CACKLING FARTS, TALLYWAGS AND OTHER GROSE WORDS

 

1920px-Captain_Francisa_Grose,_FSA

Captain Francis Grose, antiquarian, some-time soldier and all-round roisterer used his knowledge of lowlife to compile a dictionary of eighteenth-century slang. Assisted by Tom Cocking, Grose frequented and enjoyed the fleshpots of London, eating, drinking and taking notes of what was said and by whom. The fruits of this devoted study appeared only three decades after Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary but, unlike that great work, documented the unofficial, earthy and bawdy language spoken by the workers of the era.

Grose was so fat – a gundiguts, according to his own dictionary – that his assistant, Tom, had to strap him into bed each night to make sure he didn’t roll out. But he was an apparently amiable man who was able to move easily in different social circles, putting his inquiring mind to good use wherever he went and with whoever he met. His encounters included one with the Scots poet Robert Burns, who contributed prose and poetry to one of Grose’s many antiquarian works on castles and other ancient buildings.

Not only does A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) present a vast number of raffish and often amusing words and phrases, but it also gives some idea of those who spoke them. Many of these were criminals who, as in earlier and later periods, found considerable use for linguistic obfuscation. Others were those who followed more or less respectable trades and occupations. Grose’s dictionary is crammed with the speech of thieves, beggars, prostitutes, soldiers, sailors, gamblers, cockfighters, horse traders and a range of other dodgy operators.

Grose also includes terms related to trades, professions and callings, including:

Draper, an ale-housekeeper;

Duck fucker man in charge of poultry aboard a war ship

Fart catcher – a valet

Finger post – parson

Knight of the rainbow – a footman, from the gaudery of his apparel

A maggot-boiler was a tallow merchant

Monks and friars, printers’ terms describing blotted or dark printed sheets and faint sheets, respectively

Nimgimmer a doctor, especially one able to treat venereal diseases

Pontius Pilate  a pawnbroker

The dictionary includes multitudinous names for different kinds of alcohol, especially gin and is also good on insults, including Captain queernabs, a shabby ill-dressed fellow; Dicked in the nob meaning silly, crazed; a dog booby is an awkward lout and Just-ass was a punning name for a justice [judge], an official who many of Grose’s speakers often encountered.

A few of the words and terms immortalised by Grose and Cocking are still in use today, including screw, to copulate; bum fodder for toilet paper and to kick the bucket, meaning to die, which Captain Francis Grose did in 1791. His legacy is a magnificent compendium of everyday talk that people used as they went about their business, whether that was respectable or otherwise.

Oh, and a cackling fart is an egg and tallywags are testicles.

Enjoy more online at https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/a-classical-dictionary-of-the-vulgar-tongue-1788

FOGLE-HUNTERS, WIRE-TOOLERS AND BUZZERS

 

caveat

Picking pockets is an ancient and still-prevalent form of robbery, a criminal craft complete with its own cryptolect, or secret language. Read on to develop your lexicon of wicked words used by, and about, pickpockets through the ages.

In the sixteenth century and later, the term fig was used to denote the picking of pockets, and the one who did the deed was a figger. There were various classes of figger, depending on skill. The most basic was a nip or cutpurse who simply used a knife to separate money from victim. The more skilled practitioner was a foist. Greene observed in his The Second Part of Conny-catching (1592), that ‘The foist is so nimble-handed, that he exceeds the jugler for agilitie, and hath his legiar de maine as perfectly.’

Leger de maine, or sleight of hand, would still be in use to describe skilled criminality in colonial Australia during the 1840s. By this time, a favoured pickpocket target was a fogle – the elaborate and expensive pocket-handkerchiefs favoured by gentlemen and those who wished to appear as such – and the craft had become known as fogle-hunting or fogle-getting. Fogle lived on in criminal Cant until about 1930 in Britain and perhaps 1940 in the United States, by which time the value of handkerchiefs to the pickpocket had greatly declined. By the early twentieth century pickpockets in Britain, America and Australia were known as whizzers.

Ancient or modern, pickpockets by whatever monikers they used (they were often known as files in the seventeenth century) have always been highly organised with an extensive trade argot to conceal their crimes. In 1552 Gilbert Walker’s underworld exposé, Diceplay, mentioned the figging law, or pick-purse craft, and almost forty years later Robert Greene’s A Notable Discovery of Coosnage provided a helpful list of the craft terms related to ‘the figging law’:

The Cutpurse, a Nip

He that is halfe with him, the Snap

The knife, the Cuttle boung

The pick pocket, a Foin

He that faceth the man (i.e. the victim), the Stale

Taking the purse, Drawing

Spying of him, Smoaking

The purse, the Boung

The monie, the Shels

The Act doing, Striking

By the late seventeenth century the figging law had become the figging lay, but pickpockets were just as active and organised. As early as 1608 Dekker’s The Belmen of London observed of figgers that they parcelled out territories among themselves and their supposedly Biblical secret language was an effective form of communication and identification:

The language which they speak is none of those that came in at the confusion of the Tongues, for neither infidell nor Christian (that is honest) understands it, but the Dialect is such and so crabbed, that seven yeeres study is little enough to reach to the bottom of it, and to make it run off glib from the tongue: by means of this Gibrish, they knowe their owne nation when they meet, albeit they never sawe one another before …

Oliver

In the early Victorian era pick pocketing was perhaps the most common form of urban crime. So profitable had the game become that the best wire toolers and fine toolers became known as the swell mob and sported the trappings of wealth, and lived lives to match, further enhancing the possibility for ill-gotten gain. Dippers attended race meetings, fairs, shows and hangings in droves, running the old tricks along with a few new variations developed for the growth of public transport, such as the railway carriage and the omnibus. Maltoolers, often female, deprived middle class women travellers of their purses a pogue, slipped the booty to their stickman who rapidly exited the vehicle, leaving the maltooler with no incriminating evidence should the victim discover her loss before journey’s end.

At this time, men still used large and valuable handkerchiefs as an accompaniment to the fashionable habit of taking snuff. Known as kingsmen, these decorated and colourful squares of cloth were greatly prized on the black market and easily pulled by even child smatter haulers. As with much other Cant speech, there was a complex hierarchy of butterfly-like descriptions for different kinds of handkerchiefs. A watersman was made of blue silk, a randlesman was white and green, while a white and yellow handkerchief was a fancy yellow. From the middle of the nineteenth century it became fashionable to use black handkerchiefs during mourning, a central Victorian obsession, and these items, known as black fogles, became the most valuable for lifting.

