The Lexicography of Erotica

Continuing last fortnight’s theme, Mr Slang examines the lexicography of ‘specialist’ book titles, and uncovers a “grim commentary on the tropes of male excitement…”

This is it, I promise. The last one. But pondering the verbose titles of the 19th century pornography, I could but compare them with modernity, or nearly so: the mass-produced paperback equivalents of the late 20th century. The Net is rich with listings. On your behalf I took a look.

We may despise Disney for many things: the xenophobic racism of old Walt’s hiring policies, the ‘family-orientated’ banality of its cartoons, the destruction-cum-dumbing down of as many children’s classics as its millions can buy, but, for those whose reading matter requires but a single hand, its greatest sin is the destruction of 42nd Street, New York City and especially the blocks between 6th and 8th Avenues. Prior to their gelding by the Mouse, what a cornucopia of delight those seedy blocks offered the pornophile. Nowhere more than in the numberless ‘bookshops’, wherein one found piled high and sold cheap the wondrous products of the real-life version of Orwell’s Pornosec, the ranks of what slang terms ‘stroke books’. The heyday of such publications, the 1970s, followed on the liberalization of America’s censorship laws, and for a (literally) fantastic decade the titles rolled from the presses and into the mac pockets of their purchasers. Companion Books, the Rear Window Series, the Kennel Club (so unlike the home life . . . ), the distinctly misplaced Liverpool Library Press (hommage, perhaps, to the Fab Four’s ‘Paperback Writer’) and many others.

Reading, some decades ago, the memoirs of a porn-book hack, it appeared that one sat, as in a schoolroom, at rows of typewriter-laden desks, starting the day by going to the front of the ‘class’ to choose, from an array of Xeroxed piles, a synopsis. The choice was yours. But checking through the titles, they seem distinctly reminiscent of those jokey ‘create your own jargon’ tables, in which nouns and adjectives are listed in columns, open to a pick and mix selection – any trio making a suitable phrase. Thus too Pornosec titling.

Looking at those books, what strikes the lexicographer is how incredibly narrow is the vocabulary of titillation. And, for I speak as one, how grim a commentary on the tropes of male excitement. There were nearly ten thousand titles in all, but the range of words that were set above the obligatory cover drawing, hinting at fantasies within, is very constrained. The taxonomy of Eros, at least for these purposes, is a far from many-splendoured thing.

Top of any list comes the family: some 586 titles (The Family Eats Out, Family Reunion, Coming with the Family, etc.). And its preferred member; Mom, who features some 1008 times (America’s companion staple ‘apple pie’ seems to have escaped). Sister is similarly enthusiastic (428 titles) although brother only makes it to 107. There are 556 daughters (but a mere 99 sons) and while auntie pitches in at 198 appearances, uncle is positively celibate at 27. Dad’s a relative second-rater with 146 as is nephew with a mere ten. Niece, meanwhile, achieves 148, mainly of a painful sort (Bondage Slave Niece, Whipped Young Niece, Leather-bound Niece). At one remove the neighbours are ever-popular, with 257 shots at fame. Wives, brides and newlyweds between them turn up in around 1000 adventures. Virgins, invariably hot, naughty and overwhelmed with eager urges, bid farewell to their hymens on 136 occasions. Nymphos, with no need for restraint, come on the scene 44 times; swappers 48. Incest, bringing all these happy families together, claims 133.

As for proper names, few are specified, but how strenuous are the efforts of Linda (20 titles), Cindy and Candy (11 per head) and Jill (8), to satisfy our lusts. Kelly, Phoebe, Jenny, Jane and Sally do their solo bit. Job descriptions, however, are common. Teacher seems an especial favourite (381 titles), followed by nurse (124), secretary (94), waitress (21) and farmer (19). More surprising, though each unto their own, are the 76 librarians: Line Up for the Librarian, The Angry Librarian, Lash the Librarian!, Chained, Whipped Librarians, The Librarian Licks Big Ones and the pleasingly punful The Overdue Librarian to name a few. Clergymen feature 42 times (The Evangelist’s Wife in Hell, Preacher’s Wife in Bondage and Sex Sated Minister), although nanny, but this is America after all, makes it but half a dozen times. Music teacher (as in Ravaged Music Teacher) and mechanic (Naughty Lady Mechanic) are one-offs.

Erectile adjectives, coded for tumescence, are perhaps most limited of all. Hot adorns some 1029 titles (including hot to trot), while eager and over-eager take in 155 more. Naughty appears 341 times, urge 100, horny 416. Their combinations are endless, often in tandem: Mommy’s Horny Urges, Horny Naughty Nun, Eager Hot Teacher and the like. Open (21), wide (65) and spread (105) leave little to the imagination. Verbs are almost non-existent, other than the ever popular suck, which rates 223 appearances (blow has 20), including the strenuous Sucking, Spanking Family and the tongue – itself 11 mentions – twisting She Sold Suck Jobs. Fetishists get their share: panties and hot pants make 145 front covers, there are 28 golden showers, 127 slaves, 105 bondage (plus 91 chains) and 26 torture. VS Pritchett has observed that all best-sellers operate on the basis of procrastinated rape: these slim vols have no need for procrastination. Heroines are, as ever, asking for it and rape (with its classier synonyms ravage, defile and violate) comes up 215 times. Gangs bang for 45. And then there are pets. Usually dogs (Divorcee’s Doggie, Valley of the Dogs and Dog Show Girl) among whom Great Danes are especially cherished. The traditional affections of girls for horses rates 55 stories, donkeys get nine and goats (Daughter Gets the Goat) four.

Finally the gay scene. On this menu chicken , i.e. an underage boy, is the dish of choice: Whipped Chickens, Chicken Master and Dirt Road Chicken are three of many, while its antithesis, stud, is good for 91. (As for the dirt road, it has its place, e.g. Butting In On Mom.) Buddies are popular, as are cowboys and ranchers, marines and cops (Copsucker). Uncle makes most of his appearances here.

