Clashing slang

Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton2 at BTINTERNET.COM
Tue May 18 01:28:36 UTC 2010

The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again ...

> Diddle diddle dumpling
> My son John
> He went to bed
> With his stockings on
> One shoe off
> And one shoe on
> Diddle diddle dumpling
> My son John
> I also know _diddle (with)_ as a variant of _fiddle (with)_. AFAIK,
> there's no connection between _diddle_ and (Bo) _Diddley_.
> Otherwise, I have no idea WTF y'all are talking about.
> -Wilson

Yeah, I thought, right, "diddle" has a meaning in SE before it reaches cant
and slang.  Let's check it out.

And sure enough, OED2:

diddle, v.1 SECOND EDITION 1989

colloq. or dial.

    1. intr. To walk unsteadily, as a child; to toddle; = DADDLE. Obs.

[This would look to be the sense found in the nursery rhyme Wilson quotes.]

    2. intr. To move from side to side by jerks; to shake, quiver. (1786+)
    3. trans. To jerk from side to side. (1893 +)
    4. a. intr. and trans. To copulate or have sexual intercourse (with),
esp. with woman as obj.    b. intr. and refl. To masturbate (now chiefly
U.S.). slang. (1879+)

... so "diddle" meaning "copulate" is a late sense appearing sometime after
the middle  of the 19thC.

So let's see what the OED has on "diddle n".

diddle, n. SECOND EDITION 1989

slang and vulgar.

    1. The sound of the fiddle; cf. next. (1806)
    2. A swindle, a deception. (1885)

... and then we have:

    3. A slang name for gin, and in U.S. for liquor generally. Hence
diddle-cove (slang), a keeper of a gin or spirit shop.

c1700 Street Robberies Consider'd, Diddle, Geneva. 1725 New Cant. Dict.,
Diddle, the Cant Word for Geneva. 1858 MAYHEW Paved with Gold III. i. 252
(Farmer) And there's a first-rate 'diddle-cove' keeps a gin-shop there.

        This entry for "diddle n3" isn't just a *small mistake, it's an
absolute lulu of a cock-up.

The initial problem is with:  "c1700 _Street Robberies Consider'd_, Diddle,
Geneva".  Fine, except that _Street Robberies Consider'd_, plausibly
attributed to Daniel Defoe, wasn't published in c.1700, it was published in

Now you might say, pushing the cant sense of diddle for "Geneva (spirits) /
gin" back 28 years doesn't matter that much.

Except that it's a term which very explicitly emerges in 1724, closely
associated with Jack Sheppard.

Much as I admire the anonymous author of _The New Canting Dictionary_,
published in 1725, the slightly-less anonymous author (John Leigh?) of _The
Prison Breaker_ in the same year was there before him.  And more to the
point, NCD gets its sense of "diddle" from the glossed text of Frisky Moll's
Song in _Harlequin Sheppard_, which opened (and closed after a brief run) at
the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on 28 November, shortly after Jack Sheppard
was hanged.

All three texts postdate the execution of Jack Sheppard in November 1724 but
are probably composed before the execution of Jonathan Wild in May, 1725.

So for once, we can be really quite specific as to exactly when a particular
cant term first appears.  The very day Jack Sheppard was hanged.

"JOHN SHEPPARD's last Epistle," published on the front page of _The Daily
Journal_ in London on Monday November 16th, 1724:

Moll Frisky was here t'other Night,
She tipp'd me a Quartern of Diddle,
And swore she'd been dam-ble tight
Upon Pitchford who plays on the Fiddle.
She snaffled his Main, Poll and T-l,
For which She was rubb'd to the Witt, Sir,
And now the Wh-re pads it in Jail,
And laughs at poor Pitchford She bitt, Sir.

OK, not the sense of "diddle" that Wilson queried, but the point in time
when the Street finally finds its voice.


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