So great were the labour demands of this illicit occupation that children were trained in groups by kidsmen to become buzzers from an early age. The celebrated depiction of such an academy in Oliver Twist is very close to reality. The real-life models for the fictionalised characters of Fagin and the Artful Dodger were commonplace in Victorian England where children were made to practice dipping skills on tailor’s dummies to which small bells were sewn, tinkling at the slightest insensitivity of a small hand. Despite this training, many were caught and sometimes transported.

‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two’, as the famous song went. Maybe not.

 

WAYS AND LAYS – THE SPEECH OF BEGGARS

 

Begging Woodcut_Giving_Alms_to_a_Beggar - wiki

Beggars were a large and troublesome presence throughout Europe during and after the middle ages. The tolerance, even encouragement, of the church for mendicancy as an expression of piety ensured that roads were thronged with men, women and children bent on extracting money from better-off passers-by. Henry VIII’s seizing of the monasteries and the increasing enclosure of previously public lands inflamed the problem, as did the arrival of large numbers of impoverished Irish. By the reign of Elizabeth 1 begging might be punished by maiming and even death. As the problem was basically a consequence of economic forces, these harsh measures were ineffective, as were the Poor Laws and the parish relief system that were subsequently introduced.

The beggar remained a familiar, ever-inventive type often execrated in the cautionary writings of sixteenth and seventeenth-century authors like Dekker, Harman and other observers of the swarming ‘canting crews’. Such was the diversity of begging ploys that many felt it necessary to categorise and describe them for the benefit and protection of their fellow respectable citizens. In the earliest of what would become a number of beggar books, Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561) by John Awdeley, nineteen different types of vagabonds are named. These include a jackman, one who forges documents, or gibes with false seals known as jarks. In 1566 Thomas Harman described dommerars who:

‘… wyl never speake, unless they have extreme punishment, but wyll gape, and with a marvellous force wyll hold downe their toungs doubled, groning for your charyty, and holding up their handes full pitiously, so that with their deepe dissimulation they get very much.’

A later variation was for the dommerar to produce a piece of paper on which was written a note to the effect that his tongue had been cut out during a period of Turkish slavery because he had refused to convert to Islam.

Names of different kinds of beggars and beggaries across the centuries may vary, though their dodges were much the same. The early seventeenth century mason’s maund referred to a false injury above the elbow that made the arm appear broken as if by a fall from a builder’s scaffolding. Cadging was an eighteenth-century term for begging, also used to describe the lowest form of thief. It had numerous extensions, such as cadging ken, a public house frequented by cadgers. A cadger’s cove was a lodging house for beggars and the cadging-line, was the begging business. Durrynacking or durykin was to beg by telling fortunes in the early nineteenth century, usually practiced by women.

Beggars were also celebrated in songs that at once romanticised their lifestyle, revealed their tricks and some of their secret language. One very popular song of this type has its origins in Richard Broome’s play The Jovial Crew, originally produced in 1641. Although this song was probably added to it in the 1680s revival version, it preserves the use of pelf, meaning booty, which dates from at least the last part of the previous century. Among other things, the song highlights the apprenticeship system through which generations of beggars learned the trade, still operating in the nineteenth century in Britain and also among American hoboes until at least the early twentieth century:

There was a jovial beggar,

He had a wooden leg,

Lame from his cradle,

And forced for to beg.

And a begging we will go, we’ll go, we’ll go;

And a begging we will go!

 

A bag for his oatmeal,

Another for his salt;

And a pair of crutches,

To show that he can halt (limp).

And a begging, &c..

 

A bag for his wheat,

Another for his rye;

A little bottle by his side,

To drink when he’s a-dry.

And a begging, &c.

 

Seven years I begged

For my old Master Wild,

He taught me to beg

When I was but a child.

And a begging, &c.

 

I begged for my master,

And got him store of pelf;

But now, Jove be praised!

I’m begging for myself.

And a begging, &c.

 

In a hollow tree

I live, and pay no rent;

Providence provides for me,

And I am well content.

And a begging, &c.

 

Of all the occupations,

A beggar’s life’s the best;

For whene’er he’s weary,

He’ll lay him down and rest.

And a begging, &c.

 

I fear no plots against me,

I live in open cell;

Then who would be a king

When beggars live so well?

And a begging we will go, we’ll go, we’ll go;

And a begging we will go!

There were many other street ballads and stage songs on the theme of beggary, including ‘The Blind Beggar’s Daughter of Bethnal Green’, ‘Mad Tom of Bedlam’ and a Scots song from the late nineteenth century written by a hawker named Besom Jimmy. Scotland was particularly plagued by beggars and this song celebrates the open road and lifestyle of the tramp:

I’m happy in the summer time beneath the bright blue sky,
Nae thinkin’ in the mornin’ at nicht whaur I’ve tae lie,
Barns or buyres or anywhere or oot among the hay,
And if the weather does permit I’m happy every day.

Things were not much better by the time Henry Mayhew and others began investigating the lives of the London poor. Many tricks of the gegor’s trade had changed little over the centuries, though there were a few new dodges, such as smearing a limb with soap and adding vinegar to produce a realistic suppurating sore in the hope of eliciting the sympathies and the cash of the unwary.

One popular technique was the wounded war veteran, a variation on the merchant lay or the Royal Navy lay in which beggars impersonated ex-naval men, known generally as turnpike sailors. The wounded veteran described by Mayhew was:

a perfect impostor, who being endowed, either by accident or art, with a broken limb or damaged feature, puts on an old military coat, as he would assume the dress of a frozen-out gardener, distressed dock-yard labourer, burnt-out tradesman, or scalded mechanic. He is imitative, and in his time plays many parts. He “gets up” his costume with the same attention to detail as the turnpike sailor. In crowded busy streets he “stands pad,” that is, with a written statement of his hard case slung round his neck, like a label round a decanter. His bearing is most military; he keeps his neck straight, his chin in, and his thumbs to the outside seams of his trousers; he is stiff as an embalmed preparation, for which, but for the motion of his eyes, you might mistake him. In quiet streets and in the country he discards his “pad” and begs “on the blob,” that is, he “patters” to the passers-by, and invites their sympathy by word of mouth. He is an ingenious and fertile liar, and seizes occasions such as the late war in the Crimea and the mutiny in India as good distant grounds on which to build his fictions.

