Barry Baldwin ~ A Word in Your Shellike

Reprinted with kind permission of Barry Baldwin himself, who years ago had to endure yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription naturally accrue to the latter.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words. (Hamlet 2.2.195)

Another of my periodic flits to the 18th century. Orwell remarked that slang tells you a lot about its users, supplementing (Down and Out in Paris and London, ch32) with a glossary of London argot. My present conduit is Captain Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. 1796. edited by Eric Partridge (1931); for more on Grose-among other things a great friend of Robert Burns, cf. my articles in Verbatim 27.2 (2002), p20 & 283 (2003), p22. The following rubrics and definitions are Grose’s, the scholia mine

ABRAM MEN: Lunatics who wore on certain days allowed to go begging – their version of Care in the Community?

BALLUM RANCUM: A dance where the women are all prostitutes. The company dance in their birthday suits – ever seen in King’s Cross or Soho?

BANK’S HORSE:  A horse famous for playing tracks-mentioned by (e.g.) Ben Jonson and Sir Walter Raleigh, identified with the equine Morocco in Shakespeare’s’ Love’s Labours Lost.

BELLY PLEA: Plea of pregnancy adduced by female felons capitally convicted, which they take care to provide for previous to their trials;  every gaol having one or more child- getters, who qualify the ladies for that expedient – Down to the Job Centre, lads.

BUCKINGER’S BOOT Matthew Buckinger was born without hands and legs, notwithstanding which he drew coats of arms very neatly and could write the Lord’s Prayer within the compass of a shilling —  one thinks of Christie Brown.

CHALKERS: Men of wit in Ireland, who in the night amuse themselves with cutting inoffensive passengers across the face with a knife —  cf. the mysterious poisoned-pin wielders in Dio Cassius’s Roman History )bk57 ch.11 par36 – FT129-51) and Fort, Books, p38+91.)

CUNDUM: Grose credits Captain Cundum from Charles II’s reign for inventing “machines worn the act of coition to prevent venereal infection – Boswell’s London Journal abounds in these Dures (so to speak) is a johnny-cum-lately. The largest size was called a “bishop” (imagination boggles). Somehow certain Mrs Phillips at the Green Canister in Half-Moon Street had acquired a monopoly on these devices, possibly in partnerships with the Mrs Goadby who ran “a very well conducted house “(Grose, under SERAGLIO) in Berwick Street, Soho.

DAVID’S SOW (sc. As drunk as): Grose traces this expression to a Welsh publican at Hereford whose living six-legged sow was a local attraction, as was his tippling wife who  often slept with it when soused.

EVANS: Mrs Evans, a name frequently given to a she-cat owing to a witch of the name Evans, who frequently assumed the appearance of a cat — Evans Above!

FEAGUE: To put ginger up a horse’s fundament, and formerly a live eel, to make him lively – beats anything Dick Francis came up with.

GARRET ELECTION: Grose’s explanation is too long to cite verbatim.  It describes the “ludicrous mock elections” held near Wandsworth in tandem with real ones, qualification for voting being restricted to men “who enjoyed a woman in the open air in that district” — this would do something to combat modern voter apathy, especially as it was subsidised by the local pubs.

GRANNY: The name of an ideot (sic)  famous for licking her eye, who died 14 Nov 1719- she must have been a right tongue twister.

IRISH APRICOTS: Grose’s long notice asserts “dipping in the river Shannon totally annihilates bashfulness” —  so that explains the likes of Brendan Behan, perhaps also Iris Robinson.

KEMP’S MORRIS: William Kemp, said to be the original Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing, danced a morris from London to Norwich in nine days — quite puts ballroom dancing in the shade

PATRICO, or PATER COVE: Strolling priests who marry people under a hedge without gospel or prayer book, the couple standing on each side of a dead beast — the C of E might bring back its congregations with similar gimmicks.

WELCH RABBIT: “The Welch” are said to be so remarkably fond of cheese, that in cases of difficulty their midwives apply a piece of toasted cheese to the janua vitae to attract and entice the young Taffy, who on smelling it makes most vigorous efforts to come forth –these Celtic obstetrics are surely one for AA Gill.

(One Gu extract summer dividend from other dictionaries, c.g. Samuel Johnson on RETROMINGENCY: Staling backwards, as hares apparently do — do they? Were these retro-pissers hares apparent” Also Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary containing such gems as SELLARIUS: Ope that practiser lewdness upon a settle – Quick, what’s a settle?)

Classical Corner 139: Fortean Times 277 (July, 2011), p. 21.