Naughty Words

We have a word for a particular kind of woof in our house.

It is not a loud woof: not yet. Macaulay, the household dog, is getting the range. He is firing a warning shot, so to speak. He knows the fox/cat/neighbour/postman is there and he’s firing off a slick piece of internal communication.

His woof is low. It is full-bodied; and it bubbles up from within.

Thus, we call it a bubblewoof.

There is no such word; but anyone who has heard Macaulay, scourge of trespassers, woofing in this fashion understands, and finds the term a convenient label.

Thus, new words are born and grow. They will not attain their pedigree for decades: yet men use them to express a phenomenon.

Such is slang. My Oxford Dictionary defines slang as words we are using all the time, informally, and often for their sheer picturesqueness, or novelty, or unconventionality.

I’ll say.

From its early origins, slang was subversive. While the pictures it painted were unfailingly vivid, they expressed a culture which hadn’t been expressed yet. Often it was the key to a culture which was deliberately secret. A semantic underworld.

Take , for example, Thieves’ Cant.

It is much easier to commit a crime if you can talk freely to your partners without being understood. Around 1530, references began to appear in literature of the day to Thieves’ Cant: a vocabulary all its own, created by thieves for thieves. A jaunty contraband which may have grown out of Romany talk, it was just too colourful to resist, and the theatres of the day embraced it.

Thus, Elizabethan theatre is bursting with the cant of thieves.

Take a look at this fabulous canting dictionaryfirst published in 1736 by N Bailey. Church is autem; thus, a preacher is an autem-bawler, and an autem-dipper an anabaptist. A meeting house for dissenters was an autem-cackletub.

Or, listen to this irresistible definition for ‘Palliards: PALLIARDS, those whose Fathers were Clapperdogeons, or born Beggars, and who themselves follow the same Trade.

“The Female sort of these Wretches frequently borrow Children if they have none of their own, and planting them about in Straw, draw the greater Pity from the Spectators, screwing their Faces to the moving Postures, and crying at Pleasure, and making the Children also cry by pinching them…”

A window into another world…

It is a not altogether unfamiliar world, though. We have met it before, because one of our favourite playwrights was Elizabethan, and William Shakespeare’s works were full of pithy street talk which much have pulled the punters to the Globe, way back when. We still love those cantish expressions today.

We do not use them; perhaps we should. Lean-witted means poor in intellect, to pribble is to argue pointlessly over nothing. Softly-sprighted is gentle; toad-spotted means infamous. A flatterer is a pick-thank. Four playing cards of a kind were known as ‘pertaunt’.

Picturesque, novel and unconventional.

And useful. Let us not forget Buckley Hall Prison in Rochdale, where sharp-eared prison officers noticed unusual phrases being used in letters and phone calls to loved ones in the outside world.

Members of the travelling community had re-introduced the 400-year old cant to enable drug smuggling on a modest scale, into and out of the prison.

The Ministry of Justice was so worried about the business that in 2009 a security alert was issued to all prison governors.

They’re not just pretty words, you know.

I had a few minutes spare in town yesterday and slipped into my favourite secondhand bookshop. I rarely walk away empty-handed, and today was no exception. For on the reference shelves was a great, neon yellow rebel waiting for me to pick it up and take it home.

It is a dictionary of slang. I paid one pound for it: it was grossly under priced. This one has been celebrated by the Biitish. It is Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, edited by Jonathon Green, and published in 1998.

I expect it has lost a little ground since its publication. Slang travels fast. But the reading is deeply entertaining. Never, in all my born convent school-educated days, have I heard a penis referred to as a customs officer.

But the book is already having a controversial effect. I told my mother I bought it last night and her tone changed to one of surreptitious interest. We discussed its function, and then I confessed that I had opted to store it, not alongside all my other treasured books, but in a bedside drawer.

Out of harm’s way.

You have to watch these naughty words, you know.

For a extra treat, take a look at this old dictionary of  bucking slang and university wit, published in 1811. in which a blow to the face is a ‘dowse in the chops’….

Featured image is from here


57 thoughts on “Naughty Words

  1. As in ‘So now I think it’s time for you to meet the customs officer?’ ?? 😉 A first for me too.

    Love ‘pribble’… and I shall need to be very careful to use the phrase ‘lots of hair on the children’ with discretion.

