Fart catchers and Duck F***ers! The world of 18th-century slang

Often, whilst searching for sources in the archives, you come across something that you would perhaps never usually have found. This week was no exception. Whilst looking through Georgian books for evidence of bad posture I had a chance encounter with a rather unusual book –James Caulfield’s Blackguardiana or dictionary of rogues, bawds, pimps, whores, pickpockets, shoplifters etc (London: 1793).

Title page to 'Blackguardiana'

The stated aim of the book was to identify and catalogue the most notorious villains of the day, together with illustrations but, along the way, to provide ‘anecdotes, flash terms and cant songs’ all of which was ‘Intended to put society on their guard against Depredators’. It also sought to help unwary foreign travellers by equipping them with enough knowledge to guide them through the often-puzzling diversity of the English language. The book was fairly pricey, costing one guinea, and few copies were printed.

Arranged alphabetically, the book takes us through a huge range of terms, spanning over 250 pages. There’s not room here to go through the lot, but some specific examples will be enough to get a flavour of the whole thing! Many, for example, are general terms covering a range of aspects of daily life. We learn that to ‘Sham Abram’ is to pretend to be ill. Someone who ‘casts up their accounts’ is vomiting, while someone ‘in their altitudes’ is drunk. A wife scolding her husband was offering him a ‘dish of rails’! To be hungry was to have ‘a long stomach’.

Image from Joanne Bailey's excellent blog -https://jbailey2013.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/embodying-marital-behaviour-in-the-eighteenth-century/
Image from Joanne Bailey’s excellent blog -https://jbailey2013.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/embodying-marital-behaviour-in-the-eighteenth-century/

Interesting along the way are the various slang names for occupations. A maid might be referred to as an ‘Abigail’, while a servant in general was known as a ‘fart catcher’ because of their habit of walking behind their masters. A parish clerk might be referred to as an ‘Amen Curler’, while an innkeeper could be a ‘bluffer’.

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An eighteenth-century 'punk'!
An eighteenth-century ‘punk’!

Perhaps reflecting the general lack of love for the medical profession, medical practitioners do not fare well in slang terms. According to Caulfield to ‘talk like an Apothecary’ meant to spout nonsense ‘from assumed gravity and affectation of knowledge’. A long bill might be termed ‘an Apothecary’s bill’ while ‘Apothecary’s Latin’ was ‘barbarous’. The reasons why are unclear, but an army or navy surgeon might be known as either a ‘crocus’ or ‘crocus metallorum’.

The phrase ‘that’s the Barber!’ was ‘a ridiculous and unmeaning phrase in the mouths of common people, signifying their approbation of any action, measure or thing’. A midwife was a ‘rabbit catcher’ while a surgeon’s assistant laboured under the name of the ‘loblolley boy’, named after the gruel often doled out to the sick. Before we feel too sorry for the medics, spare a thought for the person who looked after the poultry aboard ship, who was colloquially referred to as the ‘Duck F**ker’!

Insults naturally feature quite prominently. A ‘beastly, sluttish woman’ might have the name Fusty legges’ levelled at her. A drunk person was a ‘pogy’. A punk, according to Caulfield ‘was a little whore’, while a ‘sad, ignorant fellow’ was regarded as a ‘looby’.

As well as name-calling the dictionary gives us some insight into the language of crime. To ‘give someone his bastings’ was to beat them up, as was to give them a ‘rib roasting’. A burly ‘puff guts’ waving a knife at you might threaten to ‘let out your puddings’, whilst if a highwaymen instructed you to ‘tip off your kicks’, it was advisable to remove your trousers (kicks) immediately. If you were ‘kimbawed’ then you had been cheated, Any unfortunate man who was ‘bastonaded in his bawbells’ was likely to have been the recipient of a hefty punch in the testicles!

Image from www.oldbaileyonline.org
Image from http://www.oldbaileyonline.org

Again, unsurprisingly, a great deal of space is reserved for sex! A woman ‘riding St George’ was ‘uppermost in the amorous congress’. Two bodies engaged in sex were referred to as the ‘plaister of warm guts’. A man putting his ‘plug tail’ into a woman’s ‘dumb glutton’…or worse still her ‘pratts’ , was engaged in practices against which the stricter clergy would certainly object!

There are, however, many familiar phrases. ‘Against the grain’ is used to denote something that someone does against their will. ‘Riff raff’ were ‘low, vulgar people’ while busy shopkeepers were said to be doing ‘a roaring trade’. Someone talking too much might be told to ‘Shut your potato trap!’ – from which the more common ‘shut your trap’ probably derives. Someone who could not make a choice was ‘in a quandary’.