This beggar was unmasked as a fraud and asked to tell his story, recorded with the slang of the period and the calling intact:

I have been a beggar all my life, and begged in all-sorts o’ ways and all sorts o’ lays. I don‘t mean to say that if I see anything laying about handy that I don‘t mouch it (ie.steal it). Once a gentleman took me into his house as his servant. He was a very kind man; I had a good place, swell clothes, and beef and beer as much as I liked; but I couldn‘t stand the life, and I run away.

The loss o’ my arm, sir, was the best thing as ever happen‘d to me: it‘s been a living to me; I turn out with it on all sorts o’ lays, and it‘s as good as a pension. I lost it poaching; my mate‘s gun went off by accident, and the shot went into my arm, I neglected it, and at last was obliged to go to a orspital and have it off. The surgeon as amputated it said that a little longer and it would ha’ mortified.

The Crimea’s been a good dodge to a many, but it‘s getting stale; all dodges are getting stale; square coves (i e.honest folks) are so wide awake.

The unmasker of the beggar then asks him: ‘Don‘t you think you would have found it more profitable, had you taken to labour or some honester calling than your present one?’ The beggar replied: ‘Well, sir, p‘raps I might, but going on the square is so dreadfully confining’.

A powerful reason for this man’s preference for a life of beggary rather than employment was that beggars made a great deal more money than they might earn in gainful employment and enjoyed a much more lavish and roistering lifestyle. In 1816 it was reported that two houses in the notorious area of St Giles’s were home to between 200 and 300 beggars who averaged three to five shillings takings each day. It was said that ‘They had grand suppers at midnight, and drank and sang songs until day-break.’ A little earlier, a Negro beggar was reputed to have retired back to the West Indies with a substantial fortune of 1500 pounds earned from acting out roles in the street.

And how many there were. Mayhew describes dozens of different ways to separate the gullible and better-off from their pennies, perhaps even their pounds. There were sophisticated schemes involving begging letters of commendation, apparently endorsed or even written by nobles or other highly-placed and well-known persons of influence. In reality they were provided for a fee by screevers, usually comedown hacksand educated but dissolute wastrels not fussy how they earned a crust. Some lays were perpetrated mostly by women, involving children provided at a fee by establishments operating for just this purpose. And there were the maimed, the almost undressed who practiced the scaldrum dodge, the starving, the addled, the infirm and the displaced among many other forms of deception designed to wring hearts and purses. Broken-down tradesmen, scalded mechanics, decayed gentlemen, distressed scholars and clean families apparently down on their luck. It was an underworld industry on a grand scale that provided thousands, even tens of thousands with a living, if not a profit. Many of the poor worked their way through and up from beggary to something better, perhaps becoming a coster, as did at least one boy tracked over a ten-year period from street urchin to barrow boy.

In America a major form of beggary was associated with the down and out and the skid rows or skid roads of many cities and towns. While hoboes and many tramps may have prided themselves on their ability to support themselves by odd jobs and casual labour, other itinerants depended on the hand-out and various forms of mooching or being on the bum, almost as varied and elaborate as those practiced in England. There was an elaborate language evolved to describe the art of panhandling, also known as throwing your feet. To connect, or make a touch was the object of all panhandling, increasing the likelihood of the mark coming across. An eye doctor was someone skilled at this technique. A ghost story was a yarn told by a panhandler to gain sympathy and a handout, sometimes called a slob sister or a tear baby.

REFERENCES:

Awdeley, John, Fraternity of Vacabondes, 1575.

Beier, A.L, ‘Vagrants and the Social Order in Elizabethan England,’ Past and PresentLXIV (Aug. 1974).

Chesney, K., The Victorian Underworld, Temple Smith, London, 1970.

Dekker, Thomas, Lanthorne and Candle-light, London, 1609.

Hancock, I., ‘The Cryptolectal Speech of the American Roads: Traveller Cant and American Angloromani’, American Speech  61 (3), 1986, 206-220.

Harman, Thomas, Caveat or Warning, for Common Cursetors Vulgarly Called Vagabondes, or Notable Discovery of Coosenage,  London, 1566, 1591.

Matsell, G., Vocabulum, or, The Rogue’s Lexicon, compiled from the most authentic sources, New York, 1859.

Maurer, David W, Language of the Underworld, collected and edited by A Futrell and C Wordell, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1981.

Mayhew, Henry & Binny, John The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life (The Great World of London), London, 1862.

Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, 4 vols, London, 1851.

Sorenson, J., ‘Vulgar Tongues: Canting Dictionaries and the Language of the People in Eighteenth Century Britain’, Eighteenth Century Studies37.3, 2004.

 

THE SECRET SPEECH FROM THE DEVIL’S ARSE

 

Mollcutpurse

Moll Cutpurse (BL)

What were the King of the Gypsies and Cock Lorel doing in the Devil’s Arse?

They were meeting in the Derbyshire cave with the memorable name to concoct a new language, the tongue of crime and criminals. The Gypsy King of the 1520s and 30s was Giles Hatherley and Cock Lorel was the mythical head (cock) of the rogues (lorels). Mostly referred to as ‘Cant’, the secret speech they allegedly created would last for centuries and some of its words are still spoken today.

Cant was a fluid amalgam of criminal codewords and street slang of the past and present, enriched with Romani and Parlary. Robert Copland’s Highway to the Spittal-House, published around 1536 contains the first record of this tongue. It included bousy cove, meaning a man under the influence of alcohol, a meaning still preserved in some slang. Another cant term that survived the centuries was patrynge (pattering) cove, meaning one who lived by some line of verbal deceit or other dubious activity. Others did not last so well, including dell for a virgin, pek for eat and jere for shit.

