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Posts Tagged ‘slang

“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.”*…

The Canting Academy is a classic linguistic guide to the criminal underworld of 17th-century London

That seminal semanticist Samuel Johnson suggested, “dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.” From “unabridged” to “slanguage,” Madeline Kripke’s library of lexicons is a logophile’s heaven (or hell)…

Madeline Kripke’s first dictionary was a copy of Webster’s Collegiate that her parents gave her when she was a fifth grader in Omaha in the early 1950s. By the time of her death in 2020, at age 76, she had amassed a collection of dictionaries that occupied every flat surface of her two-bedroom Manhattan apartment—and overflowed into several warehouse spaces. Many believe that this chaotic, personal library is the world’s largest compendium of words and their usage.

“We don’t really know how many books it is,” says Michael Adams, a lexicographer and chair of the English department at Indiana University Bloomington. More than 1,500 boxes, with vague labels such as “Kripke documents” or “Kripke: 17 books,” arrived at the school’s Lilly Library on two tractor-trailers in late 2021. The delivery was accompanied by a nearly 2,000-page catalog detailing some 6,000 volumes. But that’s only a fraction of the total. In summer 2023, the library hired a group of students to simply open each box and list its contents. By the fall, their count stood at about 9,700. “And they’ve got a long way to go,” says Adams. “20,000 sounds like a pretty good estimate.”

“This is my favorite wall,” Madeline Kripke told Narratively reporter Daniel Kreiger when he visited her West Village apartment in 2013. She shined a flashlight on glass-fronted shelves jammed with dictionaries full of the slanguage and cryptolect of small and likely overlooked communities. Kreiger listed some of the groups represented at that time, among them cowboys and flappers, mariners and gamblers, soldiers, circus workers, and thieves.

Among the first tomes Adams pulled from the boxes was a well-known example of the slang genre: The Canting Academy. This 17th-century dictionary by Richard Head is a guide to “cant,” the jargon of London’s criminal class or, as the subtitle to the second edition puts it, “The Mysterious and Villainous Practices Of that wicked Crew, commonly known by the Names of Hectors, Treppaners, Gults, &c.” (Adams wonders if a first edition is also hidden in the banker’s boxes.) With The Canting Academy, one can learn to translate the cant of the “priggs” (“all sorts of thieves”) to English: “lour” to “money,” “pannam” to “bread,” “lage” to “water.” Most of the language is indecipherable without this key, but Adams notes some usages that are common today. “To plant” something is, in centuries-old cant or modern-day English, “to lay, place, or hide.”

Much of what Adams has unpacked has a far less storied (and pricey) past, but, he says, the quirky and unexpected volumes in Kripke’s collection might be the most valuable to future lexicographers and historians. A bright red pamphlet with a doodle of heart on the cover might seem disposable, but it is an artifact of a particular place and time, Adams says. “Dictionaries are made by people, so they’re not just language books,” he says, “they’re culture books.”

Printed in 1962 as a marketing tool for a CBS sitcom, that slim pamphlet featuring a big heart around the faces of two 20-something actors is Dobie Gillis: Teenage Slanguage Dictionary, filled with “teen-age antics and terms.” It’s the type of thing that might have been stuffed into a cereal box or inserted in a teen magazine, says Adams. “I’m pretty sure that most people threw the copy they had away, and so this one is a fairly rare item that says something important about the representation of teen language and culture in the 1950s and 1960s.” Thanks to Kripke’s copy we know that this, at least according to the marketers behind The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, was the era of the “keen teen” (“well-liked person”), the “cream puff” (“conceited person”), the “meatball” (“a dull guy”), and the “mathematician” (“teen who can put two and two together and get SEX”).

Kripke—“the mistress of slang,” in the words of one colleague—dedicated decades of her life to curating this collection of words, including countless ones we might like to forget. When she passed away without a will, the fate of her overwhelming library, plus a trove of documents on the history of dictionary making, was uncertain. Auctioning it off in lots could have brought the highest bids, but Kripke’s family worked in conjunction with the lexicographic community to preserve what Adams calls “her legacy.” That it was ultimately purchased in total by Indiana University Bloomington, a state university that committed to making the works accessible to the public, seems in keeping with the way Kripke herself viewed the collection, as a resource for the curious.

“You would go to see her in her Village apartment, and it was filled from top to bottom and side to side with books,” Adams says. It would have taken some digging but, “she would have the book that you need to see out for you and always some other specimens, too.”…

The Low Down on the Greatest Dictionary Collection in the World,” in @atlasobscura.