For all the simplicity of its language (like Cleland’s Fanny Hill, these titles, other in the endless double entendres, display barely a smidgeon of obscenity), this was a world of rigid rules. The porn-fans jargon as it were and what you saw was definitely what you got. These titles preach directly to the converted, the cognoscenti. Buttons are pressed, and sex-hungry men, their nasty habits uncontrolled, jump to Pavlov’s tune. They know what they want and, to play a little with H.L. Mencken’s remark in re the masses and democracy, deserved to get it good and hard.

A version of this post appeared on The Dabbler in 2011.

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.

The Dirty Bookshops of Holywell Street

Jonathon Green takes a trip to the ‘specialist’ bookshops of The Backside of St Clements…

All gone now. What you’re looking at above is the Australian High Commission (though didn’t that get knocked down too a year ago or so?). Like Fred and Rose’s lair at 25 Cromwell Street, Holywell Street had to go. Murders? perhaps, but something seemingly comparable: free thought, and even worse, dirty books.

Once, these toponyms don’t just happen by chance, there was a holy well, that of St Clement, whose church is still standing on the Strand, ‘whose waters are sweet, salubrious, and clear, and whose runnels murmur o’er the shining stones.’ Or so they said c. 1100. It cured ‘cutaneous diseases’, but maybe that was just the simple act of washing in clean water. Long covered, it’s successor was a cul-de-sac: Pissing Alley. There was some kind of zoo there too, or certainly ‘wild beasts’, prefiguring the nearby Exeter Change ‘Royal Menagerie’, where in 1826 the hapless Chunee, an elephant finally maddened by confinement and importunate human gaze, was executed by the soldiery.

It always traded: mercers first – the Half Moon was the oldest shop in London – then costume hire and old clothes, which meant Jews and they were always problematic, and as the lawyers and the scribblers began to gravitate to nearby Fleet Street and all the maze of courts around, to publishing and the selling of books. It was old. And thus suspicious. Along with nearby Wych Street and Russell Court, its mere topography represented a threat, a marginal area, narrow twisting streets, ancient buildings, dubious inhabitants, immoral merchandise: everything that town planners, hell’s-bent on carving out a shiny new metropolis deplored. It was known as ‘The Backside of St Clements’. It had to go.

They were radical, politically dangerous books at first. And the men who came to make 1860s Holywell Street a precursor of 1960s Soho, started off their career publishing them. Foremost among them, William Dugdale, a one-man embodiment of Holywell squalor, who published radical tracts before ever he set a forme of filth . He was on the edge of the 1819 Cato Street Conspiracy, aimed to bring a cabinet dinner to an explosive conclusion, but was never caught. In 1822 he pirated Byron’s Don Juan; in 1827 he offered the semi-sexy Memoirs of a Man of Pleasure (retitling the less titillatory  History of the Human Heart of 1769) and in 1832, with an edition of Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (‘Fanny Hill’), went the rest of the way round the pornographic corner.  And down the hill. Thereafter it was Continue reading

Review: Sea Monsters on Medieval & Renaissance Maps by Chet van Duzer

sea monsters

We’re delighted to welcome Dabbler legend Jonathon Green back to the site, with the first in an occasional series of reviews of current non-fiction…

Geography Of The Marvellous

Chet van Duzer – Sea Monsters on Medieval & Renaissance Maps
128 pp. British Library £20

This great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.
Psalm 104

We know everything now. Little gods, with all creation at our finger-tips (or riding Google’s servers) we seem omnipotent, our fantasies and fictions restrained to the vapid banalities of Young Adult fiction. If, to use a defunct image, we surf the net, then we have an ever-improving knowledge of what lies beneath the real waves as well as the figurative ones. Our ancestors, tied to earlier technologies, lived otherwise. The world was small, the oceans vast. The map, in every sense, soon blurred. The legend offered its twin meanings: factual notes, fantastical creatures. Here Be Monsters.

The monster is defined by the OED as ‘a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance.’ It does not specify the sea variety, specimens of which regular populate the depictions of the sea as found in medieval and renaissance maps, up to the 16th century. Mr Van Duzer, a leading historian of historical cartography, has it thus:  ‘an aquatic creature that was thought astonishing and exotic (regardless in fact of whether it was real or mythical)’. His book, on which every page offers an illustration (and he should not mind that, for all his skilful exposition, this has to be the work’s primary appeal for the lay reader), lays out the stall.

Monsters terrifying, monsters anthropomorphic, monsters conjured from the imagination, monsters approaching something real, and even monsters whimsical.

Spikes are important. Teeth too. The gaping mouth: all the better to engulf you. Resist the ‘island: it is a whale and when, as you do, you disembark to light a warming fire in the ocean’s chilly midst, Leviathan awakens and you will soon be plunged into its depths.

The orca, the murex, the siren, the aloes, the hoge, the leviathan, the merman (though seemingly not the mermaid), the ichthyocentaur. And since it was laid down by Pliny and others that whatever existed on land must, at least from the navel upwards, exist in the deeps, a whole list of hybrids. Mr van Duzer indexes 26, including a sea bear, bull, chicken, cow, elephant, goat, panther, pig, rabbit stag, tiger and unicorn. Note also the sea bishop and sea monk.

This ‘geography of the marvelous’ appeared on two varieties of map: the mappaemundi (world maps which aimed for a global overview, but had little geographical verity) and portolan or nautical charts which were used at sea and might also be blown up and custom-illustrated for wealthy patrons. Decoration was optional: you paid for your monsters and if you didn’t pay, then empty oceans. If you did pay, as did King Manuel of Portugal, you could be found riding a whale with saddle and bridle, brandishing a national flag, sceptre and cross.

Mr van Duzer’s scholarship is comprehensive (and original – this is not a topic hitherto attempted and this review can do more than paraphrase his findings) but as he accepts, our knowledge remains inconsistent. Some maps have monsters, others not. There seems no hard-and-fast line of development. There may be elaborate illustrations but nary a monster. Or vice versa. Only once is the absence explained: , in Fra Mauro’s mappamundi of c1450 its creator simply states his scepticism of such lurid phenomena.

