Wednesday, June 17, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
The Paco Library contains many collections and sub-collections, including a substantial number of dictionaries. Foreign languages, peculiar words, etymologies, church and theological terminology, architecture, biographical dictionaries – these volumes are a great source of instant knowledge, and of the serendipidity of accidentally discovering an interesting word or concept in the course of looking up something else altogether.
The Vulgar Tongue: Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence, by Francis Grose (edited in a new edition by Alastair Williams), is a collection of slang, colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions that was first published in the late 18th century. This is not the language of Johnson and Burke; the editor points out in his introduction that…
“The soldier, scholar and champion drinker, Francis Gose, published the first recognized dictionary of slang in London in 1785. From Shakespeare onwards the English language had been a riot of linguistic wit and anarchy, and The Vulgar Tongue doesn’t disappoint, presenting us with a fascinating window on the lives of ordinary people at the end of the 18th century. Taking us from the inns to houses of pleasure, from the races to the cock-fighting pit, Francis Grose captures a bawdy culture alive with its own rich language.”
Grose himself pointed out the value of his contribution, thusly, in the preface to the first edition:
“The many vulgar allusions and cant expressions that so frequently occur in our common conversation and periodical publications, make a work of this kind extremely useful, if not absolutely necessary, not only to foreigners, but even to natives resident at a distance from the Metropolis, or who do not mix in the busy world: without some such help, they might hunt through all the ordinary Dictionaries, from Alpha to Omega, in search of the words, ‘black legs, lame duck, a plumb, malingeror, nip cheese, darbies and the new drop’, although these are all terms of well-known import at Newmarket, Exchange-alley, the City, the Parade, Wapping and Newgate.”
It is a great treat to delve into the pages of this volume and retrieve such gems as “bully cock” (“One who foments quarrels in order to rob the persons quarrelling” [Sounds like Democrats! – Paco]), “corporation” (“A large belly. He has a glorious corporation; he has a very prominent belly”), “cork-brained” (“Light-headed; foolish”), and “idea pot” (“the knowledge box, the head”). Aside from the amusement angle, however, there is some interesting history; for example, this definition of “Jibber the Kibber”:
“A method of deceiving seamen, by fixing a candle and lantern round the neck of a horse, one of whose fore feet is tied up; this at night has the appearance of a ship’s light. Ships bearing towards it run on shore, and being wrecked, are plundered by the inhabitants. This diabolical device is, it is said, practiced by the inhabitants of our western coasts.”
[This ploy was certainly used on the North Carolina coast in olden times; hence the name of the town, Nags Head, on the outer banks – Paco]
The Vulgar Tongue is a delightful romp through one of my favorite historical periods.
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Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the word, “zzxjoanw”; and, no, it’s not the sound one makes when snoring (well, actually, maybe it is – at least if Mrs. Paco is to be believed). If you possessed The Superior Person’s Book of Words, you’d know that it is a Maori drum.
Peter Bowler has assembled a delightful little volume that is a sort of curio cabinet of odd words, including not only definitions, but witty examples of usage.
Take, for example, “veneficial”:
“…(i) Acting by poison, or poisoning; (ii) acting by, or used in, witchcraft or sorcery, as for instance a witches’ brew; (iii) relating to the doings of Venus, the goddess of love. The three meanings come together when your beloved cooks you a meal for the first time.”
“Fat-buttocked. Another excellent word for insulting without offending, especially as the listener is unlikely to be able to remember it long enough to look it up in a dictionary later, and is unlikely in any case to possess a dictionary that includes it.”
If nothing else, this book should help to boost your Scrabble victories.
* * *
Is it “lie” or “lay”? The two words always give me trouble, so I turn for enlightenment to The Dictionary of Confusable Words, by Laurence Urdang, which provides me with what I need to know:
“There seems to be little difficulty with the first word [lie], meaning to ‘prevaricate, fabricate.’ From the table, one can see why the other two cause trouble: the present of lay ‘put down’ is identical to the past of lie ‘be recumbent.’ Unfortunately, there is no simple mnemonic device that can be called upon to help in remembering the differences: they must be memorized.” [Admonition to self: all these dictionaries, and you don’t have a clue as to what ‘mnemonic’ means; look it up, ya putz!]
Seriously, though, the book maps out many of the common linguistic and grammatical minefields through which we (or I, anyhow) maneuver everyday. “Like vs. as”, “that vs. which”, “council vs. counsel”, “typhoid vs. typhus” (hey, I didn’t even know they were separate diseases), “monologue vs. soliloquy” – this is an excellent volume in that informal series, “How Not to Look Like a Dumbass”, which I highly recommend (and would personally benefit from using far more often than I do).