The Delicacy of Captain Grose

NPG D16502; Francis Grose by John Kay

Francis Grose (1741-91), the militia-captain, antiquarian, and, most pertinent to our discussions, author of three editions – 1785, 1788 and 1796 – of that epochal slang dictionary The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, was, as illustrations underline, pleasingly aptronymic. Butchers, it was claimed, vied to proclaim his custom. He may (though disappointingly probably may not) have been strapped to his bed every night, lest were the weight of the Captain’s stomach to edge its way floorwards, it might be pursued by the rest of him. A man of flesh, he seems, perhaps indicative of his milieu and its era, to represent an alternative sense of gross: if not wholly coarse, then undoubtedly a pronounced inclination for matters distinctly corporeal.

Over his three editions he offers us 17 terms for penis (arbor vitae, matrimonial peacemaker, sugar-stick), 37 for vagina (crinkum-crankum, dumb glutton, the monosyllable), 56 for sexual intercourse (hump, pray with one’s knees upwards, shag) and 5 for gay sex (backgammon, fun, larking). Brothels, whores, madames and pimps, are all available. Jokes, puns, metaphors, Latinisms, euphemisms literary or otherwise. And there is ‘C**t the κοννώ of the Greek and the Cunnus of Latin Dictionaries, a Nasty name for a Nasty thing.’ Then we have ‘Burning shame, a lighted candle stuck into the parts of a woman, certainly not intended by nature for a candlestick.’ (The explanatory comment being appended, just in case we were uncertain, for the later editions.) Or ‘Nickumpoop, or nincumpoop, a foolish fellow; also one who never saw his wife’s ****.’ Predictably sexist stuff, but the Captain, we can safely say, is no prude.

And yet.


With the success of the 1785 publication of the dictionary’s first edition, Grose began making notes towards what would be a second, much expanded edition in 1788. These manuscript additions have been fortuitously bound into Grose’s own copy of the original work. On the whole and albeit with slight alterations – mainly stylistic and duly smoothed away by his editor before publication – these notes simply prefigure the 1788 expansion. But not all. There are 47 entries that never leave these tipped-in pages.

Some have no sexual inference. Among them let go an anchor to the windward of the law: to keep within the letter of the law; blue as a razor: drunk; busy as the devil in a high wind: very busy; calabash: the head; chaffer: the tongue; a screw loose: something wrong. Not all are new, but Grose having noted them down, forgot them. Perhaps they simply fell between the cracks.

But ten additions, effectively 20% of the omissions, seem to have been excised rather than forgotten. I list them in A-Z order.

A—se Man. Sodomites [sic]. Said also to belong to Captain Jones’ Company. Invaders of the Back settlements.

Arse man does not re-emerge until 1971, transmuted to the US spelling, ass man, and probably in heterosexual use, i.e. the antithesis of the leg man (or tit man). The first gay use (Bruce Rodgers does not have it) is in an on line gay slang dictionary of 1989. And even there the sense is of preference rather than, as Grose suggests, penetration. As for Captain Jones, might this have been the payment of a personal score? The invaders… are of course a typical pun, cognate with such as gentleman of the backdoor, rear admiral and so on.

Cream Pots or Juggs Womens Breasts.

Remarkably, what one might have imagined to be a staple of smut, only exists in one other example. It is, however, worth perusal:

1846 Swell’s Night Guide 76: As soon as he saw the grog’ums in the steppers, her legs trembled; he was on to her […] and had his stretchers round her tripe-box, and copped her rumbo, and stalled her from a downey – sucked her jowl; fammed her cream-jugs, and shouted – ‘Give her some pawney’.

Diddle […] also something else, to be guessed, not written. I slipt her a Jorum of Diddle.

All editions include diddle as gin, but despite the jorum, it is ‘to be guessed, not written’ and thus confirms the sniggering. Diddle, to have sex, had been established since around 1635 but the noun, which would also come to mean vagina, and intercourse, had not evolved. Again, a near-solitary example of the term which does not reappear, and there in the context of small boys, until the late 19th century.

1882 Cremorne II 35: I had only seen the innocent little ‘diddles’ of the black picaninnies.

Eight-Eyed Monster, a Woman who has Two Eyes, two Bub Eyes a Bell-Eye, two popes Eyes and a Cun-eye.

