Cusses, Curses and Swear Words from The Early 19th Century
How to talk like a Regency harlot
If you love Bridgerton and all those romantic costume dramas set in the early 19th century you’d probably know that Regency England wasn’t all about glitzy balls and fancy parties. The wealthy lived opulently yes, but the have-nots lived harsh lives in abject poverty.
But poor did not mean dull. Some of the wittiest (and filthiest) words in early 19th-century English were uttered by prostitutes, pimps, beggars, pickpockets, street children and other impoverished vagrants.
Their earthy, highly creative, candid yet shockingly vulgar language has been recorded for posterity thanks to one book — the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose — a rude but fascinating list of everyday words and phrases from the gutters of Regency London. Yes, during the era of Napoleon, Francis Grose used to go for nightly walks in the city’s slums and dockyards (because sailors were known for their colourful vocabulary too) collecting words and phrases from seamen, cutthroats, beggars, prostitutes, drunks and gamblers.
Here are some of the witty (and very often, shocking) remarks early 19th-century slum dwellers used on each other (and which frankly, should have been passed down to us in the 21st century— a few individuals come to mind whose feathers I’d love to ruffle by showering them with Regency whore-speech).
Arsy varsey: “To fall arsy varsey” means “to fall head over heels”.
Bat: An inexpensive prostitute (a “low whore” according to Grose). Groups of them would come out like bats in the evening to hawk their wares on the streets of London.
Batchelor’s son: A bastard (I have this recurring fantasy of calling out “Hey you! You batchelor’s son!” to my obnoxious ex-boss).
Bawbels: A man’s testicles.
Beard splitter: A man who enjoys much wenching. (I have no idea what the connection between splitting a beard and frequenting women of questionable virtue might possibly be).
To make a coffee-house out of a woman’s c***: To sleep with a woman for free and not pay for anything (coffee-houses were cheap gathering places for men)
To mount a corporal and four: The “corporal” is the thumb and “four” refers to the four fingers. (Use your imagination!)
Docked smack smooth: One who has suffered an amputation of his penis from a venereal complaint.
Drab: A nasty, sluttish whore. ("Sluttish" originally meant "untidy")
Fruitful vine: A woman’s private parts, i.e. that have flowers every month, and bears fruit in nine months.
Fubsey wench: A plump, healthy wench.
Fumbler: An old or impotent man.
Fusty lugs: A beastly, sluttish woman
Gollumpus: A large clumsy fellow. (I can visualise modern commuters using this on some large fellow blocking their way while they’re exiting the subway)
He would lend his arse and sh*t through his ribs: Said of a person who lends money indiscriminately.
She has no fortune but her mills: She has nothing but her c*** and arse.
Trumpery: An old whore or goods of no value. (This word brings to mine a certain you-know-who)
Slang words galore for the privates
As in modern English, slang words for the penis were a dime a dozen:
Arbor vitae (literally, “tree of life” in Latin)
Gaying instrument (in the early 19th century, “gay” was slang for “sexually liberal”. A “gay man” was a womaniser, a “gay woman” was a prostitute and the “gaying instrument” was the penis)
Lobcock (a large relaxed penis or a dull, inanimate fellow)
Whore pipe (I hope I don’t have to explain the mechanics to you!)
And of course, here are some more slang words for a woman’s privates:
Cock alley or cock lane (yes, lower-class English people in those days were well-known for using extremely graphic language, in case you haven’t noticed by now)
Commodity — the private parts of a modest woman and the public parts of a prostitute
Doodle sack — the private parts of a woman
Madge — as above
Money — a girl’s private parts. “Take care, Miss, or you will show your money.” Said by nannies or governesses to their young wards.
Muff — as above. This one has been retained in modern English.
Many words from that era are still in use today. Words like flabbergast, cock and bull story, bamboozle, catcall and gibberish. These would have been as familiar to an English person 200 years ago as they are to us now.
To be honest, when I first looked at Grose’s 1811 dictionary I was immediately drawn in, sucked into a world where life was often short and brutality was part and parcel of it. Reading through the colourful entries is the equivalent of stepping into the pages of history and into the lives of the less fortunate, the people contemporary authors like Jane Austen rarely wrote about.