone was just bad manners. Yet, anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge will see the gross impossibility of the tale. First, during the Roman occupation of England, Celts spoke Old Brythonic and the Romans spoke Latin. The words pot and hole are both Germanic words first brought to England around 450 AD, long after the Romans had left. Second, the word pothole itself is only recorded since the beginning of the 19th century. So, as a result of ignoring historical knowledge, the tour guide’s etymology of pothole was impossible by a distance of some seventeen centuries. Third, Roman roads did not use clay, or used clay mixed with rubble as one of the lowest layers, not easy to dig up, nor very useful for potting. (Actually, the proposed etymology also fails from an absence of documentary evidence, just for good measure).

Finally, the last arrow in the etymologist’s quiver is Occam’s razor, also known as ‘the law of parsimony’. For our purposes, this simply means that when a suggested etymology requires too many steps or too many assumptions, then it is probably wrong, and suggestions with the least complexity have a greater chance of being right. This is a rule of thumb, not a hard and fast rule, but it often comes in handy. A great example of a suggested etymology that violates Occam’s razor is the famously preposterous etymology for the word hoodlum first outlined in the fourth edition of Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1877), and restated thereafter by many authorities. Repeating a story he had heard, Bartlett posits that the word hoodlum originated by a printer’s error for the term noodlum, which is backslang for Muldoon, the name of the leader of a San Franciscan gang of street Arabs. This makes the assumption that there was a backslang version of Muldoon’s name (no evidence for this), and then the assumption that a printer made an error and typeset hoodlum instead of noodlum (no evidence for this), and then the assumption that from this single error the word entered general slang (there are, at least, a few examples of a single text contributing a new word to the slang lexicon, so this last assumption is not entirely fanciful). In any case, this piling up of assumption on assumption would make William of Occam spin in his grave, and makes the suggested etymology highly unlikely indeed. An alternate etymology suggests that hoodlum may be from German dialect words, such as hudelum ‘disorderly’, Hudellump ‘slovenly person’, and is to be preferred as it relies on less assumptions.

These principles of etymological investigation work in concert with one another, but depending on the derivation suggested often only one or two may apply. In the following, I will begin by making it clear when I am invoking one of the principles, but then will tail this explicitness off so as not to belabour the point and clutter up the text.


UPDATE #15 1 May to 31 July 2020


Welcome to the fifteenth and latest quarterly update of the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.


As ever, some statistics: research over the last three months has added 385 new slang terms; 538 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and some 4,472 new citations – including ante-dates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded within  2,642 terms. In total the database currently offers 55,542 headwords (within which are nested over 135,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by over 655,000 citations). All this material is on offer to every user.


Unfortunately, and to my own regret, the software that has up till now made it possible to offer users a timeline of new material is no longer functioning. Nor is it to be supported. Thus it has not been possible to initiate the usual link with its red and blue tags, showing antedates and new terms of slang. Instead I have created a very simple spreadsheet with Excel. Users who wish to consult this can find it at Google Drive here.


This offers both new slang terms, in alphabetical order, and ante-dates, listed by the ‘spread’ of the date as recorded on May 1 2020 and that which has replaced it after the recent quarter’s research.


Much of that research has focused on the American Underworld: The Flash Press, a collection of the American Antiquarian Society and digitized by Readex/Newsbank. These 45 titles (ranging from a single edition to runs covering multiple years) have between them provided more than two-thirds of this update’s additions and changes. I have written below on the nature of the ‘flash press’ and some of the slang terms that have been extracted from it. Other material has come from the usual wide range of sources.




New York & Environs 1830-1865

‘Here’s this morning’s New York Sewer! Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber! Here’s the New York Family Spy! Here’s the New York Private Listener! Here’s the New York Peeper! Here’s the New York Plunderer! Here’s the New York Keyhole Reporter!

Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)




Taking his first steps through 1840s New York City, the young hero of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit pays a visit to the offices of the New York Rowdy Journal. The paper was Dickens’ creation, a nod to what he saw as the trashy standards of the contemporary New York press, but there were examples to draw on, sufficient to be known collectively as the ‘flash press.’ Flash, that is, as in hedonistic, immoral, sexually sophisticated and as a result of all this, short-lived.