A dictionary of cant by ‘B.E. Gent.’ was published in the late 1690s under the exhaustive title A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of theCanting Crew, in its Several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, &c. with an Addition of Some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all sorts of People, (especially foreigners) to secure their Money, and preserve their Lives; besides being very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly new. This early example of multi-marketing by whoever the gentlemanly ‘B E’ might have beenechoed the speech of a vast underworld of vagabondage, thievery and deception. A New Dictionary, and the many publications like it, were mostly written to pander to the insecurities and curiosities of the literate classes and so often exaggerated aspects of the lives and language of conny-catchers and sturdy beggars.

Another early example of this publishing fad was The Third and Last Part of Conny-Catching. With the new devised knavish art of Foole-taking by ‘R G’, Robert Greene, which tells a number of cautionary tales of those who have fallen victim to the wiles of ‘this hellish crew’ who ‘cheate, cosen, prig, lift, nippe and such like tricks now used in their Conie-catching Trade’. The book ends with the warning ‘let each take heed of dealing with anie such kind of people’. There were no police forces at this time, so the honest citizen was generally responsible for his or her own safety and security. Similar works such as Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warening for Common Cursetors (1566), The Defence of Begging by ‘Cuthbert Cunny-catcher’ (1592) and Thomas Dekker’s The Belman of London (1608), among many other similar titles allow us to hear this tongue and know something of the lives and crimes of those who spoke it.

 

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The Tudor period experienced increasing numbers of masterless men and other vagrants wandering the roads. By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, vagrancy and crime had become major issues for society and government. The poor – which meant the vast majority of the population – were seen as a possible source of disaffection and political violence. This was held to be especially so of those who would not or could not work, preferring instead a life of crime and, it seemed to the authorities and the respectable classes, of dissipation. In 1596 an Order by the Privy Council to the Justices of the Peace of Middlesex described the activities of such people:

a great number of dissolute, loose and insolent people harboured and maintained in such and like noysom and disorderly howses, as namely poor cottages and habitacions of beggars and people without trade, stables, ins, alehowses, tavernes, garden howses converted to dwellings, ordinaries, dicying howses, bowling allies and brothell howses. The most part of which pestering those parts of the citty with disorder and uncleannes are either apt to breed contagion and sicknes, or otherwize serve for the resort and refuge of masterless men and other idle and evill dispozed persons, and are the cause of cozenages, thefts, and other dishonest conversacion and may also be used to cover dangerous practizes.

Almost twenty years earlier the author of a polemical pamphlet had made similar complaints aimed at “Dauncers, Fydlers and Minstrels, Diceplayers, Maskers, Fencers, Bearewardes, Theeves, Common Players in Enterludes, Cutpurses, Cosiners, Maisterlesse servauntes, Jugglers, Roges, sturdye Beggers, &c.”

These light-fingered (from at least the 1570s) Canting Crews involved themselves in a bewildering variety of criminal specialisms and sub-specialisms. Cozenage was an Elizabethan version of the con trick, from the name that such people gave to their prospective victims, cousins or cozens. To prig was to steal, also used as a term for the stealer. To liftwas to steal goods from a shop, as in shoplifter, or to practice a form of robbery in which the lifter assumed the identity of a servant to gain access to luggage or other belongings. The nippe was a form of cutpurse thief who stole purses by slicing them from their owners clothing with a knife. A more refined nippe was the foyst, who used pickpocket skills to achieve the same ends.

From the sixteenth century Conie-catching also referred to deceptive practices, conie (conny, connie) being a term for a rabbit or, as we might say today, a bunny, who is caught by a con man. These swindles involved the catchers making the acquaintance of their intended conie, winning his trust then cheating him of his money or other possessions. In one variant or another the word has had a continuing presence in criminal tongues. In the nineteenth century a coney, coney dealeror coniacker was one who dealt in counterfeit money and the term eventually produced con man in all its English-speaking variations during the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth and the twenty-first. These include con artist,con game, con girl, con woman, con head, con mob, con job, con racket and simply a con.

A slice of Cant from what is usually said to be its first record in print was written by Copland around 1536. While this is a contrived piece of verse conversation, it well suggests the difficulty of comprehending such talk for anyone not schooled in its complexities. The speaker is a porter of whom Copland has asked whether pedlars ‘with broken hose and breche’ pass this way:

Ynow, ynow; with bousy cove maund nace,

Teare the patryng cove in the darkeman cace

Docked the dell for a coper meke;

His watch shall feng a prounce’s nob-chete,

Cyarum, by Salmon, and thou shall pek my jere

In thy gan, for my watch it is nace gere

For the bene bouse my watch hath a coyn …

Copland admits that even he has difficulty understanding this ‘babble’, or ‘pedlyng frenche’.

A-New-Canting-Dictionary-626_b_35_tp

The canting crews (BL)

 

1808 mermaid tattoo

 

PARLARI – THE SPEECH OF FAIRGROUND FOLK

barth-fair

St Bartholomew’s Fair, George Cruikshank

 

The collection of sideshows, amusements and diversions that appear on parks, commons and other open areas from time to time are usually known as fairsin Britain and as carnivalsin America. Fairground folk in Britain have their own language, known as parlari(parleyaree, polari), probably spoken since the earliest formation of travelling fairs.

Strolling players, mountebanks, mummers and other such entertainers, often referred to disapprovingly as knaves,were on the roads of Britain in medieval times. Sometimes difficult to distinguish from sundry beggars and other itinerants, these acrobats, jugglers, fire-eaters, rope walkers, actors and the like performed wherever and wherever they were likely to earn a crust, preferably before the local authorities moved them on. These venues might be in properly built or makeshift theatres, at fairs and festivals or just on a street corner.

The nefarious reputation of fairs continued over time. A report from eighteenth century Essex tells of performers being jailed for ‘dancing, conversation pieces, tumbling, and fiddling and, by means of a pretended lottery and other subtle craft, deceiving and imposing on many unwary subjects of his Majesty…’.

The most famous of the many fairs was Bartholomew’s Fair, held several times a year in London until 1855. Southwark Fair was another London favourite, especially popular with sailors. In the seventeenth century it featured monkeys, then very exotic animals, an ass that walked a suspended rope and an Italian dancing girl.

