10 Year Anniverary & New Releases Winners: Carrie Fancett Pagels' Butterfly Cottage - Melanie B, Dogwood Plantation - Patty H R, Janet Grunst's winner is Connie S., Denise Weimer's Winner is Kay M., Naomi Musch's winner is Chappy Debbie, Angela Couch - Kathleen Maher, Pegg Thomas Beverly D. M. & Gracie Y., Christy Distler - Kailey B., Shannon McNear - Marilyn R.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Colonial Backwoods Slang by Susan F. Craft

The bantling rode the bayard of ten toes to fetch a dram from the beetle-browed beggar maker.    
Say what? Translate, please.
The young child walked to get a drink from the ale-house keeper who has very bushy eyebrows.

Vocabulary fascinates me, especially learning the origins of phrases that have become a part of our everyday conversations.
I recently came across  the 1785 edition of “The Vulgar Tongue: Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence,” a dictionary of 18th century colonial backwoods slang words and phrases.  Please note that in colonial American times vulgar meant “ordinary” or “common.”
This book has been published in many editions since its first edition in 1785 under many titles such as “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” “Lexicon Balatronicum,” “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue”, etc.
Francis Grose
The author was Francis Grose (1731-91) a Swiss antiquary and lexicographer. He also published Antiquities of England and Wales (1773-87) and in 1789, set out on an antiquarian tour through Scotland, after which he wrote Antiquity of Scotland (1789- 91).
Searching through the dictionary,  I found the following words (a’s through g’s) that interested me and some that made me laugh.
Adam’s Ale - Water.
altitudes - The man is in his altitudes, i.e., he is drunk.
angling for farthings - Begging out of a prison window with a cap, or box, let down at the end of a long string.
apple-pye-bed - A bed made apple-pye fashion, like what is called a turnover apple-pye, where the sheets are so doubled as to prevent anyone from getting at his length between them; a common trick played by frolicsome country lasses on their sweethearts, male relations, or visitors.  (short-sheeting)
apron string hold - An estate held by a man during his wife’s life.
arsy varsey - To fall head over heels.
babes in the wood - Criminals in the stocks or pillory.
baker-knee’d - One whose knees knock together in walking, as if kneading dough.
baker’s dozen - Fourteen; that number of rolls being allowed to the purchasers of a dozen.
balderdash - Adulterated wine.
bandog - A baliff or his follower; also a very fierce mastiff.          
bantling - A young child.
banyan day - A sea term for those days on which no meat is allowed to the sailors: the term is borrowed from the Banyans in the East Indies, a cast that eat nothing that had life.
barking irons - Pistols, from their explosion resembling the bow-wow or barking of a dog. Irish.
barrel fever - “He died of the barrel fever”; he killed himself by drinking.
batchelor’s fare - Bread and cheese and kisses.
Bayard of ten toes - To “ride bayard of ten toes”, is to walk on foot. Bayard was a horse famous in old romances.
beau trap - A loose stone in a pavement, under which water lodges, and, on being trod upon, squirts it up, to the great damage of white stockings.
beetle-browed - One having thick projecting eyebrows.
beetle-headed - Dull, stupid.
beggar maker - A publican, or ale-house keeper.
bellows - The lungs.
Bethlehemites - Christmas carol singers.
bingo - Brandy or other spirituous liquor.
black art - The art of picking a lock.
bluffer - An inn-keeper.
blunt - money.
to bluster - To talk big, to hector or bully.
bog house - The necessary house.
bolus - A nick name for an apothecary.
bone box - The mouth. “Shut your bone-box”: Shut your mouth.
boots - The youngest officer in a regimental mess, whose duty it is to skink, that is, to stir the fire, snuff the candles, and ring the bell.
boughs - “He is up in the boughs;” he is in a passion.
bracket-faced - Ugly, hard-featured.
bran-faced - Freckled. “He was christened by a baker, he carries the bran in his face.”
break-teeth words - Hard words, difficult to pronounce.
brother of the blade - A soldier.
brother of the buskin - A player.
brother of the bung - A brewer.
brother of the coif - A serjeant [sic] at law.
brother of the quill - An author.
brother of the string - A fiddler.
brother of the whip - A coachman.
bubble & squeak - Beef and cabbage fried together. It is so called from its bubbling up and squeaking whilst over the fire.
bug - A nick name given by the Irish to Englishmen: bugs having, as it is said, been introduced into Ireland by the English.
crown piece
bull’s eye - A crown piece.
bully ruffians - Highwaymen who attack passengers with oaths and imprecations.
bully trap - A brave man, with a mild or effeminate appearance, by whom bullies are frequently taken in.
bum brusher - A schoolmaster.
bum fodder - Soft paper for the necessary house.
bumbo - Brandy, water, and sugar.
buntlings- Petticoats.
burn crust - A jocular name for a baker.
cagg - To cagg: a military term used by the private soldiers, signifying a solemn vow or resolution not to get drunk for a certain time; or, as the term is, till their cagg is out; which vow is commonly observed with the strictest exactness. Excuse me this time, and I will cagg myself for a year.”
camp candlestick - A bottle, or soldier’s bayonet.
Captain Lieutenant - Meat between veal and beef, the flesh of an old calf: a military simile, drawn from the officer of that denomination, who has only the pay of a lieutenant, with the rank of captain: and so is not entirely one or the other, but between both.
Captain Tom - The leader of a mob; also the mob itself.
cardinal - A cloak in fashion about the year 1760.
carrion hunter - An undertaker: called also a cold cook, and death hunter.
carroty-pated - Ginger-hackled, red-haired.
carting - The punishment formerly inflicted on bawds, who were placed in a tumbrel or cart, and led through a town, that their persons might be known.
casting up one’s accounts - Vomiting.
cat in pan - “To turn cat in pan”: to change sides or parties; supposed originally to have been to turn cate or cake in pan.
cat’s foot - “To live under the cat’s foot”: to be under the dominion of a wife, hen-pecked.
cat’s sleep - Counterfeit sleep: cats often counterfeiting sleep, to decoy their prey near them, and then suddenly spring on them.
catching harvest - A dangerous time for a robbery, when many persons are on the road, on account of a horserace, fair, or some other public meeting.
caudge-pawed - Left-handed.
cheats - Sham sleeves to put over a dirty shirt or shift.
chips - A nick name for a carpenter.
chive or chife - A knife, file, or saw. To chive the darbies: to file off the irons or fetters. To chive the boungs of the frows: to cut off women’s pockets.
chivey - “I gave him a good chivey”: I gave him a hearty scolding.
choaking pie, or cold pie - A punishment inflicted on any person sleeping in company: it consists in wrapping up cotton in a case or tube of paper, setting it on fire, and directing the smoke up the nostrils of the sleeper.
clap on the shoulder - An arrest for debt; whence a bum bailiff is called a shoulder-clapper.
cob - A Spanish dollar.
cold pig - To give cold pig is a punishment inflicted on sluggards who lie too long in bed: it consists in pulling off all the bed clothes from them, and throwing cold water upon them.
conny wabble - Eggs and brandy beat up together.
contra dance - A dance where the dancers of different sexes stand opposite each other, instead of side by side, as in the minuet, rigadoon, louvre, etc. and now corruptly called a country dance.
cribbage-faced - Marked with the small pox, the pits bearing a kind of resemblence to the holes in a cribbage-board.
curse of Scotland - The nine of diamonds: diamonds, it is said, imply royalty, being ornaments of the imperial crown; and every ninth king of Scotland has been observed, for many ages, to be a tyrant and a curse to that country. Others say it is from its similarity to the arms of Argyle; the Duke of Argyle having been very instrumental in bringing about the union, which, by some Scotch patriots, has been considered as detrimental to their country.
curtain lecture - A woman who scolds her husband when in bed, is said to read him a curtain lecture.
doodle sack - A bagpipe.
durgen - A little trifling fellow.
Dutch comfort - Thank God it is no worse.
Dutch concert - Where everyone plays or sings a different tune.
dye hard - To dye hard, is to show no signs of fear or contrition at the gallows: not to whiddle or squeak. This advice is frequently given to felons going to suffer the law, by their old comrades, anxious for the honour of the gang. 
elbow room - Sufficient space to act in. “Out of elbows”: said of an estate that is mortgaged.
elbow shaker - A gamester, one who rattles Saint Hugh’s bones, i.e. the dice.
eternity box - A coffin.
execution day - Washing day.
gilly gaupus - A Scotch term for a tall, awkward fellow.
gimblet-eyed - Squinting, either in man or woman.
gingambobs - Toys, bawbles.
glim - A candle, or dark lantern, used in housebreaking; also fire. To glim: to burn in the hand.
gluepot - A parson: from joining men and women together in matrimony.

