Green’s Heroes of Slang: 9. John Stephen Farmer

Jonathon Green introduces the great slang lexicographer, spiritualist and possible pornographer, John Stephen Farmer…

In 1890, just as what was still known as the New English Dictionary was getting properly into its stride in Oxford, there was published the first of the seven volumes of what could reasonably be called its slang equivalent: Slang and Its Analogues, by John S. Farmer and his unlikely co-author, the jingoistic poet W.E. Henley. They were to their predecessors Grose and Hotten as Murray and his team were to Johnson and their work displays a similar degree of scholarship, based like the NED on ‘historical principles’.

Although ‘they’ is perhaps over-generous. Henley, as they say, had a life; Farmer had a grindstone and his nose was duly burnished. Henley undoubtedly helped, not least with small sums of money and the loan of books, but Farmer did the spadework. Fair enough: of the pair he was the lexicographer.

Farmer had already produced a book of Americanisms (1889), which updated that produced around mid-century by John Bartlett. He published Musa Pedestris (1896), a collection of canting songs and verses, and, like some of the Oxford lexicographers, had edited reprints of a number of long-unprinted Tudor works. It was through that project that he met Henley, also working on the resuscitation of sixteenth-century literature. Farmer’s Tudor Facsimile Texts appeared in 1907.

Then there was the spiritualism. His book A New Basis of Belief in Immortality appeared in 1881. It is a thoroughly sympathetic treatment of a quasi-religious movement which, as he admitted, still faced ‘vehement opposition [from] a large section of the cultivated classes.’ Farmer was optimistic: he saw it as a liberalising movement, well attuned to the modern world, and he envisaged that very soon it would be ‘widely felt, not only in the social, but also…in the religious life our our times.’ Other spiritually inclined works included Ex Oriente Lux and Twixt Two Worlds. (Spiritualism, for whatever reasons, seems to have appealed to the lexicographers. The etymologist Hensleigh Wedgwood, an important influence on the OED, was a devotee and wrote regularly for the spiritualist periodical Light. And C.G. Leland, while no spiritualist, was a fan of both witchcraft and hypnosis).

Beyond his publications, Farmer remains elusive. The American scholar Gershon Legman, who wrote an introduction to a reprint of the revised (1909) Volume I of the dictionary, admitted himself defeated. Farmer was ‘very peculiar, believed in the occult, never had any money, and lived with a woman to whom he was not married.’ Dr Damian Atkinson, whose edition of the duo’s correspondence appeared in 2004 was unable to find out much more. The fact that Henley destroyed all Farmer’s letters does not help. There were lifelong financial problems and a complex marital life which included a bigamous relationship. Endlessly poor, infinitely worried, Farmer might have stepped from the pages of Gissing’s New Grub Street

One suggestion that Legman did make (in his study of erotic folklore The Horn Book, 1963) is to attribute to Farmer certain involvements in contemporary pornography. Titles that he attributes to Farmer include Forbidden Fruit: A Luscious and Exciting Story and More Forbidden Fruit or Master Percy’s Progress (1905), The Horn Book: Modern Studies in the Science of Stroking (1898), and Love and Safety: or Love and Lasciviousness with Safety and Secrecy. A lecture, delivered with practical illustrations by the Empress of of Austria (The Modern Sapho); assisted by her favorite Lizette. Written expressly for and Dedicated to Ladies of all Ages and All Countries (1896). He also claims that ‘An Old Bibliophile’, author of the pornographer Charles Carrington’s catalogue Forbidden Books: Notes and Gossip on Tabooed Literature, etc. might have been the lexicographer. Hotten had done the same, but his ‘flower garden’ was well known. Farmer was at times desperate for money; it is possible that he picked up some easy income from porn. Legman backs up his attributions with the suggestion that ‘only one person writing in English in 1899 or thereabouts is known to have interested himself in English sexual slang – and particularly in sexual synonymies – and to have contacts with erotica printed abroad, and that was John Stephen Farmer.’ Perhaps. If this aspect of his life existed, it remains as unproven as all the rest. There is only one possible pointer: the compilation in 1896 of the Vocabula Amatoria, a French-English dictionary of erotic slang. First published anonymously it was not openly attributed to Farmer until a New York reprint of 1966. 

There is also his court appearance of 1890, charged with obscenity. But the complainant was his own printer and the book in question, although no further information seems to exist, e.g. the verdict, was volume one of the slang dictionary, the letters A and B.

