Green’s Heroes of Slang 15: Tom Brown

This week Mr Slang salutes the man who gave us such terms as Tom, Dick and Harry, tub-thumper and, ahem, buttered bun

‘I do not love thee Dr Fell
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.’

The verse we know. The author, probably not. His name was Tom Brown, born the son of a Shropshire farmer in 1663. Like the better-known Ned Ward, still remembered for his London Spy (1699-1700), he flourished in the early 18th century and established himself as a chronicler of contemporary metropolitan life, notably in his Amusements Serious and Comical (1700). At the time his reputation exceeded his contemporary’s – he was a professional writer, Ward primarily a publican – but he has vanished into the mists. He deserves better.

Brown penned his parody of Martial’s epigram 1.32 (‘Non amo, te, Sabidi’) around 1680, in an attempt to save his career at Oxford, where he had antagonised his college dean, Dr John Fell. The dean, fortunately, was amused and Brown, on the verge of being sent down, was reprieved. He arrived in London in 1684, published a poem, then moved into satire with the first of several attacks on Dryden: Reason of Mr Bayes Changing his Religion.

Hack is not recorded of writers until 1774; Grub Street was, and Brown was a leading citizen. In an era when for the first time a writer could attempt to exist without patron or private wealth, he would claim ‘I am one of the first of the Suburban class that has ventur’d out without making an application to a nobleman’s porter, and tiring him out with showing him his master’s name.’ Brown survived by producing a wide range of material, often at his booksellers’ dictate. He produced prose, verse, squibs and pamphlets, as well as three stage plays: Physic Lies a Bleeding, or, The Apothecary Turned Doctor (1697), The Stage Beaux Toss’d in a Blanket (1704), and The Dispensary (1697), and in 1692 co-authored a journal, the short-lived Lacedemonian Mercury. He was the first person to adopt what would become the default satirical style: removing the vowels from proper names when their use might have brought legal problems. Thus in 1717 Addison commented in the Spectator ‘Some of our Authors indeed, when they would be more Satyrical than ordinary, omit only the Vowels of a great Man’s Name, and fall most unmercifully upon all the Consonants. This way of writing was first of all introduced by T-m Br-wn of facetious memory, who, having gutted a proper name […] made as free with it as he pleased without any danger of the statute.’

Yet Addison, and others including Swift, are now seen to have been indebted to Brown, whose own work may have vanished, but whose method lies behind a number of their own more polished and incisive productions. Swift mentions Brown in the introduction to A Treatise on Polite Conversation (1738). Writing as ‘Simon Wagstaffe, Esq.’ he boasts of having read ‘Mr. Thomas Brown’s works entire,’ and even having had ‘the honour to be his intimate friend, who was universally allowed to be the greatest genius of his age.’ But Swift was being satirical in his turn and he had been openly critical in the pamphlet of 1713 in which he put forward plans to establish an English Academy. Here he attributed much of what he saw as slovenly modern speech to ‘monstrous productions, which, under the name of Trips, Spies, Amusements, and other conceited appellations, have overrun us for some years past. To this we owe that strange Race of Wits, who tell us they write to the Humour of the Age’ Nonetheless Swift could not resist capitalising on Brown’s stylistic advances: links have been established between the lesser writer and Swift’s Tale of a Tub, Gulliver’s Travels and The Bickerstaff Papers.

When it came to parading the vulgar tongue, then Swift was right: Brown as much as Ward was willing to embellish at least some of his work with slang when he saw that it did indeed reflect ‘the humour of the age’. Brown had an intimate acquaintance with low-life London, and enjoyed it. He used his experiences to pen some of his most popular works: after the Amusements came the Comical View of the Transactions That Will Happen in the Cities of London and Westminster (1705) and the posthumous Letters from the Dead to the Living (1708). Of these the Comical View represented cod-astrological prognostications (for instance ‘Doleful procession up Holborn-Hill about eleven. Men handsome and proper […] arrive at the fatal place by twelve.’ […] ‘If rainy, few night-walkers in Cheapside and Fleet-street.’ […] ‘Shoals of country-puts [gullible provincials] come to town about five’). Soon after, Swift would mimic the style to present his fake astrologer in The Predictions of Sylvester Partridge. The Letters took as their model a similarly titled work by the Latin satirist Lucian (c.125-c.180). With the Amusements Brown echoed Ward in more than just offering a supposed tour d’horizon of louche London. As Ward had cribbed from a French work that was allegedly penned by an Arab, so did Brown use as his inspiration the French author Charles Dufresnay’s Amusements Sérieux et Comiques (1699) supposedly written by ‘un Siamois’. Large portions were simply translated direct.

Brown’s slang contribution is smaller than Ward’s, a little over 250 words, and they share just over 100 of them. Among those are Aminadab, a Quaker, buttered bun, a woman who has sex with two men consecutively, the toast the best in Christendom (the missing word is ‘cunt’), a leathern conveniency, a coach, fumbler, an impotent old man, grinders, the teeth, lubber, a hulking fool, prattle-box a gossipy chatterer, plough, to have sex, sot-weed, tobacco, tail for vagina, and triple tree for the Tyburn gallows. In addition Brown has such terms as bobbish, in good form, play backgammon, to indulge in sodomy, cole, money, gravy, vaginal secretions, walk up Holborn Hill, to go to the gallows, house of delight, a brothel, mum’s the word, phiz, the face, rhino, money, rub up, to refresh one’s memory, sham, a trick, the oath stap my vitals!, tester, a sixpence, Tom, Dick and Harry (Ward offers rag, tag and bobtail) and the vehement tub-thumper, originally used of a preacher.

Tom Brown died young, in 1704 and moved from Grub Street to Westminster Abbey where his bones lie next to those of Aphra Behn. An enemy, seeking in this a failing, sneered that ‘He had less the Spirit of a Gentleman than the rest, and more of a Scholar’. His gravestone credited him with the authorship of what was of course Ward’s London Spy. How quickly they do forget.

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.

2 thoughts on “Green’s Heroes of Slang 15: Tom Brown

    April 26, 2012 at 16:02

    Educative and entertaining as ever, Mr S, but what does it mean to produce a ‘squib’, and is a squib more or less substantial than a modern blog post?

      April 26, 2012 at 16:44

      OED says: sqib n. ‘a short composition of a satirical and witty character; a lampoon. sqib v. ‘To assail or attack (a person) with squibs or witty sarcasm; to lampoon or satirize smartly’

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