In 1800 a continental visitor described one Bartholomew’s Fair, claiming it was unique in Europe. The booths were many, all featuring a noisemaking crew referred to as a ‘band’. Strolling musicians from the streets added their skills to the din, which was further amplified by the shouting of those who pretended no musical abilities at all. There were menageries, roundabouts, open air shows and theatres, many of them converted local houses, where unusual plays were performed. The Punchy and Judy shows were there, of course, along with crowds of prostitutes. Bartholomew, and other fairs, were also frequented by men and women of the respectable classes looking for a little lowlife titillation. By most accounts, they usually found it. Many fairs of this kind were gradually shut down, or carefully regulated, by concerned local authorities and respectable citizens during the Victorian era.

But travelling fairs have a rich and continuing history in Britain, despite regular predictions of their demise. Writing on the history of fairs in 1874, Thomas Frost claimed that: ‘The Nation has outgrown them and the last showman will soon be as great a curiosity as the dodo’.

Frost did not take into account the ability of show people to adapt to change, a talent that saw them rapidly adopt moving pictures after their introduction in 1896, as well as other good ideas from abroad. The popular fair attraction known as the ‘Wall of Death’, in which motorbikes are ridden in perpendicular fashion around circular walls, derives from the United States where it seems to have originated early in the twentieth century. The close-knit character of the fairground community was expressed in their special language.

Sea-On-Land

In Britain, fairground language is often called parlari and has been spoken by show people for as long as anyone knows. In some versions it includes more than a smattering of Romany, Shelta and words borrowed from a variety of western European languages. The fairground itself is known as a gaff, cheap shows being known as penny gaffs. A gaffmay also be a game that is designed to cheat its players, a usage also found in American carny. The gafferis the boss of a fairground, a term that has passed into general English slang and used with the same meaning in American circus talk. A gaff ladis a male staff member resident at the fair and a skippyis a female staff member.

Erecting a tent is a buildup, accomplished with kingpoles, while the top or roof of a tent is a tilt. A paper houseis a performance where most of the audience have been given free entrance to fill otherwise empty seats. A spotis a particular performance or act. A Dobbyor Dobby Setis a merry-go-round with fixed seats, or a galloperif all theseats move up-and-down. Dukkeringis fortune-telling. The word slangmay be used as a verb meaning to perform, or as a noun, meaning a sideshow or circus tent. To spielis to introduce an act or to announce information to the audience. This word also turns up in American carnyspeak and in Australian show lingo.

The close connection between the rumbustious entertainment of the fair and various forms of chicanery was one continued until almost to the present day. Crowds attracted pickpockets, thimbleriggers and other tricksters anxious to separate dull yokels up from the country or unwary townsfolk from their possessions.

 

For more on the rich history and culture of fairs go to the National Fairground and Circus Archive.

 

THE VITUPERATIVE TONGUE – Insults Through the Centuries

In the medieval period, it was an offence to take the Lord’s name in vain or to otherwise blaspheme. A first offence could mean a fine, but if you did it again there were a variety of nasty punishments up to and including burning at the stake. Since the nineteenth century swearing has more usually involved references to sexual activity or to bodily functions and usually attracts no more than disapproval unless one is unwise enough to direct your ire against an official of some kind or to insult someone in the hearing of another. Even then, using ‘bad language’ is still a minor infringement of civility.
The history of swearing cursing, invective and associated maledictions is possibly older than the development of widely communicable languages. Before speech communication was developed it is not hard to imagine our ancestors grunting and roaring unintelligible but definite expressions of pain, anger and frustration. The only thing that has changed since the first expletives were uttered or muttered is that they have become organised into a mutually comprehensible system. Not only do we know how to insult, we also know when we are being insulted. While this may not be a giant step in the progress of humankind, it has left the language with a rich and colourful body of profanity. Hurled from tongues and clenched teeth since time immemorial the oath, the curse and the sacrilegious insult smoulder their way through our linguistic history.
The Elizabethans had an outstanding armoury of abuse, some of which Shakespeare made good, or bad, use of in many of his plays. At that time, one might be called a barber-monger, one-trunk-inheriting, a worsted-stocking, a varlet, a caitiff, a churl or a coistril. If those insults were not bad enough, there were plenty more that might be thrown. You might be a lurdane, a recreant, a runagate, a pander or even a cocklorel!
 
As well as straightforward insults, to be expelled in whatever configuration the speaker felt to be appropriate to the situation and the target, the Elizabethans had many standardised curses and oaths. These were fairly carefully graded as to the situations in which they might or might not be spoken. Fie upon thee was at the mild end of the scale and oaths such as by my troth and so God mend me were generally acceptable in mixed company. Further up the ladder of offensiveness came curses such as a pox upon thee, Devil take thee and morraine (disease) sieze thee. Stronger oaths included coads-nigs, By’r Lady (the origin of the modern bloody) and pretty well anything that included ‘God’, as in God’s wounds, God’s precious blood, God’s blessed will, and the like. The humorous sounding codso, possibly a reference to a codpiece and so not unlike being called a ‘jockstrap’, was also at the duel-inviting end of the swearing scale.
 
Thomas Dekker, collector of colloquial speech and author of Canting texts was also a playwright. He put his knowledge of the underworld and everyday language to especially good effect in his play The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599), in which the character who becomes Lord Mayor of London, Simon Eyre, vents this reasonably representative spleen across the stage:
 
Where be these boys, these girls, these drabs, these scoundrels? They wallow in the fat brewis of my bounty, and lick up the crumbs of my table, yet will not rise to see my walks cleansed. Come out you powder-puff queans! What, Nan! What, Madge Mumble-Crust! Come out, you fat midriff swag-belly whores, and sweep me these kennels that the noisesome stench offend not the nose of my neighbours …
 
Good servants were apparently as hard to get in Dekker’s time as in any other.
 
