Friday, November 4, 2011

The First English Dictionary of Slang

In the Siine office we have all kinds of wonderful books about languages. They’re for research – naturally - but some of them provide excellent entertainment too.

Take, for example, The First English Dictionary of Slang, a reprint of a tome first published in 1699 by an enigmatic author B.E Gent. It is a treasure trove of slang, some of which we think is ripe for re-introduction.

Is there a better word ever invented for “puny little fellow” than “Dandyprat”, for example? Or how about the wonderful “Jumble-gut-lane” a word used for “any very bad or rough road”?
Some words from back then still exist – at least in British English - like “rank” (=strong scented) or “taudry” (now tawdry=garish).

And some phrases continue, albeit with a rather different meaning, like “coals to Newcastle”, which the dictionary defines as “When the Drawer carries away any Wine in the Pot or Bottle”, but which is used in modern English to mean something brought or sent to a place where it is already plentiful – a reference to Newcastle Upon Tyne which used to export a lot of coal.

The introduction to the dictionary is interesting too as it sets out the supposed reason for the book’s existence: the dictionary specifically deals with “cant”, which was the secret language of the criminal underworld (the world “slang” didn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1756).

The idea was that the more polite parts of society should familiarise themselves with “cant” in case they should find themselves wandering into the wrong parts of town. 

That may or may not be true – frankly it sounds more like an excuse to us – but that it is even mentioned tells us something important about the actual use of slang, as something that defines identity and helps bond groups together.

We’re not endorsing the criminal underworld, of course, but if Siine Writer was around back them we like to think the various rogues, vagabonds and highway men of the underworld would have used it for their choicest “cant”. As you can now.


  1. you're all a load of Sad cattle and no mistake

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