Printing changed the game: the purpose-built / pay-for-play monsters disappeared but the monster survived as part of the map’s commercial appeal. Again, some commercial maps have them, some not, ‘and we do not know why’. Sometimes, as in Martin Waldseemuller’s work, there are legends mentioning monsters but no pictures; alternatively he gives wondrous illustrations, but no explanatory text.

The monster is not, suggests Mr van Duzer, just a pretty (?) face. It serves to underpin existing writings on strange species (though there do not seem to be any attempts to reproduce creatures as described in contemporary books of natural history); its decorative elements both point up the dangers of the sea and celebrate its glorious fecundity and offer a pious acknowledgement of God’s bounty as delineated in the Creation. Finally they show off the cartographer’s artistic skills.  Sometimes, it is suggested, monster-filled maps were created deliberately: to scare off commercial competitors, as in a 1539 map of the waters around Scandinavia aimed to discourage rival fishermen.

This threat factor carried a paradox: ‘here be monsters’ (a phrase that in fact was never used) indicated areas least well known and thus most demanding of exploration. It also suggested that they were most potentially dangerous and thus to be avoided, though this perhaps served to aggrandize their eventual explorers.

Finally, their inclusion reflected a general fascination with wonders and marvels. If they lacked verity, no matter; if anything that was the greater stimulus: the more exotic the better, so as to exercise the mind.

Modern exploration is mainly via our keyboards: input ‘ocean maps online’ and there appear 146 million hits. No monsters there, but the myth is pervasive. Captain Nemo’s giant squid, Moby Dick, Jaws, the Kraken, Gozilla and various pals. Even land-girt Nessie. None, sadly, will appear on our maps.

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.

FAREWELL SPECIAL – There Is No Word for ‘Love’ in Slang

Since his very first column for The Dabbler in January 2011, Jonathon Green has barely missed a Thursday post. But now, after some 138 posts and umpteen thousand words, we regret to say that Mr Slang has decided to relinquish his weekly duties.
Everyone at The Dabbler heartily thanks him for his astonishing contribution to the site. It won’t be the same place without him, but we hope he’ll pop up with the occasional missive, so we haven’t necessarily seen the last of Mr Slang.
As a final hurrah, here’s a classic from the archives, in which Jonathon searches for love, and finds only sex and drugs…

I tried to write a musical once. No, you shouldn’t laugh, really. I had lunched well, couldn’t face the database and it served to counterfeit work. It was called – goodness, how did you guess – Slang! I forget the plot – which is always the problem: I can sketch the puppets but can never make them dance – and it came to nothing. I composed, well, doodled, what I laughingly termed some lyrics. There was only one that was passable. It was called ‘There’s No Word for “Love” in Slang’. As I recall, the hero (poor, honest and resolutely foul-mouthed) sang it on his way to meet the heroine (rich, daughter of a grasping, snobbish papa, and forbidden on pain of disinheritance any non-standard syllables). You can see why I didn’t finish it. But the song title was correct. Because there isn’t.

Valentine’s Day will have passed by the time this appears, but no troths will have been plighted on behalf of the counter-language. If one searches for ‘love’ as a headword, one finds several. Though none, I would note, a verb. There is love as in ‘love of a…’ which is a term of praise kindred to duck, as in ‘duck of …’ and tends to apply to small children or else items of clothing: hats, dresses, although Walter, he of My Secret Life, recalls how, on holiday, his hosts offered to ‘get me a love of an Italian boy to bugger.’ And there is the cry of Lord love a duck! which combines them. But it should surprise no-one that love is usually found in compounds, and that in the bulk of those compounds the word is substituting for ‘sex’. Thus these, for the penis, which of which at least some seem to have escaped from heavy metal, or at least a Spinal Tap tribute band: love bone, love dart, love gun, love hammer, love muscle, love pump, love rod, love staff, lovesteak, love stick, love torpedo, love truncheon and love warrior. (Not mention corporal love, which fleshy non-com ‘stands to attention’). If one has one genital than one must have its opposite number. Here it is: the love box, love canal, love crack, love flesh, love glove, love hole, love lane (and thus take a turn on Love Lane and Mount Pleasant, to have sex), lovelips, love’s cabinet, love seat and the love shack which can double as the place a man keeps for seductions and as an object of sexual desire (who can also, lord help them, be a love muffin) and conquest. (The fountain or treasury of love work too).

Nor are we done with the licentious list: love apples, grenades and spuds are Continue reading

Slang in Stereotype


What is slang all about? Jonathon muses on stereotypes, in life and in the counter-language that holds up its dark mirror to life…

I am in a cab. The cabbie asks what work I do. I explain that I write dictionaries. Dictionaries, that is, of slang. And the cabbie, who stands for pretty much anyone with whom I have reached this far into such a conversation replies – and I could almost join him in chorus: ‘Oh, slang, eh? Apples and pears and all that.’

Well, at least he passes on the alternative image. But cabbies, however foul-mouthed in private, find it politic not to toss obscenities at the punters. Even me.

The stereotype, a printing process whereby, as the OED informs us,  ‘a solid plate of type-metal, cast from a papier-mâché or plaster mould taken from the surface of a forme of type, is used for printing from instead of the forme itself,’ has existed since 1800, when it was invented by a Frenchman, one Firmin Didot. The word comes from Greek and means ‘solid type’.[1] By 1850 the term had lent itself to abstraction and a second reference to the OED finds the definition ‘Something continued or constantly repeated without change.’ Slang, as we know, disdains abstractions, indeed can barely spell the term, disdaining to find terms for such as truth or beauty. But if there is a truth it is that slang is the prisoner of stereotypes.

