A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

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Francis Grose, Author of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Have you ever typed an unknown word into Google to figure out what it means and come across a website called UrbanDictionary? If not, I highly recommend it. Warning: this website includes many vulgar terms and while it is constantly evolving, changing, and growing in size, anyone can edit it, so many of the examples are exactly what you expect when the internet has free rein to write whatever it wants (this was your one and only warning).

So if you have visited it (or did just now out of curiosity), you might be thinking, ‘What has the world come to? What happened to the good old days when people used nice words and were civilised with each other?’ Well I hate to burst your bubble, but for almost as long as there have been English language dictionaries, there have also been dictionaries like UrbanDictionary. Samuel Johnson published his definitive work in 1755. If you are looking to be naughty in an older way, I would recommend A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (this second edition was out by 1778).

Those Vulgar Old-Timers

Ever wonder where the phrases ‘to screw’, ‘kick the bucket’ and ‘cat calling’ come from? Well, we don’t really know; this dictionary is the first place they are recorded, along with many other gems. My personal favourites happen to be ‘Apple Dumplin Shop’ and ‘Kettle Drums’, which I use to describe women all the time! *Sarcasm Alert* (It is a good one, but I don’t use it in polite conversation. My boyfriend won’t let me!) They refer to a woman’s bosom.

Some of the terms are still in use to this day. In addition to the ones above, ‘Paddy’ still describes an Irishman, birds-of-a-feather still means people of similar backgrounds, characteristics and interests, and pigheaded still means stubborn.

An added bonus for the English speaker of today: the dictionary uses the typical script of the time, meaning that the letter s did not exist in print; instead, the letter f replaced it, turning several ‘sucks’ into several examples of our friend the well-known F-word. It also makes an appearance on the second to last page of the F-words. It is the second from the bottom on page 204.

I wish you much joy in your reading pleasure! Are you thinking about how to use this in the classroom? Why not show students that English has a rich history of naughty and slang terms. Have them figure out which ones are in use. Then compare some of these words and saying with sayings and words in their own language.

Another idea along these lines for the classroom could be to use the film The King’s Speech, specifically the scene where Colin Firth is swearing with Geoffrey Rush.

Looking for other interesting (or ridiculous) books from previous centuries? Why not try English As She Is Spoke, a Portuguese-English dictionary that took a holiday in France.

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