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.