This is hardly surprising. If the slang taxonomy, which I must have mentioned if not actually printed here on several occasions, changes with time it is in quantity and not quality. The essentials merely expand: one more word that equates the penis to a weapon pushing to mount the heap that has been piled together by all its predecessors, one phrase more equating sexual intercourse with ‘man hits woman’, elbowing its antecedents aside, one more confection meaning crazy that plays with ‘not all there’ demanding, however temporarily, the number one slot. It is true, in the shadow of changing mores – and call it political correctness if you must – and a reluctance, at least openly, to trumpet the tropes of racist and nationalist strait-jacketing, that certain areas have been down-pedaled of late. There is a backlash, a certain sense that we have been deprived, through our own guilty liberalism, of targets on whom to vent, but that too is muted. Even slang, for once, seems unwilling to bring on new synonyms, though the oldies were probably always the goodies. Or baddies.[2]

But there are other forms of stereotype. Other, that is, than those indulged by slang itself, its mountains of synonyms carefully preserving the same old same old no matter what the topic. The stereotypes, embodied by my generic cabbie, that are imposed on slang by those, fans or otherwise, who stand outside. One sees it in the synonyms: dirty words, swear words, curse words… These are not compliments. None of these phrases works as a synonym for kind words. Nor, cheeringly, do they match up with cruel words – that equation tends to be overlooked, though slang indeed tries to prove the emptiness of the whole ‘and words will never hurt you’ fantasy. They are, one need not argue, stereotypes. And as such, not wholly correct. There, is after all, a canonical list of ‘dirty’ terms. The details are academic, or at least they can be for those like that kind of thing, and as for me I cannot happily equate ‘dirty’ with ‘swear’ or ‘curse’ but I shall let that pass for now. What matters is that there are officially (or there were when such things were last made plain) thirteen of them and, however portentous the number, that statistic hardly registers on the slang count, which is around 125,000 words and phrases.

This makes no difference to perceptions. In 1998 I published a book entitled the Cassell Dictionary of Slang. Buoyed by a positive reception I came up with a range of spin-offs. My ideas were…it no longer matters what they were because my publisher announced that what he would fund would be something called the Big Book of Filth. Channeling fantasies of Morningside ladies and drawing my tweed skirt tight below my en-lisled knees I suggest that I and my beloved lexis might have more to offer. I was rebuffed: filth, I was told, is what slang is all about. I huffed, puffed, refused to put my name on the cover (though signed the introduction) and got on with the job. It sold the best part of 300,000 copies. This is not to boast. Green’s Dictionary of Slang, okay, somewhat pricier but undeniably scholarly, life’s work, that sort of thing, has I am told (though who ever trusts a publisher) achieved around 1,700.

Now we live in digital days. the dream is put the book online. Like all dreams it remains unfulfilled. I work on – how not? – but absent the much-needed patron wonder at times if I am anything beyond a sad old man, keyboarding obscenities onto an electronic wall. Meanwhile, back at the attainable and since as we know all is form and hang the content, the game is re-presentation. I thought up the timelines. Did one on drink. On drinks. On pubs. Put them on line. A few hundred views. Did the penis, did the vagina: 200,000 people have gazed and giggled in the week since ‘publication’. The people, intoned astutely misanthropic Mencken, know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard. The people, it transpires, have no sense of irony. Now I’m doing intercourse. Rogering and ramming, raunch and rapine. Have I no shame? And what has that to do with it? This, I must remember, is what slang’s all about.



[1] perhaps some Dabbler better versed in the sciences than am I (which means, I assure you, pretty much any Dabbler at all) could explain why the prefix stereo-, still rooted in a word meaning ‘solid’ is used for a variety of technical terms, e.g. stereophonic, that mean, in essence, ‘split into two’?

[2] it always amazes me that despite the creation of new national enemies, slang, at least, does not forget. The past may be another country but we hate it as much as ever. For all the pious denial of Islamophobia and its alleged and ever-expanding iniquities, the nation’s animus against age-old rivals the Dutch, Spanish and French far outweighs the tiny lexis of anti-Muslim terms. Even the Germans, unrivalled qualifiers as bad guys for the 20th century, pall by comparison. German measles hardly cuts it against French disease, not to mention Italian tricks.

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.

The Noble Art of Milling

Jonathon fibs you right in the claret-spout with his fambler, as he examines slang’s obsession with fisticuffs…

Unlike slang’s women, slang’s men do not scold. And nag? heaven forfend. Men shout. Loud, vain, futile. All that stuff. Gobshites, basically. But men also hit. How do I wallop thee, let me count the ways… Or perhaps not, life is too short. Not to mention nasty and brutish. And slang being, as I may have noted, an equal-opportunity employer does not discriminate between public violence and that which is perpetrated behind the domestic front door. So let us focus on sanctioned slogging. The prize-ring. The ‘Sweet Science’ as the writer A.J. Liebling called it. The Manly Art.

The term prize-fighter dates back to the 17th century when it seems to have been used only historically, and with reference to gladiators. It takes on a modern use with the rise, around 1800, of the Fancy, described by Robert Southey as ‘the Amateurs of Boxing’. The Fancy comprised the boxers (fancy coves) themselves, plus the fans (fancy blokes): sporting gents of one degree of respectability or another, bookmakers of equal variety, plus anyone who was up for the trek to some distant field where beadles and bailiffs – empowered to halt such illegal festivities – feared to tread. The fights went on for scores of rounds. The Queen of Marksbury, as various fistic practitioners have malapropised him, had yet to rule. And like any self-respecting coterie, there was a language.

Slangwise these were fistiana’s glory days. Not till the 1930s which offered such Palookaville pleasures as the tanker, who takes a dive or goes in the water (a tank being a swimming pool), the umbrella, who ‘folds up’, and the tomato can, who is ‘easily crushed’ did the smackers, soccers and bruisers offer so many synonyms.

The big word was mill. Milling had already meant any form of beating or thrashing but now it meant prize-fighting – with bare knuckles – and a fight could be a milling-bout or a milling-match. Mill itself meant a fight. Thus ‘An Amateur’(actually the slang collector John Badcock), tells in Real Life in London (1821) how ‘There was a most excellent mill at Moulsey Hurst [a cricket ground near the Thames and later the Hurst Park racecourse] on Thursday last, between the Gas-light man, who appears to be a game chicken, and a prime hammerer — he can give and take with any man — and Oliver — Gas beat him hollow, it was all Lombard-street to a china orange.’ (There was an original Game Chicken – the bare-knuckle champion Henry ‘Hen’ Pierce who had died in 1809). The milling-cove or milling kiddy was a boxer, and the milling-panney (from panny, a house) the place where the fight took place. There was a seeming variation: milvader, to box and thus milvadering, the fight. But there was no link: it came from Scottish milvad: a blow.