In the accompanying illustration by ‘Phiz’ one may see lying on a cupboard, alongside bottles marked respective ‘ink’ and ‘poison’, a volume marked ‘slang dic.’, but if there was a slang dictionary in use, then it must have been Pierce Egan’s revision of Grose or ‘Jon Bee’s’ Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, &c.,  both published in 1823 and both, of course, British. America would not have a homegrown version for a further 15 years.


Its potential contents, however, were ready and waiting.


Thirty years on, writing in his Americanisms (1872) Maximilian Schele de Vere stressed that ‘the most fertile source of cant and slang, however, is, beyond doubt, the low-toned newspaper, written for the masses, which, instead, of being a monitor and an instrument of improvement in the hands of great men, has become a flatterer of the populace, and a panderer to their lowest vices.’ Nor were need the press-spread neologisms only slang. Thirty years later still James Murray of the OED acknowledged the pre-eminence of the popular press in keeping lexicographers abreast of language’s cutting edge. Neither mentioned, but but both might well have done, the ‘flash press’. It ticked their every box.




The press flourished for a decade or so. Of the titles that can be consulted, thanks to the American Antiquarian Society and the digitized versions created by Readex/NewsBank and available as American Underworld: The Flash Press, few have survived, Their names include The Whip, The Flash, Ely’s Hawk & Buzzard, The Subterranean, The Flagellator, The Scorpion, The Libertine, Life in Boston and New York (from Boston, MA), The Spy (from Manchester, NH), Venus’ Miscellany (inching towards modern pornography)  and various copycats and clones. They were very much a Yankee creation and focused on a local audience. Other ‘sporting’ journals (best known being The Spirit of the Times, its most successful editor being an ex-‘flash press’ hack, George Wilkes, formerly of The Flash) might embrace a wider America, or even if based in New York, such as the National Police Gazette, draw in readers from across the country. The hardcore did not, nor did they wish to.


They were mainly, but not uniquely American. The 1840s saw equivalents in the London (Paul Pry and Sam Sly, or The Town) and Sydney, Australia (The Satirist and Sporting Chronicle) but like their New York equivalents, they vanished almost as soon as they had started picking up readers. The punters may have enjoyed their salacious prurience, those with the power to curb it and those who found themselves its targets (sometimes one and the same) did not.


They were based on gossip, typically indicated with a wealth of initials which, were ‘reform’ (i.e. a cash payment) not made soon, would be filled out with a full name. In Dickens’ case, his 1842 trip to Gotham was noted by hints at a visit to a brothel that does not, unsurprisingly, appear in his own American Notes. As the Whip of April 23 put it ‘There was a little dog, and he had a little tail, Oh, what a living Boz you is.’ (It is also fascinating to witness how quickly Dickens creations entered common usage, almost before a new serial had been finished.) The press posed as enthusiasts of reform, but it was the same enthusiasm that has underpinned the hypocritical mouthings of generations of tabloids. The supposedly wicked were shamed, all the better to publicise the details (or at least the heavy-handed suggestions) of their sins. A column like The Rake’s ‘Invisible Spy offered all the smug spitefulness of the most dedicated and moralizing censor. Blackmail was never far away.


The columns, usually headed ‘The X [the journal’s title or alternatively a town or city’s name] Wants to Know’, played on the journal’s name to threaten ‘whipping’, ‘spying’ ‘flagellation’ and the clawed descent of both ‘hawks’, ‘buzzards’ and other birds of prey. It was these columns, of course, skating on the thinnest of ice, that would see them prosecuted and shut down. Fifty years later the tradition persisted. Columns headed ‘They Say’ in such Australian papers as the Sunday Times (from Perth, Western Australia) sailed equally close to the wind, as they retailed the scabrous suggestions of what it was that ‘they’ allegedly were saying. And if anything Australia’s racist stereotyping, bad enough in mid-century America, was even worse.


