The Vulgar Tongue

The Vulgar Tongue

In 2012, the Duchesses are starting the year off right. We’re setting a tone. We’re going to talk about bad words.


In the 1970s, George Carlin did a well-known comedy sketch entitled “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” Some forty years later, you can say them on TV—at least as long as it’s cable.


One of the words that does not appear on George Carlin’s list, however, is “bloody” and yet this word was once considered so vulgar in certain contexts that it was not allowed to appear in print before sometime in the 1920s. It does appear in Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue but with no indication as to its acceptability.

“Bloody A favourite word used by the thieves in swearing, as bloody eyes, bloody rascal.”


Presumably no other clarification was necessary. Nowadays we say the word with impunity, but 200 years ago, this word wouldn’t have been used in polite company.


The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is a compendium of colorful expressions, cant and general bad language. The online version dates from the 1811 edition, but an even older version exists, dating from 1736. References such as these are veritable Godsends to the historical author searching for colorful expressions to put in the mouths of her characters. If her characters happen to inhabit the underworld, so much the better.


Where else would you find such expressions as: “He would lend his arse and shite through his ribs,” said of a person who lent his money to various and sundry? Or a “cure-arse” which was basically a band-aid applied “to the parts galled by riding?” Where else are you going to find the term “twiddle diddles” which referred to testicles?


Hmmm… don’t think I’ll be using that one in my next love scene, come to think of it, but it might come in handy if I want something for comic effect. I’ve got a crusty old lady character in my books who might come out with something like that strictly for the shock value.


The c-word has even found its place in the dictionary, although the author is careful to replace the central letters with stars. Its definition according to Grose is “a nasty name for a nasty thing.” One has to wonder if it was so nasty, how the human race has managed to survive the past several thousand years.


Oddly enough, “cock” according to Grose is “the leading man in any society or body; the best boxer in a village or district i.e. the chief cock of the walk.” Perhaps not so odd, a “flat cock” is defined as a female.


If your characters are off to visit the lovely ladies of the local nugging-house, they may have to deal first with the lady abbess or cock bawd before getting down to business. They may also bring along a trusty Trojan or two—but be careful. Back then, a trusty Trojan was no more than a buddy. While condoms existed, and were supplied by the houses in question, they were uncomfortable contraptions made of sheep gut. They were also expensive enough that the idea of disposing of them after one use didn’t occur to anyone. If you were lucky, they were washed before reuse. Ironically, their principle function was to prevent venereal disease.


By the way, “the clap” also puts in an appearance: “He went out by Had’em, and came round by Clapham home; i.e. he went out a wenching, and got a clap.”


Perhaps we ought to stick to drinking. One might be in one’s altitudes, foxed or merely a trifle disguised. Only be careful not to imbibe too much or you may find you’re doing something nasty through your teeth.


Ahem. Perhaps I ought to leave it there. Grose has hundreds more colorful expressions waiting for anyone who cares to sift through his dictionary. What interesting words have you come across in the course of your reading?


Ashlyn Macnamara writes Regency romances that may or may not be crude, depending on what her characters are getting up to on any given day.


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19 Comments on “The Vulgar Tongue
    • Loads of them are hilarious. You kind of have to go through it and hope to find what you’re looking for, though. It would be nice if someone came up with a “reverse version” that grouped expressions into categories.

    • Don’t think so, but you’d need a Brit to say for sure. It’s in Monty Python and those were originally shown on the BBC. I do get a feeling, based on blog comments I’ve seen from Brits, that the word ‘bloody’ is considered low class, though. In other words, we shouldn’t put it in the mouths of our aristocratic heroes, because, while they could swear up a storm, they wouldn’t use that particular word. I love it too much to drop it, though.

  1. I came across “Tickle-tail” as a less glorious reference to a man’s ‘sword’. I changed it to ‘tickler’ in my book, which was also used. Funny post. And useful!

  2. Oh, this is one of my favorite sources! Some of the best phrases are in there. I find it’s actually hard to use them in my writing though, but still worth the read just for the fun of it. Great post Duchess Ashlyn!

    And now I’m going to have to read again…

    • Yeah, when I’m procrastinating, I mean researching, I like clicking on a random letter and then reading the interesting expressions. Then I hope the good stuff works its way into my brain so I’ll use it if I have a chance.

  3. Just checked out negligee, which hasn’t changed in 200 years. But it also states: “Vulgarly termed a neggledigee.” I’m going to have to use that one in my daily life. “Honey, I’m going to go put on a neggledigee.” We’ll see what response I get!

  4. “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” is one of my favorite reference sources. One expression I particularly liked was “tipping the velvet” which means to kiss with tongue…or something MUCH more naughty!

  5. I have the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue on my Kindle Fire – what fun! I’ve always wondered why *bloody* was considered so …vulgar LOL. I have no trouble w/a Regency Aristo male using low slang words. They were bound to have started that early on in school.

    • I’ve tried to figure out why it’s so vulgar, too. I’m a language geek and can spend hours looking up word origins. I seem to recall somewhere along the way seeing that “bloody” derived from “God’s blood” and was a religious reference to Jesus’s suffering. I tried to find the reference again when I was writing this post, and couldn’t. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the idea is far-fetched and they attribute the word as a reference to menstruation. I’m with you, though, on the use. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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