Dictionaries (William H. Gass)

Dictionaries are supposed to influence usage. Usage is what dictionaries record. “This is what we have meant,” they say; “continue in the same vein so that communication will be accurate, reliable, and fluent.” Then the next dictionary will record that fidelity, and issue the same command, which will complete the cycle. Among users, however, there are many who are incompetent, inventive, or disobedient. The French Academy tries to drive strays back into the herd. English has no comparable guardian and its speakers lack every discipline. Soon meanings have multiplied or slid or mushed, and niceties—delicate distinctions—lost along the way. In this haphazard fashion, influence has come to mean a kind of causality that operates only through the agency of a consciousness. Where this puts the stars, I’m not sure. Because of smog or city glare, we often don’t even know the stars are there.

From: William H. Gass’s essay “Influence.” Collected in A Temple of Texts.

Entries under “E” from Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)

The following definitions are from the “E” section of Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811).

EARNEST. A deposit in part of payment, to bind a bargain.


EASY. Make the cull easy or quiet; gag or kill him. As easy as pissing the bed.

EASY VIRTUE. A lady of easy virtue: an impure or prostitute.

EAT. To eat like a beggar man, and wag his under jaw; a jocular reproach to a proud man. To eat one’s words; to retract what one has said.

TO EDGE. To excite, stimulate, or provoke; or as it is vulgarly called, to egg a man on. Fall back, fall edge; i.e. let what will happen. Some derive to egg on, from the Latin word, AGE, AGE.

EIGHT EYES. I will knock out two of your eight eyes; a common Billingsgate threat from one fish nymph to another: every woman, according to the naturalists of that society, having eight eyes; viz. two seeing eyes, two bub-eyes, a bell-eye, two pope’s eyes, and a ***-eye. He has fallen down and trod upon his eye; said of one who has a black eye.

ELBOW GREASE. Labour. Elbow grease will make an oak
table shine.

ELBOW ROOM. Sufficient space to act in. Out at elbows;
said of an estate that is mortgaged.

ELBOW SHAKER. A gamester, one who rattles Saint Hugh’s
bones, i.e. the dice.

ELLENBOROUGH LODGE. The King’s Bench Prison. Lord
Ellenborough’s teeth; the chevaux de frize round the top
of the wall of that prison.

ELF. A fairy or hobgoblin, a little man or woman.

EMPEROR. Drunk as an emperor, i.e. ten times as drunk as a lord.


ENSIGN BEARER. A drunken man, who looks red in the face, or hoists his colours in his drink.

EQUIPT. Rich; also, having new clothes. Well equipt; full of money, or well dressed. The cull equipped me with a brace of meggs; the gentleman furnished me with. a couple of guineas.

ESSEX LION. A calf; Essex being famous for calves, and
chiefly supplying the London markets.

ESSEX STILE. A ditch; a great part of Essex is low marshy
ground, in which there are more ditches than Stiles.

ETERNITY Box. A coffin.

EVES. Hen roosts.

EVE’S CUSTOM-HOUSE, where Adam made his first entry.
The monosyllable.

EVES DROPPER. One that lurks about to rob hen-roosts; also a listener at doors and windows, to hear private conversation.

EVIL. A halter. Cant, Also a wife.

EWE. A white ewe; a beautiful woman. An old ewe, drest lamb fashion; an old woman, drest like a young girl.

EXECUTION DAY. Washing day.

EXPENDED. Killed: alluding to the gunner’s accounts, wherein the articles consumed are charged under the title of expended. Sea phrase.

EYE. It’s all my eye and Betty Martin. It’s all nonsense, all mere stuff.

EYE-SORE. A disagreeable object. It will be an eye-sore as long as she lives, said by a limn whose wife was cut for a fistula in ano.

Entries under “D” from Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)

The following definitions are from the “D” section of Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811).


DAB. An adept; a dab at any feat or exercise. Dab,
quoth Dawkins, when he hit his wife on the a-se with a
pound of butter.

DACE. Two pence. Tip me a dace; lend me two pence.

DADDLES. Hands. Tip us your daddle; give me your hand.

DADDY. Father. Old daddy; a familiar address to an old man. To beat daddy mammy; the first rudiments of drum beating, being the elements of the roll.

DAGGERS. They are at daggers drawing; i.e. at enmity,
ready to fight.