It was not all gossip. There was ‘racy’ fiction too. Foremost among its contributors was George Thompson, who also edited on occasion. His many stories mixed thinly veiled pornography (with constant references to nymphomania, pedophilia, incest, gay sex, miscegenation and group sex), true-crime stories and a fascination with the bizarre. They were regularly advertised in the press: a quarter per book and five for a buck:




At times the flash press became positively mainstream. There would be regular descriptions of brothel dances, with every inmate’s dress as minutely delineated as a legitimate magazine might lay out those paraded by princesses at a royal wedding. Like London’s 18th century guides to the pleasures of Covent Garden, ‘houses’ were specified, along with their address, the name and reputation of ‘Madame,’ the qualifications and charms of the inmates, and the decorations, both down- and upstairs, that clients might expect to encounter. Some journals offered pictures, of girls and of their luxurious backdrop. There were lists of drinks that one ‘nymph’ or another preferred to imbibe. There were also instructions as to the best theatres to visit if you wanted to find a partner for the night: the ‘third tier’ circle of the Chatham or the Chestnutt were especially recommended. If all else failed, there were regular mentions of Mrs Restell, New York’s best-known abortionist and allegedly protected — for a cut — by the city’s Police Commissioner Matsell. The papers, like their ‘straight’ peers, had no mutual affection. It was a rare issue rare which did not feature one savaging the other — usually on the grounds of the supposedly lax morality of their editors. The Whip and The Rake were especially barbed towards each other, reflecting, perhaps, their success and the near-identical nature of their writing.


For a detailed history of the flash papers, well illustrated by a range of excerpts, the best resource is The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York (2008) by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. This looks at the sociology and when  relevant the politics behind the press; at those who edited them and those who read them and those, mainly existing within the New York sexual underworld of brothels, pimps, bawds, whores and of course clients, who provided – either as informers or participants – their stories.


Patricia Cohen and her colleagues only mention the language of the press in passing, focusing on what it said rather than the actual words and phrases that comprised it. My own researches, reading through a large proportion of the titles available, have, as is slang’s way, ignored the social backdrop, and gone for the vocabulary.


Given a source that has proved so remarkable in the fecundity of material, one word leaps out, though it has no claims on slang. Serendipity or what Shakespeare’s villainous tinker Autolycus termed the snapping up of unconsidered trifles. Not in the research, which requires serious concentration, but in what it displays: the press offers up approximately 250 hitherto unrecorded terms; in addition, and indulging the ‘historical’ lexicographer’s holy grail: the ‘first recorded use’, there are around 375 predates. But had these papers not survived – and given their lurid content most readers preferred not to start a collection – and then been made available to scholars, this information would have remained unknown and unexhumed. This, of course, is true of all research: if you don’t know it’s there, how can you interrogate it. That this small but revelatory collection has survived and is now available for excavation, only underlines its value.


What it also shows is that despite a common misbelief that America’s, which still effectively meant New York’s slang generation had yet properly to come on line, it was up and running. Twenty years later George Matsell’s Vocabulum, or The Rogue’s Lexicon, the country’s first native dictionary of slang, proved the point. To what extent he read the press is unknown; as police chief he was certainly gained regular mentions (177 appearances between 1841-71).






As a  lexicographer Matsell did his own digging. To look only at the letter ‘B’ – for which Vocabulum lists some 127 headwords –one finds the following 39 terms (nearly one third) that for which, when he published, his is the first recorded use: badger (a thief who rifles the pockets of a man who is currently engaged with his accomplice, a prostitute), badger-crib (a brothel wherein one is robbed), barney (a fake fight, arranged by criminals to distract a potential victim’s attention.), beat (to rob), beaters (boots), bet one’s eyes (to watch a game but not get involved in the betting), big thing (a large amount of plunder), bingo-boy (a drunkard), bit (arrested), blarney (a picklock), take a blinder (to die), blink (to go to sleep), bludget (a female thief), boarding house (a prison), boat (to transport a convict), boat with (to become partners with), boated (sentenced to a long term in prison), body cover (an overcoat), boke / boko (the nose), booby-hatch (a police station), boshing ( a whipping), bots (boots), bracket-mug (an ugly face), break o’day drum (an all-night tavern), break a leg (to seduce), broad-pitching (‘three-card monte’), brother (of the) bolus (a doctor), brother of the surplice (a priest), brush (to ‘soften up’ a victim), buck (an unlicensed cab-driver), bugger (a pickpocket), bully (a cosh), bummer (a scavenger), bumy-juice (beer), burned out (exhausted), burner (a card-sharp), burst (a spree), burster (a burglar), butteker and butter-ken (a shop), buttered (whipped), and button (to act as a confidence trickster’s accomplice).