So broad, colourful and various was the range of Elizabethan abuse that there are even available on the internet a number of Elizabethan curse and oath generators. These allow you to combine a number of these terms to automatically generate new and exciting insults. Some even generate such bile on a random basis. Try hurling these some time: you loggerhead base-court dewberry, you wenching fool-born rabbit-sucker, you fobbing hasty-witted hedge-pig or you currish lily-livered gudgeon. A personal favourite is thou puking spur-galled malignancy, and the scope for creative cursing in Elizabethan English is clearly considerable.
The tradition of foul language continued lustily into the industrial revolution, and beyond. In Peter Gaskell’s survey of The Manufacturing Population of England published in 1833, the coarse speech of the workers was directly linked to their brutalising way of life. According to Gaskell, young and old, spoke foul and low:
Coarse and obscene expressions are their household words; indecent allusions are often heard proceeding from the lips of brother to sister, and from sister to brother. The infant lisps words which, by common consent, are banished from general society. Epithets are bandied from mother to child, and from child to mother, and between child and child, containing the grossest terms of indecency. Husband and wife address each other in a form of speech which would be disgraceful to a brothel …
Gaskell thought what he considered from his height of middle-class respectability to be indecent language was due to ‘the promiscuous way in which families herd together’. The impoverished conditions of working class life at this time were the main cause of these conditions, as Gaskell and other reform-minded commentators observed. He calculated there were upwards of twenty thousand Irish living in the cellars of Manchester, tenement houses were dangerously under-sanitised, with ‘fifty, or more even than that number, having only a single convenience common to them all’ and this was, ‘in a very short time completely choked up with excrementious matter.’ The staple diet was potatoes wheat bread, tea and coffee, with milk hardly used. Smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol were endemic and Gaskell also described the horrors of lodging house accommodation as ‘deplorable in the extreme’, and ‘occupied indiscriminately by persons of both sexes, strangers perhaps to each other, except a few of the regular occupants. Young men and young women; men, wives, and their children – all lying in a noisesome atmosphere, swarming with vermin, and often intoxicated …’
Little wonder that they swore and that the almost affectionately inoffensive eighteenth-century term for a silly person – a Nigmenog – had long fallen into obsolescence
A study of cases of sexual slander and defamation in the Ecclesiastical Courts of England during the nineteenth century reveals some rare examples of foul language in sexual insults hurled at that time. In the court records are verbatim transcripts of what was said to whom, including such things as ‘I’ve bulled thy wife’, one man boasted to the cuckolded husband bringing the case. ‘Yes, damnthee, I’ve fucked her scores of times and she’s fetched me to fuck her when thy pillockwouldn’t stand.’ Other accusations included ‘You have been rode by all Cheltenham’ and ‘All the crofters at Dunstead have shag’d thee’. Men came in for their share of insults, being called thieves, rogues, robbers, buggers and rascals. Women, though, seemed to be getting the worst of it. As well as being simply called whores, one was described as burnt arsed, or diseased, while another of alleged easy virtue was said to have been married by parson prick.[1]
The wives of London’s Billingsgate fishmongers were notorious for the ability to hurl sharp-edged invective when provoked, something that was apparently easy to accomplish. Some recorded examples of fishwives’ insults include ‘a health to mine A—s and a fart for those that owe no money’ and ‘You white-livered son of a Fleet Street bum sitter, begot upon a chair at noonday’, which appears to mean that the accused is lazy.
An insult that has a chequered history, as they say, is the once-taboo son-of-a-bitch. This one has its possible origins in medieval French and was given a boost by none other than Shakespeare in King Lear where ‘son and heir of a mongrel bitch’ is hurled. As son-of-a-bitch it was well established by the middle of the eighteenth century, from which time it was widely employed in America, especially in the west. A certain Wells Fargo stagecoach robber known as Black Bart used the term effectively in a ditty he left at the scene of one of his robberies, one verse of which went:

I’ve laboured long and hard for bread,For honor and for riches,But on my corns too long you’ve tred,You long-haired sons of bitches.

The poetic villain signed himself ‘Black Bart, the PO8’.
Son-of-a-bitch was banned from Hollywood films for many years and remained in the limbo of euphemism (S.O.B, son of a gun, so-and-so, etc.) until around the 1980s. By that time even a President could use the term without being censured, as did the folksy Ronald Reagan in describing journalists.
The tradition of insult and invective continues strongly today. Often referred to as slams, slam sayings, put-downs or full-deckisms, these insults are designed to humiliate their targets in much the same way as their predecessors. A few random examples give the general tenor of these slurs:

 

Don’t feel bad, many people have no talent!

She’s like train tracks – she’s been laid across the country.

I hear you were born on April 2 – a day too late!

You wouldn’t be elected dogcatcher in a ward full of cats.

 
 
And if you really want to make a point, try:
I’ve come across decomposed bodies that are less offensive than you.
 
Phew!


[1] Waddams, S., Defamation in Nineteenth Century England: Sexual Scandal in the Ecclesiastical Courts, 1815-1855, University of Toronto Press, 2000.

FRUMMAGEMMED, NOOZED AND SCRAGGED – THE LANGUAGE OF DEATH


The Tyburn Tree – the permanent gallows at Tyburn, which stood where Marble Arch now stands, about 1680

 

These evocative words all described execution by hanging, the frequent fate of the Elizabethan and Jacobean criminal. There were many other terms describing the same mode of exit, including to be tucked up, stretched and crapped, an indication that a criminal career in these times was likely to be short. But at least the victim went out in a blaze of glory, celebrated in excited gossip and street ballads like this canting song published in 1676:

But when we come to TyburnFor going upon the budge,There stands Jack Catch, that son of a whore,That owes us all a grudge.And when that he hath noosed us,And our friends tip him no cole,Oh then he throws us in the cartAnd tumbles us in to the hole.

The budge was stealing, or more generally any kind of criminal activity. Jack Catchis a variation of Jack Ketch, the generic name for the hangman and tipping him no cole refers to the friends of the condemned failing to bribe the hangman. The hole was the drop into eternity.
Public executions were a major form of entertainment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Known as Tyburn Fair or The Hanging Match, the day was often a ribald and intoxicated spectacle of death in which the sufferer was expected to play his, or sometimes her role, along with the topsman and the screeching mobcome to see the show. The executed would take the condemned procession to Tyburn or another tree by way of taverns for the traditional parting cup. Not surprisingly this final quaff often became another, then another, and many reportedly went to meet their maker in a state of inebriation.
Regardless of their sobriety they were expected to die game like a fighting cock and preferably to give a flowery and defiant final speech before being turned offto dance the Tyburn jig. The famous highwayman Dick Turpin played his role well, according to a contemporary report of 1739, behaving:

…in an undaunted Manner; as he mounted the ladder, feeling his right Leg tremble, he stamp’d it down, and looking round about him with an unconcerned Air, he spoke a few Words to the Topsman, then threw himself off, and expir’d in five Minutes.

