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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

01 October 2012

Oliver is in town

This is part two of my favorite entries in James Hardy Vaux's 1812 Dictionary of the Flash Language. Part one is here.

(I'm rereading the dictionary, and reading Vaux's memoirs, because my next book has changed direction. After a conversation with my agent at the RWA conference about the marketability of ghosts at the moment, I've temporarily shelved The Ghost and Miss Moore and have started another book about a con man and the daughter of the Tory patron of my little market town from Sweet Disorder. Its working title is Crimson Joy and so far I'm still in that new-book first-flush-of-love stage with it!)

LETTER Q: the mace, or billiard-slum, is sometimes called going upon the Q, or the letter Q, alluding to an instrument used in playing billiards. [BILLIARD SLUM: The mace is sometimes called giving it to 'em on the billiard slum. See MACE.

MACE: to mace a shopkeeper, or give it to him upon the mace, is to obtain goods on credit, which you never mean to pay for; to run up a score with the same intention, or spunge upon your acquaintance, by continually begging or borrowing from them, is termed maceing, or striking the mace.]

LETTER-RACKET: going about to respectable houses with a letter or statement, detailing some case of extreme distress, as ship-wreck, sufferings by fire, &c.; by which benevolent, but credulous, persons, are induced to relieve the fictitious wants of the imposters, who are generally men, or women, of genteel address, and unfold a plausible tale of affliction. [I think my hero and his brother have done this one a fair number of times in their careers.]

LUSH: to drink; speaking of a person who is drunk, they say, Alderman Lushington is concerned, or, he has been voting for the Alderman.

[Some scholars believe that this term derived from an actors' fraternal organization, "The City of Lushington." According to the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (as quoted here), "Near Drury Lane Theatre in London was the Harp Tavern, where a club of hard drinkers called The City of Lushington had been founded in 1750. Lushington's had a chairman, the 'Lord Mayor,' and four 'aldermen,' who presided over the wards [a type of urban administrative district] of Poverty, Lunacy, Suicide, and Jupiter (the supreme Roman god who presided over all human affairs).[...]'Lush,' at least as a generic term for beer or drink, first appeared in about 1790, long after The City of Lushington's formation, and it could very well be a contraction of the club's name."

By the way, when the club stopped allowing stage hands and other crew members to attend meetings as guests, it spun off a theatre technicians' organization called the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes which has lasted as a fraternal organization to the present day (although it is no longer affiliated with the theatre).]

MONKERY: the country parts of England are called The Monkery.

NUT: to please a person by any little act of assiduity, by a present, or by flattering words, is called nutting him; as the present, &c., by which you have gratified them, is termed a nut.

NUTS UPON IT: to be very much pleased or gratified with any object, adventure, or overture; so a person who conceives a strong inclination for another of the opposite sex, is said to be quite nutty, or nuts upon him or her. [Wow, is that where that comes from?]

OLIVER: the moon.

OLIVER IS IN TOWN: a phrase signifying that the nights are moonlight, and consequently unfavorable to depredation.

PEAR-MAKING: inlisting [sic] in various regiments, taking the bounty, and then deserting.

PIGS, or GRUNTERS: police runners. [Wow, some things never change.]

RINGING CASTORS: signifies frequenting churches and other public assemblies, for the purpose of changing hats, by taking away a good, and leaving a shabby one in its place; a petty game now seldom practised.

SPANK: to spank a glaze, is to break a pane of glass in a shop window, and make a sudden snatch at some article of value within your reach, having previously tied the shop-door with a strong cord on the outside, so as to prevent the shopman from getting out, till you have had full time to escape with your booty; to spank a place, is to rob it upon the spank; a spank is a robbery effected by the above means.

STAR: The star is a game chiefly practised by young boys, often under ten years of age, although the offense is capital. It consists of cutting a pane in a shop-window, by a peculiar operation calling starring the glaze, which is performed very effectually by a commen penknife; the depredators then take out such articles of value as lie within reach of their arm, which if they are not interrupted, sometimes includes have the contents of the window. A person convicted of this offense is said to have been done for a star.

TURN UP: to desist from, or relinquish, any particular habit or mode of life, or the further pursuit of any object you had in view, is called turning it up. To turn up a mistress, or a male acquaintance, is to drop all intercourse, or correspondence, with them. To turn up a particular house, or shop, you have been accustomed to use, or deal at, signifies to withdraw your patronage, or custom, and visit it no more. To quit a person suddenly in the street, whether secretly or openly, is called turning him up. To turn a man up sweet, is to get rid of him effectually, but yet to leave him in perfect good humour, and free from any suspicion or discontent; this piece of finesse often affords a field for the exercise of consummate address, as in the case of turning up a flat, after having stripped him of all his money at play, or a shopkeeper, whom you have just robbed before his face of something valuable, upon the pinch, or the hoist.

TURNIPS: to give any body turnips signifies to turn him or her up, and the party so turned up, is said to have knap'd turnips.


While writing this post, I discovered that almost all of these entries appeared word-for-word in Pierce Egan's 1823 expanded edition of Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (subtitle: "Revised and Corrected with the Addition of Numerous Slang Phrases Collected from Tried Authorities")! I don't know enough about nineteenth-century copyright law to know whether that would be considered plagiarism. (I guess it's possible that he paid Vaux's publisher for the rights...does anyone know?) If it was, I can't decide whether James Hardy Vaux would be annoyed and want his share of the cash, or appreciate Egan's sharp practice.

One of the things I consistently try to remember while writing is how valuable every piece of personal property was before consumer goods became mass-produced and semi-disposable. I remember researching a few years ago what a Regency house would have in its rooms in place of a trashcan and realizing they wouldn't have had anything because nothing was thrown away. Absolutely nothing. It's hard for me to imagine a world where handkerchiefs cost enough that you could make a good living just from stealing those, but it must have really informed how people thought about their surroundings, and it definitely informed how professional crime and the underworld functioned.

And with that I must leave you! Here, have some of these:

photo of turnips

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2 Comments:

Blogger Sonia said...

One of the things I consistently try to remember while writing is how valuable every piece of personal property was before consumer goods became mass-produced and semi-disposable

That's a really good point. I never think about that in terms of like crimes, but yeah absolutely theft is a whole different game in that context. Mass production is one of those things where like EVERYTHING changed. Wow mass production.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Sonia--Right? The underworld was structured around property theft in a way that is weirdly quaint. Like it's NOT quaint, it's just as scary and serious as it is now AND hugely predicated on abuse and child labor (like so many other industries at the time), but in some ways to my modern eyes it's hard to take people fencing stolen handkerchiefs out of wheelbarrows as seriously as I know I should.

11:19 PM  

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