But Matsell’s list could have been even larger. The lexis offered in flash press, which he seems to have bypassed, coincides barely if at all. Both Matsell and at least one paper use burst, a spree, an indulgent party. There is badger, but as a verb, referring to the act of the girl in conning the client, and badger game, which Matsell ignores. For him boarding house is defined as a prison (he has the synonym boarding school), while the press opts for a brothel, with its attendant boarders and boarding ladies; it also regularly uses board, to live as a brothel prostitute. Matsell has a couple of brothers: of the bolus (a doctor) and the surplice (a priest) but not the press’ preference, of the brush (a painter). Both offer bummer, but the press defines him as a ‘a fast young man’, while Matsell has a ‘scrounger’ (a weak form of the earlier ‘looter’).


None of which is to invalidate the policeman. If one accepts the late 19th century report of the writer William Cumming Wilde, both criminals and policemen backed up the Vocabulum’s lexis. Wilde cited the book both to ‘one of the most desperate characters that our city has produced’ and to ‘one of the best as well as oldest detectives in our country […] a man who has followed his profession for fully half a century.’ Both supported the accuracy of Matsell’s lists. And ‘subsequent interviews with some of the best officers on our police force fully confirmed this.’ Still, one wonders what else there was, noticed by neither source. Nor, however, does it go to prove slang’s oft-suggested ephemerality. These uses by the press may be the first, but they are by no means the last. Serendip again:  no one lexicographer, even with a copper’s facilities, can collect everything; nor can a down-market hack, however well wired into his subject-matter, glean a whole lexis.


Both the slang neologisms and the pre-dating of existing terms are worth mention. Of the new terms, a small selection offers land frigate (a prostitute), sashay (to have sexual intercourse), zoe (a prostitute), gravy-eyed (insult offered a woman), carry the war into Africa (to take things further), give someone a striped jacket (to give a beating), grinding mill (a brothel), gum game (a confidence trick, though it depends not on speech, as ‘gum’ might suggest, but the activity of the opossum, which, in its efforts to elude the hunter, climbs to the very top of a gum tree, thus taking itself beyond the hunter’s reach and, since it was hunted at night, beyond his eyesight), nine months fever (pregnancy), stargazer (a womaniser, a prostitute’s client), twig the heel (to seduce), blow-breeches (a braggart,; a verbose talker), horizontal academy (a brothel), codfishopolitan (a native of Boston, MA, from the city’s prime product), prop-room (a venu specializing in the ‘thimble-rig’), bell-teazer (a hat, with a curved brim and crown), r.g. crib (a down-market tavern, selling rot-gut), work on mattresses (to work as a prostitute), mumble-peg game (sexual intercourse), gin depot/fountain (a tavern). If the topics seem somewhat monocular, thus the papers that reported on them.


Then there are the phrases: too much pork for a shilling (too much of a good thing) look marrowbones and cleavers (to stare aggressively), walk up to the ringbolt (to be hanged), go in for lemons (to commit oneself wholeheartedly), too much pumpkins (something or someone seen as excessive), not see one’s own gate an inch from one’s nose (to be ‘blind’ drunk), 2:40 on the plank road (the speedy payment of a debt; ‘2:40’ being the time of a fast trotting horse and plan road a play on ‘plank down,’ i.e. money), and eleven pennies out of the shilling (used to indicate a percentage of non-white parentage and reminiscent of British India’s not sixteen annas to the rupee) plus such street-launched catcalls as how do you live and what do you do in the daytime? with its inference of addressing a prostitute and the indefinable if you don’t look out we’ll get a camel on you!




As for the predates, and restricting ourselves to the 32 examples that have pushed back slang’s records by 100 years-plus, these are in their way even more interesting. They also are, or were, more examples of the era’s expanding slang vocabulary. (None of these terms – whether ‘new’ or ‘predates’ – are set in stone: any one of them may yet be revealed as even older).