DAIRY. A woman’s breasts, particularly one that gives
suck. She sported her dairy; she pulled out her breast.

DAISY CUTTER. A jockey term for a horse that does not lift up his legs sufficiently, or goes too near the ground, and is therefore apt to stumble.

DAISY KICKERS. Ostlers at great inns.

DAM. A small Indian coin, mentioned in the Gentoo code of laws: hence etymologists may, if they please, derive the common expression, I do not care a dam, i.e. I do not care half a farthing for it.

DAMBER. A rascal. See DIMBER.

DAMME BOY. A roaring, mad, blustering fellow, a scourer of the streets, or kicker up of a breeze. Continue reading “Entries under “D” from Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)”

Entries under “C” from Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)

The following definitions are from the “C” section of Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811).

CABBAGE. Cloth, stuff, or silkpurloined by laylors from their employers, which they deposit in a place called HELL, or their EYE: from the first, when taxed, with their knavery, they equivocally swear, that if they have taken any, they wish they may find it in HELL; or, alluding to the second, protest, that what they have over and above is not more than they could put in their EYE.—When the scrotum is relaxed or whiffled, it is said they will not cabbage.

CAB. A brothel. Mother: how many tails have you in
your cab? how many girls have you in your bawdy house?

CACAFEOGO. A sh-te-fire, a furious braggadocio or bully

CACKLE. To blab, or discover secrets. The cull is leaky,
and cackles; the rogue tells all. CANT. See LEAKY.


CACKLER’S KEN. A hen roost. CANT.



CADDEE. A helper. An under-strapper.

CADGE. To beg. Cadge the swells; beg of the gentlemen. Continue reading “Entries under “C” from Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)”

Entries under “A” from Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)

The following definitions are from the “A” section of Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811).

ABBESS, or LADY ABBESS, A bawd, the mistress of a brothel.

ABEL-WACKETS. Blows given on the palm of the hand with a twisted handkerchief, instead of a ferula; a jocular punishment among seamen, who sometimes play at cards for wackets, the loser suffering as many strokes as he has lost games.

ABIGAIL. A lady’s waiting-maid.


ABRAM COVE. A cant word among thieves, signifying a naked or poor man; also a lusty, strong rogue.

ABRAM MEN. Pretended mad men.

TO SHAM ABRAM. To pretend sickness.

ACADEMY, or PUSHING SCHOOL. A brothel. The Floating Academy; the lighters on board of which those persons are confined, who by a late regulation are condemned to hard labour, instead of transportation.—Campbell’s Academy; the same, from a gentleman of that name, who had the contract for victualling the hulks or lighters.


ACCOUNTS. To cast up one’s accounts; to vomit.

Continue reading “Entries under “A” from Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)”

Write It Right, Ambrose Bierce’s Blacklist of Literary Faults

In addition to his famous Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce also composed another dictionary of sorts, Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Sample entry:

Commit Suicide. Instead of “He committed suicide,” say, He killed himself, or, He took his life. For married we do not say “committed matrimony.” Unfortunately most of us do say, “got married,” which is almost as bad. For lack of a suitable verb we just sometimes say committed this or that, as in the instance of bigamy, for the verb to bigam is a blessing that is still in store for us.

Bierce’s tongue-in-cheek introduction is particularly funny:

The author’s main purpose in this book is to teach precision in writing; and of good writing (which, essentially, is clear thinking made visible) precision is the point of capital concern. It is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else. As Quintilian puts it, the writer should so write that his reader not only may, but must, understand.

Few words have more than one literal and serviceable meaning, however many metaphorical, derivative, related, or even unrelated, meanings lexicographers may think it worth while to gather from all sorts and conditions of men, with which to bloat their absurd and misleading dictionaries. This actual and serviceable meaning—not always determined by derivation, and seldom by popular usage—is the one affirmed, according to his light, by the author of this little manual of solecisms. Narrow etymons of the mere scholar and loose locutions of the ignorant are alike denied a standing.

The plan of the book is more illustrative than expository, the aim being to use the terms of etymology and syntax as little as is compatible with clarity, familiar example being more easily apprehended than technical precept. When both are employed the precept is commonly given after the example has prepared the student to apply it, not only to the matter in mind, but to similar matters not mentioned. Everything in quotation marks is to be understood as disapproved.

