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Francis Grose and the Vulgar Tongue


“Ars Musica means ‘a bum fiddle’…”

grose02Become fluent in “St. Giles’s Greek”, the esoteric slang of Georgian felons, by consulting Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785; much reprinted). Grose’s subversive title parodied such serious scholarly works as Laurence Echard’s Classical Geographical Dictionary (1715), Andrew Millar’s An Historical, Genealogical, and Classical Dictionary (1743) and John Kersey’s New Classical English Dictionary (1757).

Grose explains in his Preface that “the Vulgar Tongue” consists of “the Cant Language, called sometimes Pedlars’ French, or St. Giles’s Greek”, plus burlesque or slang terms ‘which, from long uninterrupted usage, are made classical by prescription.’ He satirically explains what he means by “the most classical authorities” for the latter category: “soldiers on the long march; seamen at the capstern; ladies disposing of their fish, and the colloquies of a Gravesend boat”.

Yet Grose took lower-class speech seriously and created a scholarly lexicographical resource. He found some material in previous collections of slang, but also conducted primary research on nocturnal strolls amongst the London underworld with his servant Tom Cocking.

To judge from his etymologies and learned explanations (why cobblers were called “Crispins” after two early Christian saints, or blind men called “Cupids”, or prostitutes “Drury Lane Vestals”), Grose (1730-1791) must have learned some Classics in his boyhood. But by the age of 17 he was serving as a volunteer in a foot regiment in Flanders. A fine draughtsman, he combined an army career with antiquarian interests, although it was the Classical Dictionary which brought him fame.

Captain Grose explains that criminal cant was called “St. Giles’s Greek” because the parish of St. Giles (between Newgate prison and the Tyburn gallows, now part of Camden) was “the grand head-quarters of most of the thieves and pickpockets about London”. “Greek”, being known by nobody except the elite, was a convenient term for the “cant” as a gibberish few understood. These entries from the dictionary show that “St. Giles’s Greek” adopted a humorous approach to classical culture and Latin:

Ars Musica means “a bum fiddle”, a person always scratching their posterior (arse + a musical instrument).

Athanasian wench means a promiscuous woman, who will sleep with anyone who offers, because the first words of the Athanasian creed are “quicunque vult”, whosoever wants…

Circumbendibus means a story told with many digressions.

Fart. This entry includes an obscene rhyming couplet in Latin.

Hicksius-doxius means “drunk”, by making comical pseudo-Latin out of sounds suggestive of hiccups.

Myrmidons means “the constable’s assistants” by association with Achilles’ stalwart men-at-arms in the Iliad.

Trickum legis—a hybrid Anglo-Latin comical phrase meaning “legal quibble”.

Squirrel means a prostitute because it hides its backside with its tail. Here Grose cites a French authority who quoted a Latin proverb meretrix corpus corpore alit, “the whore nourishes her body with her body”.



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