From the longest predate in descending order they are plain sewing (anal intercourse) 171 years predate (1832<-2003), grease-pot  (an insult suggesting some form of kitchen slavey) 157 years (1848<-2005), pigville (the poor end of town, the implication, as usual with pigs, being that the locals are Irish) 156 years 1848<-2004), orangutan (a highly derogatory name for an African American) 150 years (1842<-1992), speak French  (to perform fellatio, the inevitable link of ‘dirty’ French to oral sex) 144 years (1842<-1986), burst (to go out on a spree) 142 years (1842<-1984), rigging  (usually clothes, but here the genitals) 140 years (1848<-1988), grindstone  (the vagina) 138 years (1842<-1980), miff (to get angry) 144 years (1812<-1956), sheisty (underhand, unethical) 138 years (1855<-1993); get the sack (to have one’s relationship ended) 136 years (1833<-1969), hard boy (a thug) 134 years (1851<-(1985), sack (to end a relationship) 133 years (1856<-1989), dragon (an old prostitute) 125 years (1859<-1984), horn (a womanizer) 124 years , (1843 (1967), whistle (the penis) 122 years (1843<-1965), bedhouse (a brothel) 118 years (1842<-1960), snork (a young man) 118 years (1848<-1966), banger (one who hits hard) 117 years (1842<-1959), dirty leg (a promiscuous female) 117 years (1861<-1968), cut (circumcised) 116 years (1856<-1972), horizontal (used in compounds to mean sexual intercourse, here mesmerism and amusement) 115 years (1844<-1959), chant (to talk persuasively) 114 years (1842<-1956), jug (a figurative sense of SE juggle, to fool, deceive) 113 years (1855<-1968), fast (sexy, provocative) 112 years (1848<-1960), eat dried apples (to become pregnant) 111 years (1854<-1965), pork (to have sexual intercourse) 111 years (1856<-1967), crawl (a promenade along the street) 111 years (1882<-1993), peeps (people)  109 years (1833<-1942), ointment (money) 107 years (1842<-1949), on ice (to the limit) 107 years (1861<-1958), wet deck  (a woman or prostitute who performs serial sex acts with a succession of males) 106 years (1843<-1949) and shag (a person) 103 years 1843<-1946).


Perhaps the most intriguing, is that for phat, the usual etymology of which is a deliberately skewed spelling of the positive slang term fat adj. sense 1, but which is also popularly linked to a variety of suggested abbreviations or acronyms, e.g. physically attractive or pretty hips and thighs or pretty hips, ass and tits, or pretty hot and tempting, or pussy, hips, ass and thighs etc. All of these link to sense 1, used to describe an attractive woman. Gelded of any sexuality, phat sense 2 is a term of general approval. It is here that one might place another example from the flash press: as published by New York’s Flash on 14 August 1842, ‘As it is not a very “phat” job to beat oneself […] he elevated his sparkling orbs in search of a victim.’ However the use is unique, and like slang’s fat, adj. (2), the term means substantial, wealthy and in terms of the con-trick noted here, remunerative. The skewed spelling must be attributed to the author’s personal peccadillo. It would take a further 121 years for it to reappear.






GDoS Update #11 July 31 2019


Welcome to the eleventh and latest update of the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.


As ever, some statistics: research (somewhat limited by external priorities) over the last three months has added 199 new slang terms, the majority from the last few years; 216 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and  new citations – including ante-dates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded. In all there are 2463 new citations, appearing under 1510 headwords. In total the database currently offers 55,261 headwords (within which are nested over 135,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by just over 650,000 citations). All this material is on offer to every user.


For an overview, with the fruits of the last quarter’s research 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. As pionered in recent updates, the format has been improved: entries now link to the specific part of an entry, its sense and where pertinent its homonym number. Unfortunately the software does not permit click-through access (this is in development) , but users will be able to see at once which part of an entry has improved.