The boxers (buffers) seemed to be built on different lines. Nothing as simple as a head: there was the nob, the attic, the knowledge box, the top-loft, the brain canister and upper crust (fifty years before it began referring to a somewhat different variety of nob). Eyes were ogles, peepers, daylights and day-openers; teeth were ivories, domino boxes and grinders; the stomach, that alluring target, was a bread-bag, bread-basket or bread-room, a tripe-shop or a victualling office; the nose a smeller or sensitive plant; the ribs were palings. The fist, one’s most vital appendage, was the mitten, the hard dumpling, the famble, the daddle or the prop. The props were the arms. It was also the auctioneer: it ‘knocked things down’.

Knocking down was of course the point. One used nothing so prosaic as a jab, hook or uppercut. Blows could be nobbers or headachers (to the head), mufflers (to the mouth), facers (to the face), props (uppercuts) and chippers (jabs). A simple blow was a fib, which gave fibbing gloak, the boxer (gloak being a variant on bloke) and fibbing, the ‘noble art’ itself. As explained by the great boxing journalist Pierce Egan in his Book of Sports (1832): to fib was ‘technical, in the P[rize].Ring], to hammer your opponent repeatedly in close quarters; and to get no return for the compliment you are bestowing on him.’ It could also be pepper, and the boxer was a pepperer. There were staggerers and tellers (which ‘told’ on one’s stamina) and the gaslighter which presumably put out one’s lights. The knockout punch was a burster, a clicker (which also meant the fighter), a doser, a finisher, a full stop, a settler, a stopper and a sender (which sent one to the grass).

Alongside all of this was blood. Or claret. Of all the Fancy’s favourite terms this is perhaps the sole survivor. One could claret one’s opponent or tap their claret, i.e. draw their blood; and the first such blow was the claret-christening; the nose was the claret-jug, claret-cask or claret-spout.

For a while this was a popular tongue. In 1819 the poet Tom Moore, writing as ‘One of the Fancy’, composed the poem Tom Crib’s Memorial to Congress. He satirised the recent Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, held by the four powers of Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia to deal with post-Napoleonic France, as ‘The Grand Set-to between Long Sandy and Georgy the Porpus’. Among its slang-filled verses were such as this:

Neat milling this Round – what with clouts on the nob,
Home hits in the bread-basket, clicks in the gob,
And plumps in the daylights, a prettier treat
Between two Johnny Raws ’tis not easy to meet.

Modern boxing is more likely to provide imagery than slang: out for the count, beat someone to the punch, saved by the bell, or chuck, throw or toss in the sponge or towel, itself already in use in the mid-19th century. The last great exponent of language in the world of boxing was Muhammad Ali, but his delivery was all his own work. Let one former British champ, who came to grief against Ali among others, speak for modernity. As he explained c.1970: ‘I’m only a prawn in the game’.

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.

Time for a Line


It’s holiday time, and Mr Slang is spending his summer constructing interactive timelines of popular terms for the penis. You ain’t seen nothing like this before…

It’s August. Holiday time, I gather. I had mine in June but no matter. My short-lived tan has faded and my mind is blank. Slang languishes and words fall silent. Nothing to review. (Well, there’s Patrick Hanks’ Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations which is fascinating and ought to revolutionize all sorts of things linguistic, but if you think I could actually review it…just reading it was seriously demanding. I shall not even consider claiming the word ‘understanding’.)  I have also purchased Captain Francis Grose’s own edition of his 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. (As for the price I can only say that my wife told me that it had, as it were, my name on it, and we talk of it as ‘an investment’). This glorious artifact – a tangible link between myself and one of my most illustrious predecessors – is not merely the dictionary itself, which he amended in manuscript, but includes many extra pages which have been interleaved and on which are found Grose’s own notes and amendments, all of which would go towards the text of the second edition that would appear in 1788. Or not quite all: there is, for instance, a manuscript entry ‘a-se-man: sodomites […] invaders of the back settlements’ which Grose, uncharacteristically prudish, seems to have decided to exclude from future print. There are more of the kind but I have yet to note them down: I am still circling the book, extracting it cautiously from its box, patting it occasionally, opening this page or that, glorying in the one thing I possess that is truly, unarguably, unique.

In addition I have been loaned a pile of books featuring a variety of once potent cops and criminals (whether ghosted or via the memoir of some trench-coated ‘Man Who Knows’ from Fleet Street), all long gone, all of which I must gut in the hope of finding as yet uncharted slang. Among them, the prize volume being ‘On the Beat with P.C. 49, a figure – admittedly fictional – whose command of what he terms ‘the Lawless Language’ never came across in his Eagle days. I am impressed. His colleague Dixon of Dock Green, as I recall, was far less well versed; the phrase ‘bad apple’ being about as metaphorical as he could manage. On the other hand, as a pre-requisite of the role he was to play on TV, Dixon had risen from the dead (a resurrection that took place not three days but five years later), having been shot down by Dirk Bogarde at the end of The Blue Lamp. P.C. 49 showed no such signs of messiah-dom, even surrogate.

But that, literally, is for tomorrow. What I have also been doing, which doing seems imperceptibly but quite unassailably to have taken over the last few days and is due to dominate many more, is the assemblage of timelines. Slang timelines. In other words the listing, via visual presentation, of the entire vocabularies of various popular slang themes. As thing stand these include drinks, drinking, pubs, the penis and, an on-going construction, the vagina. There will be many more to come, and you can work them out: I have, I am sure, already listed slang’s thematic taxonomy too often.

