Could you have learnt to patter flash the argot of costermongers, hawking sanguinary James and other belly-timber? You might recognize these types by their Newgate knockers, those aggerawators tucked behind a lug on the nuddikin. Hear them shout their prices: saltee, madza poona, exis-evif yeneps! Or you may prefer the rapping of beaker hunters, needy mizzlers, and such — all Dutch uncles now, but common when pudding snammers were wido in the push. This was an era of shivering jemmy on the high fly munging for a bit of cagmag, when pure finders collected danna amid fencers of cakey-pannum. At night, on London’s streets, stallsmen and the doxies cooled the esclop for their buz-bloaks. And those who missed their tip, like nibblers done for a ramp, climbed the vertical-care-grinder stunned on skilly. Yet it was all Yorkshire Estates compared to drummers caught with hocus: that wretched lot cried hookey walker as they lumped the lighter to dance on nothing. In other words, stiff’uns, cold meat, burked.
This is a small sample of the lexicon offered by the expanded second edition of John Camden Hotten’s Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words (1860). A lexicographer of the “fast” and the “low” in London, he is most interested in the kind of language that can be heard at unsavory hours on steamboat piers, amid knots of “semi-decayed cabmen”, and plucked from “the refined word-droppings of magniloquent flunkies”. To compile this dictionary, he also scoured “popular” writing, “fashionable and unfashionable” newspapers, and sought a high-standard of orthographic correctness — each word and phrase was confirmed by multiple groups of chaunters and tramps.
He was attuned to the politics of compilation. Dictionary makers like Charles Richardson, whose New Dictionary of the English Language (1836–37) first featured the kind of historical evidence that would later set the OED apart from its competitors, were “exceedingly crotchety in their choice of what they considered respectable words”, thought Hotten. If the English language in the mid-nineteenth century contained thirty-eight thousand words, as contemporary philologists calculated, Hotten conservatively claimed to have enlarged the language by almost ten percent, and that wasn’t even counting all the filthy and obscene entries that he deemed unfit for print. This censorship evidently required some restraint on Hotten’s part. He is perhaps better remembered as a publisher who not only popularized American writers such as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman in England, but also delivered a series of erotic and sometimes pornographic titles to market, including Exhibition of Female Flagellants (supposedly written in 1777), The Romance of Chastisement (1869), and a comic opera, Lady Bumtickler’s Revels (1872).
Morally progressive, Hotten was nevertheless influenced by the typecasting racial sciences of his era. He often talks of rascals and vagabonds as distinct in physiognomy. On one hand, there is something almost profound about his formulation that every society gives rise to an underclass of thieves and crooks who speak their own cryptolect — a kind of linguistic subconscious maintained by the socially subaltern. On the other hand, the people he refers to as pickpockets and cat burglars are rarely thieving guilds, but simply racial or ethnic others. “In Finland, the fellows who steal seal skins, pick the pockets of bear-skin overcoats, and talk Cant, are termed Lappes.” He maintains a distinction between “cant” and “slang”, which a modern-day reader might have trouble reconstructing. For him, cant is an economic argot that arose among beggars, tramps, and other kinds of street walkers who invented a way of street talking. Meanwhile “slang” represents “that evanescent, vulgar language, ever changing with fashion and taste, which has principally come into vogue during the last seventy or eighty years, spoken by persons in every grade of life, rich and poor, honest and dishonest.” He also includes glossaries of “back slang” — words created from reversal — and “rhyming slang”, the Cockney dialect whereby “table” becomes “Cain and Abel”. Hotten is fascinated both by how countless foreign and antiquated words ended up in the adaptive mouths of English speakers on London’s streets and by how newly-invented language continues to trickle upward and downward in English society.
Unlike some of his peers, who believed that the first dictionary of vagabond tongues was Richard Head’s Life of an English Rogue (ca. 1680) or dramatist Thomas Decker’s Bellman of London series (1608), Hotten traces the tradition back to Thomas Harman’s Caveat or Wareningfor Commen Cursetors (1567), which he reproduces at length. (For more on this tradition and its fictions, see Julie Coleman’s excellent article.) Preserving these words was not only a matter of novelty for Hotten — he thought vulgar language itself was an agent for “the retention and the revival of sterling old English words, long since laid up in ancient manuscripts.” In addition to word lists, he also includes an “account of the hieroglyphics used by vagabonds”, a variation of the “hobo signs” still occasionally employed near railways in the United States and other places by migrant worker subcultures. Here too he treats this linguistic system as a storehouse of cultural knowledge, wondering if one can glimpse “in these beggars’ marks fragments of ancient Egyptian or Hindoo hieroglyphical writing”.
It’s a romantic enterprise to assemble a dictionary of slang and cant, and to bundle these two terms together. The former is faddish, everchanging: fixity makes a quick death for slang. The latter’s words are taken from purposely secretive languages. They are meant to enact verbal handshake protocols, establish trust and maintain safety within the earshot of hostile parties. Cant “goes one step further than jargon”, argues Daniel Heller-Roazen while quoting a historian of language in his study Dark Tongues, “its primary purpose is to deceive, to defraud, and to conceal.” Once exposed, it can no longer function. At the same time, there is a democratic tendency at play in mixing together, in a single volume, the specialized language of people who may have never exchanged words in the street. Alongside his thieves and vagabonds, Hotten includes religious slang, public schoolboy slang, pirate slang, equine stable slang, phrases coined by Dr. Johnson, the slang of softened oaths, workmen’s slang, stagehand slang, shopkeeper’s slang, and dozens of other argots.