While a good proportion of the new material comes from recent publications, typically The Border (2019) the final volume of Don Winslow’s epic treatment of the Central and North American drug trade, the dictionary has also benefited hugely from the generosity of Phil Virta, publisher in charge of Gale’s Archives of Sexuality & Gender. These archives, which comprise material from the British Library’s Private Case, the New York Public Library and the Kinsey Report offer many primary sources, from 1690 to 1940, both fiction and non-fiction, that lie behind the history of sexuality. The material is available through many libraries and institutions but not, or not easily, for the independent researcher. My tweet to this end was picked up at Gale and three month free access was given me. I am hugely grateful.


The resource is wide-ranging, but not everything offers useful pickings. One must pick and choose and trust to one’s judgement to spot the plums. Of the titles I have opened, around 70 have been worth further research. The first being Pleasant quippes for upstart newfangled gentlewomen by S. Gosson (1596) and the last the collection of Limericks (1959) published by ‘Count Palamiro Vicarion’ (i.e. the British poet Christopher Logue) in his days hacking for Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press. The bulk of the material focuses on the 18th and 19th centuries. Among the most productive titles have been two 1732 ‘‘novelisations’ of Hogarth’s similarly named series of engravings, The Harlot’s Progress (31 examples) and The Progress of a Rake (27) and The Honest Fellow, or Reveller’s Bemorandum Book (1790) by ‘Bumper Allnight, Esquire’ (106).


London being the contemporary ‘sin city’ the guidebook format was always popular: ostensibly promoting security for the visiting unwary, it offered a little soft porn in its rambling into bordellos and boudoirs, and some tips as to criminal ‘cant’. Whether such titles kept out-of-towners’ purses not to mention bodies untainted, is unknown. Titles include The Tricks of the Town Laid Open; or, A companion for country gentlemen (1755) (23), Low-life; or, One half of the world, knows not how the other half live (1764) (11), The Midnight Spy: or, A view of the transactions of London and Westminster from the hours of ten in the evening, till five in the morning (1766) (10) and Midnight Scenes and Social Photographs (1858) by ‘Shadow’ (16). Collections of ‘drolleries’  —  ballads, poems, anecdotes and the like  —  had a ready market. The Dictionary has already drawn on a number; this research has added material from The Bacchanalian Magazine (1793) (79), Hilaria. The Festive Board (1798) (64) and Cythera’s Hymnal; or, flakes from the foreskin: A collection of songs, poems, nursery rhymes, quiddities, etc., etc. never before published (1870) (79). The Honest Fellow is another of the genre.


The sexual memoir also has a role to play. Purportedly confessional and revelatory, more likely one more variety of titillatory make-believe, productive titles include ‘Experiences of a Cunt Philosopher’ (1884) in Randiana (24), ‘Lais Lovecock, containing the adventures of Miss Lais Lovecock, written by herself, etc.’ included in The  Bagnio Miscellany (1892) (24), ‘Suzan Aked’ The Simple Tale of Suzan Aked (1898 and a title best spoken aloud) (16) and The Memoirs of Madge Buford, a modern Fanny Hill (1902) by D. St John (72).


Then of course there is unalloyed porn. Crissie. A music-hall sketch of to-day (1899) (38) may, as an advertisement claimed, have been ‘evidently drawn from the life’: its titular heroine was allegedly the wife of a printer employed by the pornographer Leonard Smithers, but the back-story was irrelevant. What mattered was that ‘the whole work is very obscene.’ Two popular contemporaries were the pseudonymous ‘Ramrod’ (slang for penis) who in 1900 offered The Nocturnal Meeting (79) and Family Connections (19) and the wholly visible G.R. (Reginald) Bacchus whose works included Nemesis Hunt (1902, presumably a piece of smutty rhyming slang), Pleasure Bound ‘Afloat’ (1908) Maudie (1908) and Pleasure Bound ‘Ashore’ – all starring the same sexually self-indulgent cast-list and good for 40 terms between them. Bacchus (1873-1945) dropped out of Oxford and worked as a freelance arts reviewer before gravitating into the world of Leonard Smithers, both pornographer and publisher of such exotics as Aubrey Beardsley. The writer also pursued a double life, mixing his smutty outpourings with what Jack Smithers, son of Leonard, recalled as as ‘the most goody-goody stories for a prominent religious weekly’.