The OED has of course been offering timelines for a while, but they are nugatory things, focusing only on the chronology of a single word. I am looking for something wider-ranging and thus more substantial.

Here is an example:



It is a very squashed example of a subset of terms listed under the general rubric of ‘drunk’ and attenuated because I used it as a slide in a recent lecture. The different colours denote ‘drunk’, ‘drunkard’, ‘get drunk’, ‘make drunk’ and ‘hangover’ (there is a legend at top right). The real thing (the real timeline that is) can be displayed with far greater clarity and has the year included at the bottom, thus identifying just what turned up when. It is not foolproof – there are artificial clusters that occur because certain dictionaries have appeared and, despite my best efforts, have listed terms that have hitherto not been noted in print – but it gives a good flavour.

I don’t know whether this appeals but I am going to hope that it does. So here are the links:
Pubs and Bars:

When each one loads, you need to zoom out (using the slider on the right) to get a focus on the mass of words, then start playing around from there.

OK. I need to input ‘vagina terms 1701-1800’. You’re on your own.

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.

Godzone Words – Book of New Zealand Words by Dr Diane Bardsley

NZ words

Anyone fancy a ‘curry te Kanawa’? Mr Slang enjoys a new lexicography of New Zealand words, even though it is a little clean for his tastes…

Once upon a time there was the dictionary. It survives, of course, but not as we knew it, and those thick and squarish books are henceforth damned: print being in fast decline, and especially so in the world of reference. No matter, they serve well for holding mis-aligned tables; the OED, properly arranged, can even provide a table of itself. Fortunately, for those who find the primary constituent of the cloud being its insubstantial vapouring, there remain more expertly conceived products. They are smaller, and must sacrifice some of lexicography’s givens (your publicity dept. will term this ‘accessibility’), and they are harder to come by, but when they do, we should be grateful. Such a book is Dr Diane Bardsley’s Book of New Zealand Words (Te Papa Press).

Dr Bardsley was former head of the New Zealand Dictionary Centre and as such inheritor of Harry Orsman’s Oxford-backed New Zealand Dictionary (1997) before in 2012 it was adjudged one of those beans that having been counted back at Great Clarendon Street, was deemed fit only for the bin. It is a relief to see that she remains undaunted and that her work continues.

New Zealand English, being one of those created by white colonial settlers, ranks among what lexicographers term ‘inner circle’ Englishes (outer circle varieties include that of India or Singapore; beyond that lie those countries such as China where English, while not a first language, is increasingly important as a convenient lingua franca). Formerly lumped with that of Australia and thus billed as ‘Australasian’ it is now, as epitomized in the DNZE, acknowledged as something discrete. And like all such Englishes offers localisms, words emerging from the national topography, flora (ponga, a tree fern, the poor man’s orange, a grapefruit) and fauna (Captain Cooker, a wild pig and katipo, a venomous spider) and occupations (notably sheep-farming: which offers 150-plus names for sheep or dogs, among them the less than sympathetic crawler, an old sheep with footrot; the small farmer Australia’s cockatoo, is a ground parrot; the fart tax, a proposal to capitalize upon if not limit animal flatulence, seems to have been rejected), as well as indigenous slang (though it here that there is the greatest overlap with that other country known as Down Under). Local dishes are featured (the station brownie, a form of cake embellished with chocolate and the station stew, a synonym for the olla podrida elsewhere known as hashmagandy; unless I’ve missed it, however, there  is no entry for station tout court, defined as a ‘large grazing property’ in DNZE and good for five columns of compounds), and rugby, the national game, is prolific (e.g. the Ponsonby handshake or Canterbury coathanger, both a punch in the face or throat). It also, and of course uniquely, has absorbed many words and phrases adopted from te reo Maori: the Maori language. It is these last above all, as the author notes, that make New Zealand variety of what originated back in the Old Dart so unique.

This is not, exactly, a conventional dictionary. It lacks – Dr Bardsley explains that the constraints of space and the necessary expenditure of research time has made it impossible – any detailed etymologies. It contains a good leavening of encyclopedic entries. One would not normally encounter a phrase such as baubles of office, which refers specifically to an event during the 2005 election, GRI (guaranteed retirement income) which sounds like tax office jargon, or railway workshops which means, in Enzed as elsewhere, just what it says. Still there is, in the cases of certain nicknames (typically of politicians or sports people) and of terms sparked by historical events, plenty of background information, albeit not linguistic. It is – or is it simply that I am so innately sullied – a very ‘clean’ book. This may have been inspired by a degree of national pride: the publisher is an arm of the Museum of New Zealand –  but then again it is in no way a slang dictionary, even if it contains a variety of examples. Thus Dr Bardsley has chosen to overlook slang’s take on Maori, a selection of predictably negative compounds implying stupidity or laziness and which include Maori P.T., loafing, a Maori roast, fast food or Maori foreplay, the absence thereof. However there is still fun to be had and my personal favourite (setting aside the punning delicacy curry te Kanawa – challenging, albeit belatedly, Australia’s peach Melba), and reflective no doubt of the mindset of the Kiwi bloke (‘regarded,’ as Dr Bardsley puts it in one of her consistently astute and witty definitions, ‘as a retrosexual rather than a metrosexual’) being career girl: a ewe who refuses to mother her lamb.

My own database offers around 1600 words identified as ‘N.Z.’, although some 1000 of these seem to have crossed the Tasman Sea (known like other large expanses of water as the Ditch) and are equally available in Australia. This is not only true of slang, nor is the direction of travel easy to prove: as Dr Bardsley points out, the lexicographers of each country continue to tussle over which population can claim first use for a given term. For instance New Zealand currently edges the (glorying? ironic?) self-attribution of God’s Own Country, first recorded in 1906, whereas Australia holds off until 1908. But research remains fluid and for this and many others the laurels remain contested: the searchable newspaper databases – Papers Past for New Zealand, Trove for Australia – both admirably provided via governmental funding,  will doubtless continue to yield answers.

