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’.

Golf_caddy

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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