On the 15th of April 1755, Dr Samuel Johnson published his long awaited dictionary. On the 16th of April that same year, Mr S. Balrdick used the dictionary to look up some rude words.


And so began a fascination with words that permeated throughout all the people of the land. Most of those people lost interest once they’d looked up all the rude words and the dictionary was left for writers and scholars and word game enthusiasts.

I’m not sure which of those categories I come under, but I do know that I bloody love a dictionary.

Specifically, I love old dictionaries. More specifically, I love dictionaries of the vulgar or common tongue. Which is to say, old slang. Mostly this was used by the common people of the day, much as it still is now, to allow them to talk about things within there own group so outsiders wouldn’t know what they were on about.

You might wonder about that. After all, if those words were in common usage then they weren’t very secret. True, but they didn’t start out  that way.

Most slang comes from various forms of palary used by gypsies, actors, fairground/circus folk, sailors and other travelling types. Some words (such as chav, meaning children) are still in use. Other forms of palary or polari were used by gay men who had to hide their true selves from public view for fear of arrest. Their polari was heavily based on the theatrical forms but the general public only really became aware of it thanks to 60s radio show Round The Horn. It was Kenneth Williams and  Hugh Paddick as Julian and Sandy with their cries of, “How’s your jolly old eek?” that gave people a glimpse into the secret language of the homosexual.

It’s got all serious hasn’t it. Let’s start again.

Slang is aces. Take the tile of this piece for example, Jibber the Kibber was a method of drawing ships close to the rocks in order to wreck it. Miscreants would attach a lamp to a horse and then tie up one of its legs. Walking it along the shore would make the lamp, to a distant sailor, look like a small boat bobbing about in the distance. The sailor would be fooled into thinking the light was much further away than it was and would head for what appeared to be a safe channel where this small boat was bobbing only to find his vessel on the rocks and ripe for plundering.

When it comes to procrastination, I can spend hours with my head in an old dictionary like the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. I got that one for Christmas and it’s great to flick through, but thanks to e-books, this dictionary is available for free download along with many others.

I highly recommend you look them up. Not only is it great fun to learn the old slang words and casually sprinkle a bit of palary into your everyday conversation, but it activates the imagination. Mostly because these books are written at the time the slang was being used. This means you’re reading an 1811 definition of 1811 slang. You might need a second dictionary to understand what you’re being told.

Right, I’m  off out for a snout and a Tetbury portion. Be good you blackguards.

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