    Great post. Thanks, Kate.

  2. Oh how your literary tastes are deteriorating! It will be feelthy Egyptian postcards, next. 🙂
    Much Better Half is going to be Much Miffed. A few revered ancestors were customs officers, of the kind collecting excise duties, although they too may have found themselves poking into areas which some might think they were not entitled to do.

    1. 😀 The attitude to customs officers has not changed, I believe, here in the UK: my cousin, who works at the Dover Port, has some juicy tales to tell.

      *scuttles off to throw a large cloth over collection of feelthy Egyptian postcards*

  3. I would just love to begin using some of those fabulous words! I might not even mind if no one understood my meaning. My feelings run entirely contradictory to how I react when current American slang is added to the dictionary–I am never very happy about that. Maybe I’ll try to take the long view and let it evolve. Fascinating, Kate. Debra

    1. It is amazing to watch these words evolve; but some have disappeared all together, I fear. The Romany community keeps them alive, and, of course, lets not forget the silver- tongued drug smugglers of Buckley Hall Prison 😀 I hate current slang; but as you say, maybe a little tolerance is in order..

  4. I remember going to Edingburgh in the 70’s on a commission for the Sunday Times Colour Supplement to photograph the two ladies who were compiling Cassels Dictionary. I mentioned to them that it was interesting for me to meet two of the people who define the meaning of the words that we use daily, and I was interested to know if words changed their meaning over time. One of them replied in that inimitable Jean Brodie voice ” But of course, take for instance the word “girl friend” which has now become a term of abuse!”

    1. It is a peculiar woof, isn’t it, Tandy? And never unwarranted, although postman and passer-by woofs can be very wearing. I hope your trespasser turned out to be friend, not foe!

  5. I know that woof!

    I don’t have a dictionary of slang but the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer are an excellent substitute.

    May I be nibbled to death by ducks if I’m fudging.

      1. Wonderful books – funny, meticulous period detail, and just a little bit daft. I recommend you start with ‘Friday’s Child’.

  6. I love words, Kate. I also love how we like some words and dislike others, when they are all ‘just’ words. I make up words from time to time – I have a dictionary on my blog for my made up words, although there is only half a dozen or so words in there up to now. I’ve never heard of pribble before, but it sounds like quibble which I use all of the time with the same meaning… and lean-witted and softly-sprighted make perfect sense to me. Another of your great posts Kate, thanks! 🙂

  7. Now that was a really fun post, from Macaulay the Wonder Dog’s bubblewoof to a word I just love…pribble. I shall find a way to work that in as many times a day as possible. Just rolls off the tongue so softly-sprighted.

    1. It does 🙂 I am tempted to bring that one back too. I have a Shakespeare glossary by a gentleman called Mr Onions. Despite the improbable name I think he has done a rather good job, and I feel minded to introduce a Shakespearean word a week to those around me, somehow. they are just too good to die out.

  8. Bubblewoof is now acceptable in my spell check. In addition, if the topic of slang ever arises, I will certainly BUBBLEWOOF a link to this post.

    Here Bubblewoof is not expressed vocally (so as not to give away location or intent), rather by the angle and the dangle of the tail. Vira doesn’t say much but speaks non stop with her wig wagger. Her approximate equivalent to Bubblewoof is a strikingly, slightly stretched motionless posture, intense eyes wide open dead reckoned on the subject and a still tail positioned 3 degrees upwards – couple degrees either way and the message is different. The Queen requires her subjects to pay close attention to her every move.

    As a youngster, my father’s older deaf brother taught me some choice naughty subversive sign-language gestures that have stuck with me to this day. It was fun getting away with ‘it’ then, as it is now.

    1. Hudson, I suspect you were made for slang, and it for you: the way you use words is incredibly entertaining. I can just picture Elvira and her regal stance. What a lady…Macaulay, as you will have realised by now, is a tramp.

  9. As you may know, I love perusing old dictionaries and Cassel’s Dictionary of Slang would be on my shelves, or, er, in a the back of drawer, as well.