Not all locutions blacklisted herein are always to be reprobated as universal outlaws. Excepting in the case of capital offenders—expressions ancestrally vulgar or irreclaimably degenerate—absolute proscription is possible as to serious composition only; in other forms the writer must rely on his sense of values and the fitness of things. While it is true that some colloquialisms and, with less of license, even some slang, may be sparingly employed in light literature, for point, piquancy or any of the purposes of the skilled writer sensible to the necessity and charm of keeping at least one foot on the ground, to others the virtue of restraint may be commended as distinctly superior to the joy of indulgence.

Precision is much, but not all; some words and phrases are disallowed on the ground of taste. As there are neither standards nor arbiters of taste, the book can do little more than reflect that of its author, who is far indeed from professing impeccability. In neither taste nor precision is any man’s practice a court of last appeal, for writers all, both great and small, are habitual sinners against the light; and their accuser is cheerfully aware that his own work will supply (as in making this book it has supplied) many “awful examples”—his later work less abundantly, he hopes, than his earlier. He nevertheless believes that this does not disqualify him for showing by other instances than his own how not to write. The infallible teacher is still in the forest primeval, throwing seeds to the white blackbirds.

Read/peruse/download Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right at Project Gutenberg.

“Probably a Mistake” — Flann O’Brien


Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors — Bill Bryson

That Bill Bryson’s Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors (new this week in paperback from Anchor Books) should surpass utility and be loads of fun as well seems almost unfair. Aren’t dictionaries and style manuals meant to be dry? brysonBryson’s title here is pretty honest; he’s made a dictionary of hard-to-remember/easy-to-forget words, including plenty of commonly misspelled words. In the age of spell-check, it’s not so much Bryson’s spellings that are essential as it is the context in which he puts his words. For instance, do you know the difference between “gabardine” and “gaberdine”? (“The first is a type of worsted cloth, the second a long cloak”). Bryson goes further (not farther!) than mere distinctions between words like “creole” and “pidgin” or “bravado” and “bravery”: he actually gets into the fray of how one ought to use words. Consider the entry on “past”:

“Often a space waster, as in this example: ‘Davis said the dry conditions had been a recurrent problem for the past thirty years.’ In this sentence, and in countless others like it, ‘the past’ could be deleted without any loss of sense. Equally tautological and to be avoided are such expressions as past records, past history, past achievements, and past precedents.”

The exasperation is almost palpable! When I first picked up the dictionary, I immediately checked out what Bryson had to say on one of my own pet peeves, “couldn’t of” as the contracted form of “couldn’t have.” Here’s Bryson, in a solution that mixes humor with a bit of common sense:

“As a shortened form of ‘couldn’t have,’ couldn’t of does unquestionably avoid the clumsy double contraction couldn’t’ve, a form not often seen in print since J.D. Salinger stopped writing. However, I would submit that that does not make it satisfactory. Using the preposition of as a surrogate for ‘ve seems to me simply to be swapping an ungainly form for an illiterate one. If couldn’t’ve is too painful to use, I would suggest simply writing couldn’t have and allowing the reader’s imagination to supply the appropriate inflection.

As we see, Bryson’s interest isn’t so much on presenting himself as an absolute authority on the English language as it is in helping writers to be more lucid. We see this again–with the same wittiness–when discussing the differences between “Shakespearean” and “Shakespearian”:

“The first is the usual spelling in America and the second is the usual spelling in Britain, but, interestingly, don’t look to The Oxford English Dictionary for guidance on any spellings concerning England’s greatest poet. Perversely and charmingly, but entirely unhelpfully, the OED insists on spelling the name Shakspere, a decision it based on one of the six spellings Shakespeare himself used. It does, however, acknowledge that Shakespeare is ‘perhaps’ the commonest spelling now used.

While Bryson’s Dictionary is plenty of fun for word nerds, it’s utility and ease-of-use are really what make it a must-have for writers. Bryson devotes 11 pages of his short, useful appendix to punctuation, a section that every young (or not so young) writer should read (the three pages he devotes to comma use are particularly insightful). In sum, Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors is a witty and intuitive aid that many a writer will love having on their desk. I know I do. Highly recommended.

Koinonia, Praxis, Heterotopia, and Other Ten Dollar Words

Lacking the lexicon to describe your aporia? Need the right words to negotiate a particularly difficult text? Try the Dictionary of Postmodern Terms then. Fun for solipsists, sophists, and psychoanalysts of all ages.