Turpin was unrepentant and bold, an important factor in his status as a proper man, the term of approbation given by the crowd to those who died well. But many other malefactors chose to give dying speeches of repentance and cautioned others not to do as they had done. Early in the sixteenth century, if not before, the phrase to preach at Tyburnwas a widespread euphemism for being hanged. The opposite of dying well was dying dunghill, a term also derived from the language of the brutal custom of the cockfight in which a dunghill cock was one that would not fight.
But whether defiant or repentant, many others turned in notable final performances. And if, through alcohol or fear, they failed their final act, then the street literature and broadside publishers of the day had their final words already printed and ready for sale in the form of their last confessions and feisty ballads about their real and mostly imagined doings.
This ritual had its own elaborate street language. In a cart, the condemned was brought up to the gallows, known by many names such as the trining cheats or derrick. The hangman placed the rope halter or Tyburn tippet around the malefactor’s neck and the cart was driven out from beneath, leaving the condemned to swing at the end of the rope to dance the Paddington frisk or the hempen jig. Death was effectively by strangulation and often had to be assisted by relatives and friends either pulling down on the feet of the condemned or throwing heavy rocks at his chest to hasten the end. When the sufferer was done, the hangman cut down the body, often selling it to the surgeons keen to practice their anatomical skills. Occasionally the execution was so ineptly managed that the condemned, if removed quickly enough from the noose, might be brought back to life by friends administering whacks and alcohol in a local pub.
Another of the terms that evolved within this spectacle of death included nub, meaning to be hung. It had a number of variations, including nubbing cheat, as in one who escapes the gallows. This was in use from at least 1676 and was still spoken by convicts transported to Australia up to the middle of the nineteenth century. Other uses of the term were a nubbing ken, meaning the courthouse where the sentence of death was pronounced and the nubbing cove who was, naturally enough, the hangman.
Jack Ketch (also Catch) was still being publicly employed in the Victorian era until legislation of 1868 put an end to public executions. Before then a hanging match might attract tens of thousands of spectators who, even if a little better behaved than their earlier counterparts, still revelled in an air of festivity and anticipation. Food, drink and the still popular last lamentationsof the condemned were hawked through the crowds. These ballads and verses seem to have been even more profitable in the later era than previously. According to one ballad seller interviewed by Henry Mayhew in the mid-nineteenth century, the earlier practice of ‘sentence o’ Friday and scragging o’ Monday’ had not left the hacks and the printers enough time to supply the ready market. In the more enlightened practice of allowing a week or more between sentence and suffering, there was plenty of opportunity to churn out the required souvenirs for the enthusiastic crowds.
Among the keenest attendees of executions were criminals themselves. Public hangings were events where pickpockets filled their pockets from those of the gawpers. Large numbers of harlots, cadgers, thieves and youthful miscreants jostled their way to the front of the crowd in order to be as close to the gallows as possible. The attraction of public execution for those on the slippery slope of serious crime led many to conclude that these festivals of death had little or no deterrent effect. In response to this perception and the increasing distaste for the savagery of public executions, the gallows were eventually moved inside prison walls. Crime, of course, continued nevertheless.
 
 

BONA PARLARE – MR PUNCH SPEAKS

 
 
 
Punch is a hopera–a huproar, we calls it
Punchman, London 1840s
 
The puppets now known around the English-speaking world as ‘Punch and Judy’ arrived in England by way of Italy and France in the seventeenth century. Based on the Italian commedia del arte character of Pulcinella, or Punchinello, the play rapidly developed a distinctive English variation that included the introduction of the female figure eventually to be known as ‘Judy’. The Punchinello character was known to the slangery of the day as ‘Punch in hell’, a description that reportedly irritated the more respectable members of Mr Punch’s audience.
 
Samuel Pepys saw a Punch and Judy performance in London’s Covent Garden in 1662, though according to tradition, the first to publicly display the show in England was an Italian named Porsini who made a great deal of money, but eventually died destitute in a workhouse. According to a Punchman interviewed by the indefatigable Henry Mayhew in the 1840s ‘Every one in London knowed him: lords, dukes, squires, princes, and wagabones, all used to stop and laugh at his pleasing and merry interesting performance…’.
 
Mayhew described the Punchman as  “a short, dark, pleasant-looking man, dressed in a very greasy and very shiny green shooting jacket … Protruding from his bosom, a corner of the pandean pipes was just visible, and as he told me the story of his adventures, he kept playing with the band of his very limp and very rusty old beaver hat.” The ‘pandean pipes’ were accompanied by the swazzle, a device that the Punchman inserts at the back of his mouth to produce the raucous voice of Mr Punch, one of the trade secrets of the business.
 
The Punchman told Mayhew that Porsini passed on his skills and secrets to an apprentice and the show gradually grew and developed, though there were never large numbers of Punch and Judy acts in Britain as the skills involved, including puppetry, mimicry, music, speech and working the audience were not commonplace and also closely guarded once attained. Punch and Judy practitioners considered themselves to be well above the level of street hawkers, patterers and other busking entertainers. Inns were their preferred accommodation, rather than the cheaper lodging houses and padding kensfavoured by vagabonds and beggars.
 
There were sixteen frames, as they called the show and its portable structure, operating in England at this time, each worked by two men, eight in London and the other eight in various country locations. The Punchmen had a well organised and self-regulated network that mostly ensured no two frames were operating in the same region at the same time – ‘We all know one another, and can tell in what part of the country the others are. We have intelligence by letters from all parts.’, said Mayhew’s Punchman. However, ‘If two of us happens to meet at one town, we jine, and shift pardners, and share the money. One goes one way, and one another, and we meet at night, and reckon up over a sociable pint or a glass. We shift pardners so as each may know how much the other has taken…’.
 
The Punch and Judy show has long been associated with the seaside. Mayhew’s Punchman provides the original monetary rationale for this in a statement in which he substitutes ‘v’ for ‘w’ in some words, a common feature among low English speakers at the time, as immortalised by Dickens’ Fagin: ‘We in generally goes into the country in the summer time for two or three months. Watering places is werry good in July and August. Punch mostly goes down to the sea-side with the quality.’
 