    We gave the girls a joint gift on Christmas; their first Thesaurus. It was Katy, the younger, who used it as a word weapon against her big sister, Jennifer, who would be reduced to tears at being called a this or a that, a harmless something-or-other that took on another meaning when used out of context.

    1. Oh, clever Katy but poor Jennifer! Ingenious to use odd words out of context in this way, and it sounds like it was fiendishly effective. I love Shakespeare’s insults: how much worse can it get than being a beslubbering rump-fed popinjay?

  10. Autem-cackletub. Hysterical name for a church. Great post, Kate.

    One of my favorite sites on the internet is the Urban Dictionary. Different slang. Very naughty words. Still, I bet they don’t have a ‘customs officer.’ 🙂

  11. Slang doesn’t have to be naughty and is often job specific – go and find a friendly telephone engineer and ask if you can borrow his ‘Eighty-Ones’ 😉 He might also lend you his Strippers.

    1. Hmmm. Borrowing a stripper. It doesn’t sound all together innocent to me, Martin….but then I have my Carry On brain on this morning. You make an excellent point. Not always subversive; though always exclusive?

  12. Dear Kate,
    Years ago, when I was in grad school and heard much colorful language from the younger students, I, too, browsed almost daily in a bookstore right off campus. One day I found a book by a well-known British writer–I can’t remember who. It was on the evolution of cursing.

    With what delight I read of the creative and innovative and truly “put-that-critter-down-in-every-way” curses that were used in earlier centuries. Today, we have a true paucity as far as cursing in concerned!


  13. How confounding to hear colourful and unique English words in a sentence and not understand a thing. I remember when Harry from Shrewsbury began using Cockney phrases during coffee breaks. I didn’t appreciate how these phrases had been developed to speak around or speak over others.

    Oh for the love of words. I just spent ages on the Lexicon blatronicum. I’m not sure whether to thank you – or not! 🙂 Wish I could remember them all.

  14. How FUN! What a goldmine of expressions to peruse at your leisure.

    Pribble is dribble
    Mere kibbutzing kibble
    A bickering flickering of dickering
    Over this, that, and the other thing

    Or even about NOTHING at all 😆

  15. Endlessly fascinating, this language of ours. From your country to mine, from the past to the present. What a shame that so many intriguing, colorful words have been lost. Somehow the newer ones don’t seem as lively. I suppose it takes perspective to truly appreciate them.

  16. Oh, hope to read more of these gems in future writings!. I’m an absolute anglophile when it comes to phraseology and words; your blog never fails to help colour my rather drab american vernacular (that, and I read a lot of english lit as a young girl, hence, I didn’t know ’til high school that I spelled words like the King, not those that jumped ship…ha)

  17. Thanks for the education, Kate! Customs officer is brand new to me too – “jaunty contraband” indeed 😀 I have no doubt that Storm would appreciate Macauley’s conversation…he is already super chatty, leaving Quest to do the serious barking at the gate 🙂

    1. *whistles* Now those are three words I can live with, Sharon. Harper Collins Internship. Wahey, as they say in the big city 😀 Yes: you are the perfect Naughty Words Correspondent. I shall look forward to hearing more.

  18. I love slang, the more foreign and colorful the better. My high school French teacher spoke both French and Italian fluently (and was Italian by birth) and she taught us the art of insulting someone without cursing. It was a beautiful thing.

    I also love thesauruses (thesauri? a quick reveals both are correct). Perhaps a dictionary of slang should be my next acquisition?

    1. Oh, yes, Cameron. You’ll have such fun. But you might want to keep it on a high shelf as Felix begins to read…I have been cross referencing with my Shakespearean dictionary as well. That’s full of fabulous words. And those online dictionaries of cant and slang are peaches.

  19. I know I am echoing all your poster by saying this post was delightful, but I so very much love words and word origins and created cants for various sub-cultures… I kept this post open for three days just so I could give it its fair due and tell you how much I appreciated. And though I don’t have a dog (and my cat’s version of that “woof” is to run panicked around the house once, rub against my leg and then vanish for hours on end), I do know the woof you speak of. It is unmistakable.

    1. Eden, what a lovely comment! Your words are much appreciated. Like all of us wordsmiths, I guess you and I are drawn to cants of all kinds.
      And I love that non-verbal alert mechanism: what a clever cat you have 🙂

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