The takeaway language of slang

James Sharpe

In the Preface to his Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson informed his readers that there was one aspect of his compatriots’ discourse that he was unwilling to engage with. “Of the laborious and mercantile part of the people”, he wrote,
“the diction is in a great measure casual and mutable; many of their terms are formed for some temporary or local convenience, and though current at certain times and places, and in others utterly unknown. This fugitive cant, which is always in state of increase or decay, cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of preservation.”
Yet, as Johnson must have been aware, published works recording this “casual and mutable” English had existed since Thomas Harman added a glossary of canting terms to his Caveat or Warening for Commen Cursetors of 1567 and, indeed, a generation after Johnson dismissed what we would call slang as “unworthy of preservation”, a very different view was being propounded. For Francis Grose, the antiquary and former military man, author of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1785, it was a matter of regret that “terms of well-known import, at New-market, Exchange-alley, the City, the Parade, Wapping, and Newgate”, and which also “find their way into our political and theatrical compositions”, were not recorded in conventional dictionaries. Indeed Grose (as had Johnson) managed to establish a patriotic slant to his dictionary-making. Referring to a recent dictionary of “satyrical and burlesque French”, he claimed that with “our language being at least as copious as the French, and as capable of the witty equivoque”, his dictionary was fully justified. He pursued this theme further, adding that