The language of the Punchmen was a mixture of Italian, English, French and Cant, a patter known by them as Bona parlare, related to, though distinct from the Parlary of other travelling entertainers in fairs and circuses. Mayhew reproduces a likely conversation between two Punchmen, as given to him by his unnamed informant, who also provides translations of most of the words and phrases:
‘How are you getting on?’ I might say to another Punchman. ‘Ultra cateva,’ he‘d say. If I was doing a little, I‘d say, ‘Bonar.’ Let us have a ‘shant a bivare’–pot o’ beer. If we has a good pitch we never tell one another, for business is business. If they know we‘ve a ‘bonar’ pitch, they‘ll oppose, which makes it bad.

Co. and Co.’ is our term for partner, or ‘questa questa,’ as well. ‘Ultray cativa,’–no bona. ‘Slumareys’–figures, frame, scenes, properties. ‘Slum’–call, or unknown tongue. ‘Ultray cativa slum’–not a good call. ‘Tambora’–drum; that‘s Italian. ‘Pipares’— pipes. ‘Questra homa a vardring the slum, scapar it, Orderly’–there‘s someone a looking at the slum. Be off quickly. ‘Fielia’ is a child; ‘Homa’is a man; ‘Dona,’ a female; ‘Charfering-homa’–talking-man, policeman.

 
After describing the various uses of his clasp knife, the Punchman spoke of his other tools of trade, also allowing us to hear something of his distinctive patter, full of malapropisms, and breezy philosophy of life:
 

This here is the needle that completes our tools (takes out a needle from inside his waistcoat collar,) and is used to sew up our cativa stumps, that is, Punch‘s breeches and Judy‘s petticoats, and his master‘s old clothes when they‘re in holes. I likes to have everything tidy and respectable, not knowing where I‘m going to perform to, for every day is a new day that we never see afore and never shall see again; we do not know the produce of this world, being luxurant (that‘s moral), being humane, kind, and generous to all our society of life. We mends our cativa and slums when they gets teearey (if you was to show that to some of our line they‘d be horrified; they can‘t talk so affluent, you know, in all kinds of black slums). Under the hedgeares, and were no care varder us questa–‘questa’ is a shirt–pronunciation for questra homa

 
And in another passage we hear the probable evolution of the Shelta Johnny Scarpare into the modern English slang term, scarper. The Punchman is describing how the artist George Cruikshank sketched him, presumably as part of a book the artist worked on in the 1820s:
 
Once, too, when I was scarpering with my cullingin the monkey, I went to mendare the cativa slums in a churchyard, and sat down under the tombs to stitch ‘em up a bit, thinking no one would varderus there. But Mr. Crookshank took us off there as we was a sitting. I know I‘m the same party, ‘cos Joe seen the print you know and draw‘d quite nat‘ral, as now in print, with the slumares a laying about on all the tombstones round us.
 
The Punchman also described the nature of the Punch and Judy show performances:
 

Punch has two kind of performances– short shows and long ones, according to denare. Short shows are for cativa denare, and long pitches for the bona denare. At the short shows we gets the ha‘pence and steps it — scafare, as we say; and at the long pitches ve keeps it up for half an hour, or an hour, maybe–not particular, if the browns tumble in well–for we never leave off while there‘s a major solde (that‘s a halfpenny), or even a quartereen (that‘s a farden), to be made. The long pitches we fixes at the principal street-corners of London. We never turn away nothink.
‘Boys, look up your fardens,’ says the outside man; ‘it ain‘t half over yet, and we‘ll show it all through. The loquacious Punchman continued his lofty philosophical discourse for the benefit of Mayhew’s notebook, obviously enjoying the opportunity to word up such a gentleman:Punch is like the income-tax gatherer, takes all we can get, and never turns away nothink–that is our moral. Punch is like the rest of the world, he has got bad morals, but very few of them. The showman inside the frame says, while he‘s a working the figures, ‘Culley, how are you a getting on?’ ‘Very inferior indeed, I‘m sorry to say, master. The company, though very respectable, seems to have no pence among ‘em.’ ‘What quanta denarehave you chafered?’ I say. ‘Soldi major quartereen;’ that means, three halfpence three fardens; ‘that is all I have accumulated amongst this most respectable and numerous company.’ ‘Never mind, master, the showman will go on; try the generosity of the public once again.’ ‘Well, I think it‘s of very little utility to collect round again, for I‘ve met with that poor encouragement.’ ‘Never mind, master, show away. I‘ll go round again and chance my luck; the ladies and gentlemen have not seen sufficient, I think. Well, master, I‘ve got tres major’–that is, three halfpence–‘more, and now it‘s all over this time. Boys, go home and say your prayers,’ we says, and steps it.

 
The Punchman rounded off his verbatim account of a Punch and Judy show with a characteristic observation on the nature of the Punchmen’s lives:
 

Such scenes of life we see! No person would hardly credit what we go through. We travel often yeute munjare (no food), and oftentimes we‘re in fluence, according as luck runs.

 
When they were not in the country or at the seaside, the Punchmen would work in the city and suburbs. If they could find a pitch, that is a place to set up their frame and so attract a crowd of passers-by, they were sure of at least some income. Failing this, they resorted to wandering the streets of the better-off areas, calling out for business – dwelling on orders, as it was known:
 

We now principally dwells on orders at noblemen‘s houses. The sebubs of London pays us far better than the busy town of London. When we are dwelling on orders, we goes along the streets chirripping ‘Rootooerovey ooey-ooey-ooerovey;’ that means, Any more wanted? that‘s the pronounciation of the call in the old Italian style. Tooroveyto- roo-to-roo-toroo-torooey; that we does when we are dwelling for orders mostly at noblemen‘s houses. It brings the juvenials to the window, and causes the greatest of attractions to the children of noblemen‘s families, both rich and poor: lords, dukes, earls, and squires, and gentlefolks.

 
The Punchman was careful to emphasise the difference between walking the street and calling for work, or call-hunting, and the lower takings, but certainty of a crowd at a pitch, or relatively fixed street location for the performance: ‘Call-hunting,’–that‘s another term for dwelling on orders– pays better than pitching; but orders is wery casual, and pitching is a certainty’.
 
By 1742 at least, Punch had migrated to America where he continued to entertain all comers, eventually forming part of the various acts in travelling shows. Here, and in other English-speaking countries he is still a popular form of children’s entertainment, with a small but dedicated number of Punch and Judy professors keeping up the tradition.