Perhaps the most intersting find of all is not, other than in its sharing of a number of popular obscenities, a piece of pornography but The German Prisoner (1930) by the British novelist James Hanley (29). Far tougher both in its imagery and its vocabulary than better-known chronicles of World War I such as Goodbye to All That or the punningly titled  Her Privates We, Hanley’s novella was printed privately and, like another of the author’s books, Boy, duly banned. Among its slang terms are backscuttle, bugger all, fuck you! johnny rollocks, shithouse and sodding. The trenches had been tough, but its language, doubtless extreme in situ, had usually been left where it fell.


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.


GDoS Update #7: 31 July 2018

Welcome to the seventh and latest update to the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.


As ever, some statistics: research over the last three months has added 311 new slang terms, 319 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and 2,839 new citations – including ante-dates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded. The database currently offers 55,003 headwords (within which are nested over 133,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by approximately 630,000 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 and continually evolving and expanding heart of the data, we have to recommend a subscription.


For an overview, with the fruits of the last quarter’s research in chronological order, all users of the dictionary can go here. This uses the same software as the Timelines of Slang. As usual the research has focused largely on newspaper databases, notably that held by the British Library, the US Library of Congress and, for Australia, Trove. These, by their nature, tend to look backwards in time, but there is also an on-going accretion of up-to-date slang. Thus there are also a substantial number of terms from UK drill music, state of the art as regards London slang, and, to go back to the other end of slang’s history, some 17th century pamphleteering, often credited to women authors.


New terms are marked in red, ante-dates in blue. The format has been improved: entries now link to the specific part of an entry, its sense and where pertinent its homonym number. Unfortunately the software does not permit click-through access (this is in development) , but users will be able to see which part of an entry has improved.



April 2018 Update + Hero of Slang 8: Billy Rowe

Welcome to the sixth and latest update to the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.


As ever, some statistics: research over the last three months has added 301 new slang terms, 377 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and 2,775 new citations – including ante-dates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded. The database currently offers 54,873 headwords (within which are nested over 133,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by approximately 630,000 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 and continually evolving and expanding heart of the data, we have to recommend a subscription.


For an overview, with the fruits of the last quarter’s research in chronological order, all users of the dictionary can go here. This uses the same software as the Timelines of Slang. As usual the research has focused largely on newspaper databases, notably that held by the British Library, the US Library of Congress and, for Australia, Trove. These, by their nature, tend to look backwards in time, but there is also an on-going accretion of up-to-date slang.


New terms are marked in red, ante-dates in blue. The format has been improved: entries now link to the specific part of an entry, its sense and where pertinent its homonym number. Unfortunately the software does not permit click-through access (this is in development) , but users will be able to see which part of an entry has improved.


Loveless in Slangland

In honour (?) of Valentine’s Day, I offer another slightly amended wander down the primrose path I trod with The Dabbler five years or so ago. The piece, as originally titled, was named ‘No Words for Love in Slang’. Well, no hearts and flowers, anyway. Please read on:


For those who wish cross-reference to GDoS, all combinations with ‘love’ can be found here unless otherwise noted.


I tried to write a musical once. I had lunched well, couldn’t face the database and it served to counterfeit work. It was called – goodness, how did you guess – Slang! I forget the plot – which is always the problem: I can sketch the puppets but can never make them dance – and it came to nothing. I composed, well, doodled, what I laughingly termed some lyrics. There was only one that was passable. It was called ‘There’s No Word for “Love” in Slang’. As I recall, the hero (poor, honest and resolutely foul-mouthed) sang it on his way to meet the heroine (rich, daughter of a grasping, snobbish papa, and forbidden on pain of disinheritance any non-standard syllables). You can see why I didn’t finish it. But the song title was correct. Because there isn’t.