Farmer (and Henley) established new standards for slang lexicography and his work remains the source of much that followed in the 20th century. He took slang lexicography into a new dimension. All but a few headwords come with a number of citations, set out just as in a standard English dictionary, to illustrate usage and nuance. These quotes take in ‘the whole period of English literature from the earliest down to the present time’ and are arranged as far as possible from ‘first use’ to current use. Of the near-100,000 citations, most were harvested by Farmer himself. Wherever possible he listed foreign equivalents, predominantly French and German. Finally, as well as listing and defining the individual terms, Farmer offers substantial lists of synonyms – that for the monosyllable (the vagina), for instance, runs to thirteen columns, while greens (sexual intercourse) runs to seven. Other substantial synonymies can be found at barrack-hack (prostitutes), lush-crib, lushington and screwed (drunk), creamstick and prick (the penis), ride (sexual intercourse again), bury a Quaker (to defecate), mutton-monger (pimp)  and bum (the buttocks).  

There are errors, typically in the citations, where dates and even the quotes themselves may have fallen foul of the sheer volume of the undertaking, but the overall achievement far outweighs such slips. As Eric Partridge put it in his encomium of John Farmer:

Slang and Its Analogues…is one of the three or four most remarkable one-handed achievements in the whole record of dictionary-making. His definitions are sound, his distinguishing of shades of meaning is careful and delicate, his comments are shrewd and scholarly, his essayettes on important or interesting or puzzling words are entertaining, and his understanding of the nature and tendencies of slang is remarkable. His psychology is as penetrating as his research is astounding.

He would also provide the groundwork for the successor whose own researches would dominate slang lexicography for most of the twentieth century: Eric Partridge himself.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

17 thoughts on “Green’s Heroes of Slang: 9. John Stephen Farmer

    November 17, 2011 at 15:16

    Your posts never cease to fascinate, Jonathon… Perhaps the link between spiritualism and lexicography has something to do with undecipherable texts by the likes of Madam Blavatsky? I suppose she’s writing about “irreducible complexity” – though without Mr Appleyard’s “elegant concision.” In fact, I wonder if slang might be a form of inelegant concision?

      November 18, 2011 at 08:58

      Thank you.

      My own feeling is that the interest in spiritualism might stem from the impecunious lexicographer’s hope that there may be good news of a pecuniary sort arriving from ‘those gone before.’ Certainly the case for poor Farmer. As for Wedgwood, after helping launch the OED, he died in his thirties and sadly gained first-hand access to ‘the other side’ somewhat prematurely. Recompense may have come in encountering his grandfather Josiah.

      And while I naturally bow to your judgment, I would allow my beloved slang a certain elegance. Perhaps only the mad, parodic elegance of white-tuxedoed Sid Vicious screeching ‘My Way’ at the Paris Olympia, but elegance nonetheless.

      • Gaw
        November 18, 2011 at 11:52

        Creamstick seems a particularly elegant example.

        November 18, 2011 at 23:16

        Jonathon, apologies if my turn of phrase was somewhat inelegant – you have a curiously enviable knack of bestowing grace and refinement upon the basest of expressions.

    jonathan law
    November 17, 2011 at 17:47

    Jonathon, I assume you’re aware of Henley’s translation of Villon’s ballades into English thieves’ cant? I suppose these must have been inspired by his work with Farmer — rather splendid, in any case.

    A Straight Tip to All Cross Coves

    “Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.”

    Suppose you screeve? or go cheap-jack?
    Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
    Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
    Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?

    Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
    Or get the straight, and land your pot?
    How do you melt the multy swag?
    Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

    Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
    Or moskeneer, or flash the drag;
    Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
    Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;

    Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
    Rattle the tats, or mark the spot;
    You can not bank a single stag;
    Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

    Suppose you try a different tack,
    And on the square you flash your flag?
    At penny-a-lining make your whack,
    Or with the mummers mug and gag?

    For nix, for nix the dibbs you bag!
    At any graft, no matter what,
    Your merry goblins soon stravag:
    Booze and the blowens cop the lot.


    It’s up the spout and Charley Wag
    With wipes and tickers and what not.
    Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
    Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

      November 18, 2011 at 08:25

      I am. And every argotic instance duly cited in GDoS, I assure you. And Farmer includes it in Musa Pedestris (1896). Villon, another slang hero, being pretty much untranslatable, so say generations of French scholars, it is doubtless pretty ‘free’, but of course irresistable.

    November 17, 2011 at 17:51

    Brilliant, as ever. Maybe we could have a column on the titles of Victorian pornography – they are quite superb, aren’t they.

