"fork *up*" (July 1837), and other slang

Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton2 at BTINTERNET.COM
Mon Mar 1 20:24:56 UTC 2010

> No. Because the dictionaries and thesauruses you use (I assume) are the
> carefully edited kind that don't include ghost words, irresponsible
> definitions, and all sorts of other errors.

Hm ...  You have a little more faith in dictionaries than I do, Jon.  I'm
tempted to say, when it comes to the above list of errors, "Name one!"
(other than the HDAS, of course <g>.)  Beale/Partridge, for instance ...

> The phony use that Robin refers to is that of picking bizarre words from
> crummily edited cant dictionaries (which are in no small part plagiarized
> from earlier ones) and repeating them, sometimes with distortions, and
> often
> with the imputation that they're current and used by everybody, or at
> least
> everybody in the red-light district.

I don't think dictionaries necessarily solve the problem here.  Bernard
Cornwall, in _The Gallows Thief_, relied on Vaux (which might be a mistake
to start with, and Vaux might fall within Jon's "crummily edited cant
dictionaries" list), but nevertheless ...

*Gallows thief?  Does Cornwall actually mean what was once called a boman
prig, or is he simply cocking up a confusion of "gallows" (later, and in
America and Scotland) "gallus", used as an intensifier and often found in
the combination "gallows whore", with the triple tree?  Does he mean what he
seems to mean, a thief associated with the gallows?

In contrast, and admittedly it's finally a short tour de force, there's Neil
Stephenson in _The System of the World_ (2004).  This is the only example
I've ever encountered of a passage of historical slang in a work of fiction
that gets it absolutely right, in the sense that while there's no attempt to
pretend, finally, that the work is anything *other than fiction, every
single word Stephenson uses locates precisely around circa. 1710.  Because
Stephenson finally uses a single text -- actually, it's possible to specify
which of *two texts, published in the same year, Stephenson uses as his
source.  (I'll include the entire passage at the end, and allow the list to
make their own judgement.)

> James Carabatsos, had apparently gotten his hands on a copy of
> Matsell or perhaps the _Slang Dictionary of New York, London, and Paris_
> and, in an access of misinspiration,  has one of his "Bowery boy"
> characters
> (in the Leo Gorcey sense)  spouting terms like "Daisyville' in the U.S.
> army
> in 1918.  My flesh crawled more than most.

Well, Matsell ...  I think the prose passage he prints at the end of his
_Vocabulum_ (and which is mildly sanitised when it's plagarised in _The
Slang Dictionary_) is intended as a send-up of this very thing,
anachronistic cant which skids across the centuries with a blithe disregard
for the local habitation of the words.  Matsell, I think, is one of the few
people (William Maginn might have been another) who could get away with
this, and maybe you have to be obsessed with historical nature of cant to
get the joke, but ...


"Ho! there, my rum-bluffer; send me a nipperkin of white velvet."

"Make it two," said a woman, seating herself on a skinner's knee; "and if
Jim don't post the cole, I will."

"Why, Bell, is it yourself? Tip us your daddle, my bene mort. May I dance at
my death, and grin in a glass-case, if I didn't think you had been put to
bed with a shovel - you've been so long away from the cock and hen club."

"No, Jim, I only piked into Deuceaville with a dimber-damber, who couldn't
pad the hoof for a single darkman's without his bloss to keep him from
getting pogy."

"Oh! I'm fly. You mean Jumping Jack, who was done last week, for heaving a
peter from a drag. But you talked of padding the hoof. Why, sure, Jack had a
rattler and a prad?"

"Yes, but they were spotted by the harmans, and so we walked Spanish."

"Was he nabbed on the scent?"

"No, his pal grew leaky and cackled."

"Well, Bell, here's the bingo - sluice your gob! But who was the cull that

"A slubber de gullion named Harry Long, who wanted to pass for an
out-and-out cracksman, though he was merely a diver."



Neal Stephenson, The System of the World (2004) - Arrow Books, 2005, page
125:  "Meeting of the Clubb at Clerkenwell":

" ... I grew weary of transitory knowledge, and decided to seek knowledge of
a more eternal nature."

"Do you claim to have found it?"


"Good. I was afraid this was going to turn into a homily."

Daniel now felt safe in advancing two more steps. Then a question occurred
to him, and he stopped. "How did you know my name?"

"It's inscribed on the back of the watch."

"No, it's not."

"Very clever," said Saturn.  Daniel could not tell which of them was the
target of the sarcasm.  Saturn continued, "Very well, sir. A certain flash
cull of my acquaintance, a file-cly with a specialization in tatlers, who
had run afoul of a Harmon in Fleet Street, and been condemned to shove the
tumbler from Newgate to Leadenhall, came by my ken of an afternoon, desiring
employment of a sedentary nature while his stripes healed. And after taking
sensible precautions, which is to say, making sure that he was not running a
type of service-lay to slum my ken, I said to this buz, my business here has
fallen on hard times because I cannot run it without transitory knowledge.
And yet my brain has had its fill of the same, and all I wish to do is to
sit in my shop reading books, to acquire knowledge eternal, which benefits
me in ways intangible, but in no way helps me to receive and sell stolen
property of a horologickal nature, which is the raison d'etre of the shop.
Therefore, go ye out into the Rumbo, the Spinning-Ken, to Old Nass, go to
the Boozing-kens of Hockley-in-the-Hole and the Cases at the low end of the
Mount, go to the Goat in Long-lane, the Dogg in Fleet Street, and the
Black-boy in Newtenhouse-Lane, and drink-but not too much- and buy
drinks-but never too many-for any flash culls you spy there, and acquire
transitory knowledge, and return to my ken and relate to me what you have
learnt. And back he comes, a week later, and informs me that a certain old
Gager has lately been making the rounds, trying to recover some lost
property. 'What has he lost?' I inquired. `Not a thing,' came the answer,
'he is after another cull's lost property-some gager who was Phinneyed ten
years since.' `Go and learn that dead cove's name,' says I, 'and the quick
one's, too.' Come the answers: Robert Hooke, and Daniel Waterhouse,
respectively. Why, he even pointed you out to me once, when you walked past
my shop on your way to visit your swine-yard. That's how I knew you."

Peter Hoxton now extended his arms. His left hand held the chain of the
Hooke-watch, swinging it like a pendulum, and his right offered a handshake.
Daniel accepted the watch greedily, and the handshake with reluctance.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list