Valentine’s Day comes every year and may bring many a surprise (not least its definitions in slang), but one thing is wholly predictable: no troths will have been plighted on behalf of the counter-language. Slang remembers the unfortunate Valentine’s end: one does not attain martyrdom without…being martyred. So too the concept of ‘love’ at the vocabulary’s hands. Of course, if one searches for ‘love’ as a headword, one finds several. Though none, I would note, a verb. There is love as in ‘love of a…’ which is a term of praise kindred to duck, as in ‘duck of …’ and tends to apply to small children or else items of clothing: hats, dresses, although Walter, he of that multi-volumed stroke book My Secret Life, recalls how, on holiday, his hosts offered to ‘get me a love of an Italian boy to bugger.’ And there is the cry of Lord love a duck! which combines them. But it should surprise no-one that love is usually found in compounds, and that in the bulk of those compounds the word is substituting for ‘sex’. Thus these, for the penis, which of which at least some seem to have escaped from heavy metal, or at least a Spinal Tap tribute band: love bone, love dart, love gun, love hammer, love muscle, love pump, love rod, love staff, lovesteak, love stick, love torpedo, love truncheon and love warrior  (Not mention corporal love, which fleshy non-com ‘stands to attention’). If one has one genital than one must have its opposite number. Here it is: the love box, love canal, love crack, love flesh, love glove, love hole, love lane (and thus take a turn on Love Lane or on Mount Pleasant, to have sex), lovelips, love’s cabinet, love seat and the love shack which can equally efficiently multitask as the place a man keeps for seductions and as an object of sexual desire (who can also, lord help them, be a love muffin) and conquest. The fountain or treasury of love work too.


Nor are we done with the licentious list: love apples, grenades and spuds are testicles; the love button is the clitoris, love rug the female pubic hair, love custard and love juice semen, and the love envelope, a condom. Love handles (the idea being that one can hold on to them during sex) represent the excess flesh around a portly stomach that may be seen in a kinder light by those who appreciate the Rubensesque figure. There is the love bug, which in this context stands for VD rather than VW, as in Hollywood’s twee Herbie. And, how could we forget, the love machine is a what an older synonymy termed the ‘town bull.’


Love’s lexis is not all sexual. There are always the drugs: a love affair (punning on slang’s nicknames) is a speedball, i.e. a mixture of heroin (‘boy’) and cocaine (‘girl’). The love drug, plain and simple, is MDMA or Ecstasy, love weed marijuana and pure love LSD. Love curls represented a hairstyle in which the hair is cut short and worn low over the forehead, love-pot a drunkard. Perhaps slang’s take is best summed up in love letter, an American usage of the 1940s defined either as a bullet or as some form of hard projectile thrown at a human target. And for the love of Mike! (who can also be Heaven! holy Buddha! Jupiter! Michael Angelo! Moses! Pete (and Alf)! Peter the hermit! and Polly Simpkins!) is an exclamation of exasperation or surprise.


One can expand the search, but can one render the definitions more affectionate? No. Love and kisses, rhyming on ‘the missus’ at least suggests a tinge of harmony, but love and marriage, as ordained by a number of crooners, is merely a carriage, while other rhymes offer love and hate (weight), God-love-her (one’s mother) and light of love (a prison governor), and never forget that this last, un-rhymed, means a whore.


Last chance: definitions containing ‘love’. Excluding those that include ‘affair’. Slang resists moderation and passion, even obsession are the rule. Not much improvement here. Do one’s balls on, busted on, collared on, dead set on, daffy, dotty, doughy, drop one’s ovaries (a gay term as it happens, at least in South Africa), fall for, have it for, hung up on, gone a million, nuts on, potty about, snowed over, soft on, spoons on, stuck on, go turtles on (‘turtle dove’ = love) and wrapped. Is it me, or do other also fail to hear much in the way of hearts and flowers? Half of them, after all, are synonyms for ‘mad’. As for sugar on and sweet on, it is not merely my diabetes that shudders.


I give up. Slang and love use single beds, or draw a line with what used to be known as the Dutch wife, i.e. a bolster (though modern use has redefined the compound as a blow-up ‘love doll’). I gave up the musical too. Let it not be said, however, that my creative fantasies are at an end. I see…the hard-boiled slang lexicographer. ‘They call me Lex, lady, Lex Argot. Argot’s the name — etymology’s my game’. No guns, just a vast and heavy book. And maybe the cute and of course a sassy lesbian mixed-race sidekick, who speaks only in Multi-ethnic London English. Or rhyming slang. ‘There are 130,000 words in the naked dictionary: this has not really been one of them.’


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.


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.


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