It’s perhaps easy to see these as humorous examples of eighteenth-century trash talk. Many of them are extremely funny and often surprising. They even still have something of the power to shock. But in terms of historical value they are incredibly important in offering a window into the often-earthy common language, spoken by ordinary people. Our view of eighteenth-century manners and politeness has been created and reinforced through things like literature and advertising and gives us the polite speak of literate elites. Caulfield, however, takes us to the village inn as well as the salon, and lets us hear some of the choice slang, insults and names that were perhaps closer to the daily speak of individuals.

Now, ‘Teddy my Godson’, away before I ‘let out your puddings’!

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‘Rhythmical Essays on the Beard Question’: Beard haters in the 1860s!

In one of the supplements in the UK’s Times newspaper last weekend was a brief article making predictions in fashion for the coming year. Amongst them was suggestion (welcomed by the reviewer!) that we might finally see the end of the ‘Hipster’ beard trend. At the moment, however, there seems to be little sign of this, and the current penchant for facial topiary continues unabated. I’ve even got one myself. It’s worth mentioning that the Guardian were asking the same question in Summer 2013! http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2013/jul/24/have-we-reached-peak-beard

But the journalist’s question does raise the interesting and important point that beards just naturally annoy some people. Perhaps the longevity of the current pogonophilic trend is partially the problem. How many men grew beards out of curiosity or perhaps for a bit of fun, then discovered that they liked them…then decided to keep them? If you are not a fan of facial hair then you are certainly not alone. For such a visible and emblematic symbol of masculinity, they have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Even in the 19th century, when it seemed that all the world had huge beards, there were dissenting voices – even from other men.

One was William Carter of London, who fancied himself as something of a poet. In 1868, at the very height of beard fashion in Britain, Carter published his ‘Rhythmical Essays on the Beard Question’ – a set of seemingly humorous poems but often with sinister undertones!

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Right from the off Carter didn’t pull his punches. The point of his work, he argued in the third line of his introduction was to ‘remove the grim vestiges of barbarity from the human face divine’. Beardless men in the early 1800s had, according to Carter, better health and were ‘noble looking, fine specimens of humanity’.

While some were arguing that beards were healthy, catching and filtering out germs, soot and smuts before they could attack the throat, Carter was unequivocal. ‘When the mental grandeur of the face is enveloped in the rude untutored animalism of savage life, health is destroyed’. Hipsters beware!

The first of his poems was a general rant against beard wearers.

‘Wherever these long-beard growers you meet/define if you CAN their boundless deceit/Could they lengthen their ears as they lengthen their hair/A cross ‘twixt an Ass and a Grizzly Bear’!

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

At this point things began to take a turn for the sinister, and his descriptions of beards start to feel a little less waggish! Over successive pages he vented his spleen upon facial hair in a series of quite astonishing comparisons. Some examples: In one stanza beards were ‘the rank overgrowth of a tropical soil, concealing within the miasma of death.’

The very breath of beard wearers he found disgusting. Whereas a ‘tinkling noise’ accompanied the breathing of the clean-shaven, a ‘sickening, disgusting and unpleasant sound, like the croaking of frogs which in summer abound’ was the unfortunate lot of the hirsute. Unable to breathe fresh air because of the stifling effects of their beard they were a ‘grim-looking cadaverous class who, whenever you meet them, look sickly and pale’. It’s worth mentioning at this point that we haven’t got to the end of page 3 yet!

The references to health are interesting and refer to the ongoing debates in the nineteenth century about the potential health benefits of beards. See my other posts for longer examples, but contemporary wisdom had it that beards were filters against all manner of diseases. They supposedly captured germs before they could enter the mouth and throat, and protected teeth against the acrid industrial air of the ‘modern’ city. As evidence it was put forth that miners and industrial workers grew beards, which caught all of the dust and particles that would otherwise cause damage. As a result, they were cited as some of the healthiest men in England. Other health benefits of beards were given as protection from sunburn, natural health for the skin and a means to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. None other than Charles Darwin cited his beard as his friend through cold nights while on expedition.

Image from Wikipedia commons
Image from Wikipedia commons

But others, like Carter, argued that it made no more sense to suggest that beards acted as filters than to suggest that they equally attracted dust and disease to the face, collected and kept it there. Carter even had economic arguments, suggesting that the continuation of the beard-growing trend would signal the end of the cutlery trade in England, and the ruination of eminent scientific men who had devoted their life to the art of the razor.

Carter’s other ‘poems’ covered a range of topics. One discussed the good men of the ‘great cotton shire’ of Lancashire who, in imitation of a local magnate, all refused to wear facial hair that, according to him, increased their labour and made them content. By page 27 he was back on form. If men continued to grow their beards the land would ‘sink into ruin and infamous shame/and famine diffuse its poisonous breath/producing a horrible lingering death’.

We could carry on, as Carter does, for another fifty or so pages, but we get the picture by now. Then, as now, beards were proving a contentious issue. Unluckily for Carter the Victorian beard was there for the duration, and was still a prominent feature of the male face fully thirty years after he wrote. Will the current beard trend continue through another year? Only time will tell!