The conventional dictionary does not require an index – it is arranged, after all, in alphabetical order – but a dictionary based as is this on the tropes of a specific nation, does. I would like, and surely so would other users, the opportunity to have lists, to take a few examples, of terms for farmers, birds and animals, political and other institutions, food and drink, trees, fruit and veg, sports, sheep and their shearers and quite simply slang. The absence is perhaps deliberate? Certainly New Zealand Words thus gives endless opportunities for one of any good dictionary’s often overlooked functions: serendipitous wandering among the pages. It also tells a story: that of the country whose words it hymns.  That the story is inevitably a paraphrase does not matter: the interested reader is constantly drawn to hunting down background information and today such hunts are almost invariably successful.

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.

On the Edge

Nigella: Edgy

Nigella: Edgy

Even crème fraîche can be described as ‘edgy’ these days – has the term lost all meaning?…

Words have to multi-task. It comes with their territory. One dictionary entry, several, even many definitions; some nuanced others seemingly oppositional though there, perhaps, one may have a homonym. The bulk of slang is a ludic reinterpretation of standard English; its own inventions being far less common. Standard or slang, such developments may be a tribute to our inventiveness, our manipulative creativity; they may alternatively attest to our inability to think up neologisms and a lazy fall-back to what others have conjured up. Six and two threes, as they say. Language remains open to mutability.

So let us turn to such a word: edge. Its roots, the OED explains, take us back to the Old English ęcg which is the equivalent of Old Saxon’s eggia which meant edge, corner or point and brings us eventually a link with modern German ecke or eck, a corner. The OED also notes a supposed Old Aryan root *ak , whence come such cognates as Latin acies, Greek κίς, both meaning point, and in English, the spiked ear of corn.

The word edgy is a derivative. It combines edge and the suffix –y, denoting ‘having the quality of.’ It means nervous, irritable – ‘on edge’ and so defined its first use is recorded in 1937. That use stands. (There had been other,  earlier meanings: sharp, cutting, edged; enthusiastic and, of a painting, overly hard-edged, but let us forget those). The most recent definition emerges, to date, in 1976. Oxford explains it as that which: ‘challenges received ideas or prevailing aesthetic sensibilities; at the forefront of a trend.’ It refers back to cutting edge, which surfaced briefly as a noun in 1851, the submerged till the 20th century. The adjectival form held off, at least in print, until 1975, since when it has been a staple.

These words, ripped from their original meanings and recycled for propaganda’s or promotion’s purposes, keep coming. Elsewhere Jonathan Meades has eviscerated iconic. I have written here of that most weaselly of words, appropriate, and its caviling, censorious sibling, prefaced by in-. A gutless duo, sidestepped by those who fear the declarative honesty of ‘Based on nothing more than personal prejudice I permit/forbid it’. That pair of sibs, doubtless unimpressed by my plaint, remain in vogue. As does the most recent iteration of edgy. It has become, to use a popular combo, the go-to term for those who wish to imply excitement, usually of some form of product. Such excitement seems innately ersatz. It surfaced almost simultaneously with cutting edge, whence it derives its force; the OED’s first cite comes from a piece of artfilm crit dated 1976. Artfilm crit being what it is – here the comparison was between the widely known Andy Warhol and the far less accessible Jonas Mekas – I can see that this ur-edgy had some point. It is possible that it also owes something to the term Edge City, which had already taken root among the hippies, striving to imply some form of the extreme that transcended the then ubiquitous and all-purpose heavy.

Whatever the source, the trend has been to vapidity. Oxford’s most recent cite, dated 1998, is attributed to the currently unfortunate Nigella, she of kitchen deity and alleged spousal abuse, who adjures her readers: ‘Show Euro-cool by dolloping on some good and edgy and far more grown-up crème fraîche instead.’

Were this a talk, and that cite projected via Power Point I should pause and rather than add my comment, simply let you take it in. Please do so.

Let us continue. My own work, I am enormously relieved to say, makes no mention. Edge means a glance or look, also used as a verb, and edgy exists only in the phrase keep edgy, or keep edge, which means to keep a lookout, whether during an actual crime or simply a youthful prank (I have seen it listed as being currently Glaswegian but I have also seen it noted in 1909, with no geographical label); it is the equivalent of prep school’s keep cave, Australia’s keep nit or keep yow and Edinburgh’s (or certainly Irvine Welsh’s) keep shoatie. There may be more.

It is rare that I quote the Urban Dictionary, but I refer you to one Red Sewer Rat, posting there in 2006: ‘As far as I can make out, edgy occurs when middlebrow, middle-aged profiteers are looking to suck the energy — not to mention the spending money — out of the “youth culture.” So they come up with this fake concept of seeming to be dangerous when every move they make is the result of market research and a corporate master plan.’

Politics aside, this seems near the mark, though I’m not sure whether youth comes into it that much. Fakery: absolutely. A matter of PR. The need to sell, the need to sugar-coat that need, and the knowledge that, as Mr Barnum put it so long ago, there is one, very likely more, born every minute. In addition, a paradox: edgy has come in from the cold; thus used it suggests not the outer limit but in terms of chic the very heart. Or so it is hoped.

A quick edge at the Internet and it is suggested that one might like to search from this list: edgy fashion, edgy style, edgy personality, edgy clothes, edgy photography, edgy haircuts (there are also edgy short haircuts), the edgy meme and edgy girls’ names. (I intended to quote a few of these, but list follows list and why keep such plenitude to myself? They are legion; they are here: My apologies if some of you may find them, as a poster puts it, ‘too out there’.)

A site that offers the word in sample sentences offers ‘Edgy boy dolls, blake and brandon will hit the groovy scene this fall.’ Groovy originally meant conservative, a fact that invariably delights me, but I think perhaps not here. It also mentions the shooting of Iraqi civilians by ‘edgy troops’ but I suspect this harks backwards to earlier use and does not imply some rococo feature of their uniforms or even weaponry. Not wishing to pour further pain on Ms Lawson I checked ‘edgy food’. She cannot be alone and of course she is not. I offer another link: It’s Australian. It may well taste delicious but I don’t envy the chefs who have to assemble it. Zooming in we find edgy cakes and edgy vegetables, and in even tighter focus edgy potatoes though this may be a Mumbai restaurant.

