Sometime between 1690 and 1720, a gentleman who would only give his initials as B.E. wrote the first English dictionary of slang–or, as its frontispiece proclaimed, "A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, In its several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggers, Thieves, Cheats, &c. with An Addition of some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c." To cant, according to the OED, is "to speak in the whining or singsong tone used by beggars; to beg;" cant came into the language around 1567, nearly 200 years before slang.
Perhaps B.E. was the gentleman he claimed to be, or maybe he was a rum-cove ("a great Rogue"). A glossary of beggars’ cant would be useful, B.E. suggests, "for all sorts of People, (especially Foreigners) to secure their Money and preserve their Lives; besides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New." Maybe B.E. was a Queere-duke ("a poor decayed Gentleman") trying to make a quick buck; or maybe he was an Orator to a Mountebank ("the Doctor’s Decoy who in conjunction with Jack Pudding, amuses, diverts and draws in the Patients"). At any rate, he was no Ralph-Spooner ("Fool"): the diversity of terms he has gathered for lewd women, randy men and alcoholic refreshment is rivaled only by the creativity of the slang for money and status symbols. For instance, The Cull equipt me with a brace of Meggs is cant for "the Gentleman furnish’d me with a couple of Guineas," which could perchance buy some Famble-cheats (gold rings or gloves) or a Rum Jockum-Gage (a silver chamber pot). All the bitches, booze, bluffs and boasts from Scorsese to Jay-Z could be translated into the rogue jargon of the late seventeenth century without missing a beat.
In its newly reissued version, The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699 (Bodleian; $25), John Simpson, the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, acknowledges B.E.’s marketing genius: "Straightaway B.E. was tapping into the popular conception of the underworld." At the time, a mass shift of people from the countryside to the city, soldiers and sailors returning from foreign wars and immigration from Europe caused the population of London to "increase eightfold between 1500 and 1650." Amid this tumult, unsurprisingly, the "legitimate" population in the middle and upper classes sensed themselves under constant threat; law enforcement was harsh and arbitrary, supplied by an amateur constabulary; crime was as much tabloid fodder then as now; the spectacle of public executions reinforced the sense that the melting pot of London was really a Boschian hell. B.E.’s dictionary rests on the mystification of the criminal classes even while it offered itself as a tool to decode–and disarm–them.
These days, the middle classes face a different order of chaos, a singular sort of cheat. TMI (too much information) and misinformation are the culprits threatening to undermine the authority of legitimate people, and perhaps even steal their wealth (because the coin of financialization is information). Though she never suggests this outright, Elizabeth Knowles, a renowned author and lexicographer who got her start as a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement, has published a guide to detecting one kind of counterfeit information. How to Read a Word (Oxford; $18.95) is a primer on using the dictionary–or several dictionaries, depending on how much information you want. But its ramifications don’t stop there.
For Knowles, ramification is key: the possible associations for words and their definitions are endless. She encourages us to decode the conventions of the average dictionary–its haiku of headword, pronunciation, classification, etymology, meaning, example and references; she also explains how a dictionary definition opens up more questions than it answers. From her we learn about the databases and corpora that lexicographers use to build their dictionaries. We are led to the authority of authorities, the OED and specialist dictionaries, like the English Dialect Dictionary. She urges us to make our own inquiries into words, and walks us through her own process while scouting out the origin of phrases like "blue moon," the penetration of the satsuma orange into English and the fabled existence of a Merseyside dialect called "Scouse." Wonderfully, generously, Knowles shares with us an insider’s view of lexicography, placing stress on precision, accuracy and authenticity. Among an amateur researcher’s hazards, for instance, are ghost words ("a word which has been included in a dictionary, but which has never had any real-life language use") and false friends ("a word which has a similar form to one in another language but a different meaning").
Not surprisingly, B.E.’s slang dictionary isn’t mentioned in Knowles’s book. Although B.E.’s book claimed to be the first of its kind, previous lists of cant had appeared before; although claiming to be a dictionary, it contained no editorial apparatus; although calling itself a canting dictionary, only around 900 of its 4,000 entries are notated as recognized cants. As Simpson writes in the introduction, "The dictionary explores the themes of roguery and deceit…. Almost everything smacks of sham and deceit, and the artifice required to achieve this." In other words, B.E.’s book is full of false friends and ghost words, totally lacking in the authority that guides Knowles’s sensibility in How to Read a Word, and that guarantees the gold standard of the mother tongue: "But is it in the dictionary?"
There’s nothing wrong with How to Read a Word, not at all: everything about it is right. Every literate adult should be acquainted with it; college curriculums should mandate it. By contrast, The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699 is a frippery–or as Simpson calls it, a curiosity. It lacks authority, it’s dirty, it undermines morals and, worse, it’s quite useless. But it is so much fun, so rich with the diatomaceous earth of English, that next to it Knowles’s book has all the flavor of Styrofoam excelsior.
You can’t blame Knowles. She represents the world we live in and the world we strive for: enlightened, accurate and, of course, ramified–for her, one question leads to another, just as one word always leads to another; information is a science and a calling, and to busy oneself with meanings is to be one of the good guys. B.E.’s world, by contrast, is one of oglers, oafs and dunder-heads. It’s for fire-ships (i.e., pockey whores) and firkins of foul stuff. There’s no way to verify B.E.’s information. It ferments in its own closed ecosystem. It puns and carries "contrary Significations under one Sound," but it does not ramify.
Yet the word "cant" means to sing; it derives from the same Latin word as our chant, canticle, cantata, chanticleer, chantey and chanteuse. And by nature arbitrary, fickle and malleable, words must be on the side of the rogues and fire-ships. Rather than send you scurrying to Google, or seeking authorization, they want to revel in their dirtiness and uncategorizability: look at what happens to the definition of "rake:"
Rake, Rake hell, Rake-shame, a Lewd Spark or Deboshee, one that has not yet Sowed his Wild Oats. Rakish, tending to, or leaning towards that Extravagant way, of Life. Rake, when the Hawk flies out too far from the Fowls; also so much of the Ship’s Hull as overhangs both Ends of the Keel; and to Trot a Horse gently.
"To trot a horse gently" is also to canter. As rake and canter swap identities, it seems undeniable that what words do best is flip the Boschian hell into a Garden of Earthly Delights.