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.

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