The Vulgar Tongue

The novel I’m working on now is set in a supernatural colonial New England: an alternate early America with its own geography, history, and idiosyncrasies. So I get to make stuff up whenever I need or want to without some finicky expert crying, “Rhubarb wasn’t introduced to North America until 1789*!”

But I chose this era because I love it and want to live in such a place for the next several years of my imaginary life. So historical semi-accuracy matters to me, and fact is often stranger (and better) than fiction, and I plan to use whatever terrific details I find in the course of my research, which isn’t research in the negative sense of the word but crazy good times reading books about colonial taverns and war and criminal masterminds and bread riots and the like.

Which brings me to a question I incorrectly posed via Twitter last week: where to find a comprehensive list of 17th century profanity? I meant 18th century (my brain is stupid sometimes), but an old friend came through with an excellent answer: Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785). I found a $1 hardcover copy online and it’s just the ticket. Here’s a description:

A fascinating and hilarious collection of all the words and phrases that raised eyebrows in the 18th century. The original 1796 alternative dictionary of ‘The Vulgar Tongue’ educated readers in the correct usage of colloquialisms, slang and old English idioms. Includes those familiar entries such as ‘mealy-mouthed’, originally meaning over-modest, and revives classics that should never have been forgotten, such as ‘apple dumplin shop’ for a woman’s bosom, ‘nit squeeger’ (a hairdresser) and ‘flaybottomist’ (a teacher)…No true aspiring vulgarite should leave home without it.

You can read the later 1811 version online at Project Gutenberg: Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Some personal favorites after a quick perusal are ‘laced mutton’ (a prostitute), ‘duke of limbs’ (a tall, awkward fellow), and ‘resurrection men’ (grave-robbers employed by anatomy students).

* I made this date up. Which I can do in my world.