I resist further searches: there is no avoiding it. Edgy centrality. Point, and I speak etymologically, taken.

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.

Slang für Kinder

Progeny in Perspective

In honour of the new Princeling, Mr Slang is talking kids…

I love children, as Nancy Mitford put it so well, especially when they cry: for then someone takes them away. Mitford of course lived in Paris where they have a more robust attitude to those who have yet to acquire a civilized palate and where, only yesterday, a Parisienne, while gurgling with the best of ’em, on hearing that I was English observed, Alors M’sieur, la grande question: qui était le gran’père. Bien sûr, ce n’était pas Charles.

Slang, being among those who demand an article alongside uses of the word ‘baby’, averts its gaze from the current hysteria and finds a suitable representative in Mr S. who, as a diabetic, can only tolerate a limited sickliness. This is not to wish the newborn, who has rocketed straight into the entitlement charts at the number three slot, the slightest ill, but merely to preserve a decent distance.

But slang is nothing if not of the moment, so let us ponder a couple of examples of its infantine terminology. The oldest term, kinchin, springs from cant, the beggar tongue, around 1560. It comes from German Kindchen, a small child, and gives a variety of compounds. The kinchin co (co abbreviating cove, a bloke) is a child who has been brought up to thieving as a profession, an ‘ydle runagate Boy’ says Awdeley, and Harman adds ‘that when he groweth vnto yeres, he is better to hang then to drawe forth’. Grown older he regains his terminal -ve and as kinchin cove becomes a man, albeit short. The kinchin mort, the ever-moralising Harman again, ‘is a little Girle, the Morts their Mothers carries them at their backes in their slates, which is their sheetes, and bryngs them vp sauagely tyll they growe to be ripe, and soone ripe, soone rotten.’ Such a child might not be one’s own, what mattered was the pity it might excite and B.E. noted in 1698 ‘if they have no Children of their own, they borrow or Steal them from others.’ This has not changed: as in many urban rogueries, the modern city illustrates that beggary works with a well-honed repertoire. The 19th century added kinchin prig, a young thief, and the kinchin lay, thus kindly explained to Oliver by Fagin: ‘The kinchins, my dear … is the young children that’s sent on errands by their mothers, with sixpences and shillings; and the lay is just to take their money away.’ Alternative versions included the kid rig (rig: a con-trick) and  to go upon the kid, to steal parcels from foolish errand boys who believed it when you promised to ‘hold on to them while you make another delivery.’ Given the duplicity, the term may be underpinned by the verbal form of kid, to tease, to deceive, which itself stems either from ‘treat like a kid’ or the synonynous cod.

The arrival of kid underlines the fact that by Fagin’s day it had become the dominant word, extending far beyond cant, though it played its role therein. And kid, as we know, is one of slang’s great stayers, elbowing its way into the mainstream long since and effectively replacing what, by implication, has become the middle-class prissiness of child. (Though young royals, even in the most hail-fellow of tabloids, do seem to escape ‘kid’, moving in popular eyes directly from the vaseline-lensed world of Start-rite and Blyton to ‘Randy Andy’ or whatever).

Kid, it appears, comes from the zoological name for a young goat. Middleton and Rowley used it in 1627,  their line bracketing it with brat (and jeering at the impotence of one ‘lank suck-eggs’). By the 18th century it had been scarfed up by cant, and naturally described a youthful thief of either gender, trained up by a kidsman. If the father was already in the business, the infant villain was a kidwy (i.e, kid-wee) or kidling, though the latter came only to mean baby. In 1812 the knowledgable transportee James Hardy Vaux noted how ‘when by his dexterity he has become famous, he is called by his acquaintances the kid so and so, mentioning his sirname’, an ancestral precursor, perhaps, of such monickers as Billy the Kid or The Cisco Kid (though slang’s use for those is simply to rhyme with ‘Yid’. The Milky Bar Kid, however, is an Australian synonym for petty criminal).

The term widened, though faithful to its origins. Meanings came to include a member of a confidence team, a teenager (though that word still was far off), a form of address, and a reference to one’s younger sibling, ‘our kid’. By the late 19th century sex had arrived. The kid had become a catamite, whether as a tramp’s companion (though the main US term was gay-cat, even if for all the possibilities, there is no hard proof that this ‘gay’ was that of modernity) or the prison pretty-boy also known as a punk. A kid fruit, who pursued such company, was a synonym for the modern chicken-hawk.

Sometimes the sex was offered, as by the kid-leather, the young whore (leather meaning skin or more coarsely the vagina, which could be stretched or laboured.) More often it was sought after: by the kid-stretcher or kid stuffer, both of whom, in their paedophiliac obsessions, are known as kid-simple. Such usages predate or parallel the creepily infantilizing alternatives based on kid’s diminutive kiddy, which in such compounds as kiddy-porn or kiddy-fiddler have been around since the 1980s.

The term was launched with no such overtones. Kiddy as in child is in place by 1800; modified by ‘my’ it addressed a friend by 1850. The early 18th century has it as a fashionable, flashy young man, a rake, a pimp or a thief; and compounds it as rolling kiddy, a dandy-cum-thief, or a dandy who dresses like one. His girlfriend, noted Egan during Tom and Jerry’s trip to the East End’s All-Max tavern, was a kiddiess. Around 1850 it denoted a hat, fashionable among small-time but dandified thieves,  featuring a broad ribbon passing through a large buckle at its front.

There are, of course, many more terms than this. To return to the cradle we have cockatrice (a ‘monster born from an egg’), the rhyming basin of gravy, Ireland’s scaldy, which otherwise refers to one who is bald, an ankle biter and a crumb-catcher. I shall leave you with New Zealand’s parcel from Paris. This presumably implies the usual ooh-la-la stereotype but that doesn’t usually extend to procreative intercourse. A parcel, on the other hand, is somewhat more substantial than a French letter.

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.