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.
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.