Can You Tell Your Croaker From Your Fator or Your Papler from Your Fromenty?
If you write or read about the Georgian and Regency era sooner or later you are going to come across examples of the rich culture of slang, cant and lingo used by the underworld, sportsmen and the gentlemen who patronised both.
Slang and cant were a source of fascination to ‘polite society’ from the 1770s onwards and, as the century drew to a close and the new morality and better crime fighting threatened the violent and colourful Georgian underworld, scholars, dictionary-makers and the curious began to collect those worlds and phrases together.
Francis Grose (1731-1791) is perhaps the best known of these dictionary-makers, although by no means the first. He produced the first edition of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785. A second edition appeared in 1788 and a third in 1796, five years after his death.
Grose was the son of a Swiss jeweller, although he was born in Middlesex. He received a classical education and inherited a comfortable income of which he was exceedingly careless. He was very fat (described by the Dictionary of National Biography as ‘a sort of antiquarian Falstaff’) and must have made a noticeable figure when he ventured with his servant Batch into the slums and rookeries and hells of London, notebook in hand.
Grose used existing dictionaries extensively, some dating as far back as 1608, as well as his own observations, to produce his collection of ‘Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence.’
After his death The Lexicon Balatronicum appeared in 1811. Based on the second edition of Grose it had about three hundred additional definitions.
In 1823 Pierce Egan, the sporting journalist and author of the famous Life In London (1821) produced what he called a third edition of Grose’s Vulgar Tongue using the Lexicon as his basis, although he did not acknowledge it, reprinting instead the frontispieces to Grose’s first and second editions. This version brings in many of Egan’s trademark sporting terms and phrases and also draws on a number of contemporary sources.
John Badcock, another sporting writer and a less-successful competitor of Egan’s, produced Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, The Ring, The Chase, The Pit, of Bon-Ton and the Varieties of Life… in 1823 under the nom de plume of John Bee. His introduction includes a vitriolic attack on Egan and his text includes a wider variety of sources.
As a writer about the period I had often dipped into one or other of these, but had been frustrated because they are not indexed, being simply arranged in alphabetical order of the words or phrases defined. Eventually I began to group the definitions together by theme and then index them and that became the basis for my Regency Slang Revealed: Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and Later Versions – Organised and Indexed.
Not surprisingly, crime and punishment feature large in the terms collected – 28 terms for conning someone, over 30 for various aspects of picking pockets and 27 for being hanged. Drink and drunkenness are also major themes and the section on food reveals a preoccupation with roasting pigs’ heads!
Terms relating to sex and prostitution are, unsurprisingly, common, including some for ‘lascivious practices which will not bear explanation.’
Besides the categories above and a variety of topics such as insults, money-lending and boxing, there are a wealth of delightful discoveries to be found – a cherry-coloured cat is black; a moon-curser is a link boy (who gets less trade when the moon is full); the House of Lords is the House of Noodles; to be in good health is to be in plump currant and rain is dog soup.
Armed with any of the dictionaries you could order a meal or a snack in some low area of London (if you hadn’t had your pocket picked first.) If all you can afford is ‘buster and beeswax’ or bread and cheese, it will taste better if it has been toasted to make a ‘Welsh rabbit’ or, failing the cheese, you may have to make do with a ‘scratch platter’ or ‘tailor’s ragout’ of bread and sliced cucumbers slopped in vinegar.
And the terms in the title? Both faytors and croackers were fortune tellers, papler is milk pottage and frumenty is wheat boiled to a jelly. Delicious!