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.