* Steven Wright


As we look it up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1660, at Gresham College in London, that twelve men, including Christopher WrenRobert BoyleJohn Wilkins, and Sir Robert Moray decided to found a “Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning” to promote “experimental philosophy” (which became science-as-we-know-it). Six months later, Robert Hooke‘s first publication, a pamphlet on capillary action, was read to the group.

The Society subsequently petitioned King Charles II to recognize it and to make a royal grant of incorporation. The Royal Charter, which was passed in July, 1662 created the Royal Society of London.

In 1665, the society introduced the world’s first journal exclusively devoted to science in 1665, Philosophical Transactions (and in so doing originated the peer review process now widespread in scientific journals). Its founding editor was Henry Oldenburg, the society’s first secretary.  It remains the oldest and longest-running scientific journal in the world. 

Title page of the first edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (source)

“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



Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”*…


In 1699, an anonymous lexicographer known only as “B. E., Gent.” published the first comprehensive dictionary of non-standard English. Although shorter word lists and glossaries of slang terminology had been published previously, B.E.’s New Dictionary of the Canting Crew listed over 4000 words and phrases, and is credited with being the first such publication resembling a modern dictionary. As a result, it remained the standard reference work for English slang and jargon for almost another century…

“Addle-plot,” “ebb-water,” and 28 other examples of historic jargon at “30 Excellent Terms From a 17th Century Slang Dictionary.”

* Carl Sandburg


As we reach for the right phrase, we might send gritty birthday greetings to a man who was a master of the coinage of crime– Samuel Dashiell Hammett; he was born on this date in 1894.  Hammett worked as an agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915-1922, when– disillusioned by the organization’s role in strike-breaking– he left to become a writer, providing copy in an ad agency until his fiction earned enough to support him.  Hammett drew for his fiction on his experiences as a “Pinkerton Man,” and created an extraordinary series of characters– Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), The Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse)– on the way to becoming, as the New York Times called him, “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction.”

In his book The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler, considered by many to be Hammett’s successor, observed,

Hammett was the ace performer… He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of The Glass Key is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before. 



Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 27, 2017 at 1:01 am

“All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry”*…


Jonathon Green’s unique edition of The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose, first published in 1785

“Slang dictionaries have always been done by mad people who sit in rooms and make books out of them,” explains Jonathon Green. For 35 years he’s been doing just that: collecting slang words and compiling them into dictionaries.

The biggest of these—Green’s Dictionary of Slang, published in 2010—launched online this week. The online version is made up of 132,000 terms (the original print edition had around 110,000). Users can search for a word and its etymology for free, and subscribers can pay to access a bigger range of citations and a timeline of their evolution…

More of the backstory at “This man has spent 35 years compiling entries for a 132,000-word online slang dictionary that you can search for free.”  Browse the dictionary here.

* G.K. Chesterton


As we carefully choose our words, we might doff our hats to Elizabethan poet, courtier, and soldier Sir Philip Sidney, who died on this date in 1586 of an infected thigh wound received in combat with the Spanish at the Battle of Zutphen, after having given his leg armor to a soldier who had forgotten his own.  As he lay dying, he gave his water-bottle to another wounded soldier, saying, “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine.”  Sidney’s Arcadia (or more fully, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia)– the inspiration for the Gloucester sub-plot in Shakespeare’s King Lear-– was published posthumously.

Sir Philip Sidney

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 17, 2016 at 1:01 am

“‘Meow’ means ‘woof’ in cat”*…


In cliff-side houses like these, some Malian villagers speak an enigmatic anti-language originally designed to fool slave-traders

Criminals, conspirators, fugitives, outcasts– throughout history, they’ve all often spoken “The secret ‘anti-languages’ you’re not supposed to know.

[Update:  further to “I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after ‘semicolons,’ and another one after ‘now’*…,” this wonderful variation, via @PhelimKine]

* George Carlin


As we watch our tongues, we might send breath-taking birthday greetings to the man who spoke the secret language of the environment, Ansel Easton Adams; he was born on this date in 1902.  A co-founder of Group f/64 (with other masters like Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, and Imogen Cunningham), his black-and-white landscape photographs of the American West, especially Yosemite National Park, helped define landscape photography and establish photography as a fine art.




Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 20, 2016 at 1:01 am