    November 18, 2011 at 08:43

    For you, Mr H, anything. I shall eviscerate the bibliographical oeuvre of the great Pisanus Fraxi (Henry Spencer Ashbee to his business colleagues). To get on with, I offer:

    White Stains — the Literary Remains of George Archibald Bishop, a Neuropath of the Second Empire
    Raped on the Railway: a True Story of a Lady who was first ravished and then flagellated on the Scotch Express

      jonathan law
      November 18, 2011 at 15:49

      It’s hardly my proudest boast, but I must confess to having read some of White Stains — which isn’t quite pornography, but rather a volume of super-sick poems by the ever-ghastly Aleister Crowley (it seems he chose the ‘Bishop’ pseudonym in honour of a particularly respectable uncle).

      The best and funniest thing in the book is perhaps the deadpan ‘disclaimer’ on the title page: “The Editor hopes that Mental Pathologists, for whose eyes alone this treatise is destined, will spare no precaution to prevent it falling into other hands.” Well, indeed. Turn to the poems, and all at first seems tame enough — exercises in a conventionally ‘decadent’ mode, all second-hand Swinburne and Baudelaire. But read on and you’ll understand why some historian of grot called this “the filthiest book of verse ever written.”

      A large claim? Well, assuming you’ve had your lunch, here are some choice verses from ‘Necrophilia’, a poem about that underexploited subject, the joys of coitus with the corpse of a hanged man:

      Yes, thou art dead. Thy buttocks now
      Are swan-soft, and thou sweatest not;
      And hast a strange desire begot
      In me, to lick thy bloody brow;

      To gnaw thy hollow cheeks, and pull
      Thy lustful tongue from out its sheath;
      To wallow in the bowels of death,
      And rip thy belly, and fill full

      My hands with all putridities;
      To chew thy dainty testicles
      … …

      To pour within thine heart the seed
      Mingled with poisonous discharge
      From a swollen gland, inflamed and large
      With gonorrhoea’s delicious breed;

      To probe thy belly, and to drink
      The godless fluids, and the pool
      Of rank putrescence from the stool
      Thy hanged corpse gave, whose luscious stink …

      And so merrily on.

      Then there’s this feel-good piece, in which the speaker contemplates the prospect of fatherhood in a style that is unlikely to cause any confusion with the works of Miss Helen Steiner Rice:

      To My First-Born

      At last a father! In Mathilde’s womb
      The poison quickens, and the tare-seeds shoot;
      On my old upas-tree a bastard fruit
      Is grafted. One more generation’s doom
      Fixes its fangs. Crime’s flame, disease’s gloom,
      Are thy birth-dower. Another prostitute
      Predestined, born man, damned to grow a brute!
      Another travels tainted to the tomb!

      My sin, my madness, in thy blood are set,
      A vile imperishable coronet,
      To hound thee into hell! God spits at thee
      The curse thy parents earned. Revenge be thine!
      Kiss Lust, kill Truth, and worship at Sin’s shrine.
      And foul His face with dung – thy infamy!

      One for Population Matters perhaps?

      Or indeed, as Crowley hinted, one for the shrinks.

        November 18, 2011 at 18:18

        Hmmm, perhaps not one to recite in refined company, ‘Necrophilia’ – for example, at the Royal Variety Show if you happened to win Britain’s Got Talent. “And now, your Majesty, a young man who proves that the art of learning poetry by heart is still alive and well…”

        Mind you, Brett Easton Ellis has won prizes for such stuff…

        November 18, 2011 at 18:34

        Jonathan: my hat is tipped. Apparently he did also a very nice line in limericks on the subject of intercourse with birds.

        • Gaw
          November 19, 2011 at 00:09

          ‘Intercourse with birds’. Not burdz I assume (where is Malty?). A consequence of being ‘goosed’?

    Mike Petty
    November 18, 2011 at 11:54

    ‘One handed achievements’ (Partridge) sounds like slang (or its analogue) in itself!

    November 18, 2011 at 12:17

    It’s going to be a winner… Not Forgetting JCH’s Lady Bumtickler’s Revels… what is it with you loy and porn?

      November 18, 2011 at 15:32

      Fear not. Nary a day passes wherein I do not ponder upon the precise nature of Lady B’s revels, and indeed Lady B herself, not to mention her partner in pain, Miss Flaybum, she of ‘Miss Coote’s Confessions’ as serialised in The Pearl c. 1880. All, as they say, will be revealed.

      As for us loy and pron: I fear it may all be down to my great predecessor’s phrase, as noted above. A phrase which, while I am sure was meant as the most single of entendres, still seems to underline the old boy’s* essential innocence.

      *It dawns on me that when he wrote it he was in fact some 25 years younger than am I.

    November 18, 2011 at 12:17

    you lot that should be…

    November 18, 2011 at 15:40

    Excellent! I’ll leave it in your safe hands. god, we’re all at it now…

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