Next time I do the laundry, I’m going to give my husband a curtain lecture and tell him what a difficult day I had as it was execution day!

For fun, try to come up with a sentence using the slang dictionary!


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Janet. I really liked the apple-pyed bed. They short-sheeted back then! I used to do that at Girl Scout camp.

  2. Wow, if you want someone to leave you alone, just start talking in that slang. Very interesting, thanks for sharing, Susan! Here is my attempt:

    Shut your bone-box, I know it is execution day! Don't get so bracket-faced, I will get to it......sooner or later. :)

    1. Ha! Fantastic, Debbie. Before seeing this dictionary I would have thought that a bone box would have been a coffin, but that was an eternity box. And bracket-faced -- can't you picture that?

    2. Can you imagine having to actually talk like that all the time? Too funny!

  3. Susan,
    I always thought a Bakers Dozen was 13.

    1. Me too, but in my research I found that it was 14 during the colonial times and later changed to 13.

  4. We grew up saying thingamabob - for a bawble or something that didn't really have a name - I thought it was interesting that gingambobs is basically the same thing - makes me wonder where thingamabob came from. :)

    1. Sounds as if gingambob is the ancestor of thingamabob :-)

  5. What a neat find! I'm going to need a copy of that book. I can already see some of it going into my current WIP.

    Thank you!

    1. Judith, I'm writing about pirates and have already used the term cribbage-faced. It's a perfect description, isn't it?

  6. Oh my goodness, what a blast! I am SO happy you shared this book, I'm going to buy it right now. Thank you for including so many of the "phrases" etc, it was a treat to read!


Thanks for commenting, please check back for our replies!