(Roughly) Daily

“I’ve been accused of vulgarity. I say that’s bullshit.”*…


The author of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Thirty years after Dr Johnson published his great Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Francis Grose put out A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), a compendium of slang Johnson had deemed unfit for his learned tome. Grose was not one for library work. He preferred to do his lexicography in the sordid heart of after-hours London. Supported by his trusty assistant Tom Cocking, he cruised the watering holes of Covent Garden and the East End, eating, boozing, and listening. He took pleasure in hearing his name punningly connected to his rotund frame. And he produced a book brimming with Falstaffian life.

In Vulgar Tongues (2016), Max Décharné called Grose’s dictionary, “A declaration in favour of free speech, and a gauntlet thrown down against official censorship, moralists and the easily offended.” While a good deal of the slang has survived into the present day — to screwis to copulate; to kick the bucket is to die — much would likely have been lost had Grose not recorded it. Some of the more obscure metaphors include a butcher’s dog, meaning someone who “lies by the beef without touching it; a simile often applicable to married men”; to box the Jesuit, meaning “to masturbate; a crime, it is said, much practised by the reverend fathers of that society”; and to polish meaning to be in jail, in the sense of “polishing the king’s iron with one’s eyebrows, by looking through the iron grated windows”. Given this was the era of William Hogarth’s famous painting Gin Lane (1751), it’s not surprising to find the dictionary soaked through with colourful epithets for the juniper-based liquor: blue ruincobblers punchfrog’s wineheart’s easemoonshinestrip me naked. The Grose dictionary also contains hundreds of great insults, like bottle-headed, meaning void of wit, something you can’t say about its author.

Via Public Domain Review; read the Dictionary at the Internet Archive.

* Mel Brooks


As we choose our words carefully, we might recall that it was on this date in 1865 that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (or, in more recent editions, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) was published in the U.S.  Routinely listed among the greatest American novels, it was one of the first to be written in vernacular English.

Upon issue of the American edition in 1885 several libraries banned it from their shelves.  The early criticism focused on what was perceived as the book’s crudeness. One incident was recounted in the newspaper the Boston Transcript:

The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.

Writer Louisa May Alcott criticized the book’s publication as well, saying that if Twain “[could not] think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.”

Twain later remarked to his editor, “Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”  [source]

Cover of the first U.S.edition



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