Another labored Grosean pun, perhaps culled from a contemporary riddle. It failed to make the book; yet he had no problems with the reasonably similar gormagon: ‘A monster with six eyes, three mouths, four arms, eight legs, five on one side and three on the other, three arses, two tarses, and a **** [i.e. cunt] upon its back; a man on horseback, with a woman behind him.’

Goose Neck & Giblets. A Mans tackle. She longd for a Goose Neck and Giblets, for the Child carries the Mark, i.e. she is delivered of a Son.

Turkey neck is common but not goose’s neck which seems to be a Grose special. Especially as regards its one-off pairing with giblets, although for slang the illustrative use is positively domestic rather than openly sexual.

knocker the Penis

Only Motteux, in his 1696 translation of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel had come up with this one: ‘I perceived that every cock of the game used to call his doxy his hatchet; for with that same tool (this he said lugging out and exhibiting his nine-inch knocker) they so soundly and resolutely shove and drive in.’ The canonical nine inches would be immortalized by Grose’s friend Burns with his paeans to ‘nine-inch men’ but the lexicographer kept things un-competitive.

Nonsense, a Girl playing with a dead man’s penis.

One imagines a tavern with friends vying for obscene creativity. The Captain at, perhaps, his most truly gross and its omission was surely judicious. In print he preferred to define nonsense as ‘melting butter in a wig’. This may have hinted at smut – butter had meant semen since 1594 – but the unalloyed image is probably sufficient and in any case we have no record of wig meaning pubic hair until 1834.

go shove your mother’s sister’s devil. Another answer to Impertinent Instruction is Go Shove your mothers sisters devil, i.e. your Aunts ****.

Incomprehensible, or am I missing something? Shove does mean to fuck (Burns, again, uses it but it was long established) but devil, or certainly in slang, has never meant vagina and the usual trope has the devil-penis being inserted. There is the devil’s bite, but this contraction of the vaginal muscles around the penis during intercourse is a staple of 19th rather than 18th century porn and whatever the date Grose would still have been doing some drastic reverse engineering.

Thing a Womans Commodity.

Again, far from a neologism, but Grose resists committing it to print. Yet all editions offer the nudge-nudgery of ‘Mr Thingstable, Mr Constable, a ludicrous affectation of delicacy in avoiding the first syllable in the title of that officer, which in sound has some similarity to an indecent monosyllable’.





8 thoughts on “The Delicacy of Captain Grose

  1. Stan Carey December 18, 2014 / 9:24 am

    Rich and ripe reading! Thank you, Jonathon, for bringing Grose’s notes to the light, and for making as much sense of them as possible.
    That use of devil is curious. P. W. Joyce’s English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910) has a whole chapter on the use of the devil in Irish English speech and sayings, but makes no reference to sexual senses.


    • misterslang December 18, 2014 / 10:21 am

      I looked around some dicts. of proverbs, notably Apperson, for that devil line (even bowdlerised), but no joy. Slang, or at least Urquhart’s Rabelais does have shove-devil, but that means the penis and, as I semi-mentioned, is based on the trad. joke whereby a monk seduces a virgin by explaining the necessity of ‘shoving the devil back into hell’.
      And Joyce, as you will know, follows on with a brief consideration of swearing. I wonder whether Grose would have embellished his slang researches during his trip to Ireland in 1791? Perhaps, but he died in Dublin soon after his arrival.


  2. ian cozzens (@secretdoor) December 21, 2014 / 12:36 am

    This reminds me of reading Latin texts in high school & college, which had been annotated in English (sometimes many decades ago) to assist the student reader in figuring out context, unfamiliar words, or secondary/ non-definition meanings.

    Occasionally, upon looking in the notes for some kind of clue about an incomprehensible passage, you would find a conspicuous omission — just blank space, no mention of those line numbers at all. Then you could usually infer that the Latin text contained something sexual or scandalous. The long-ago annotators’ idea was, apparently, to deter immature students from looking in the notes for titillation: if you were learned enough to read the original text, you would be mature enough to handle the raunchiness… but if your Latin wasn’t good enough, then no bawdy ancient stories for you. 😦


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