It must be annoying to be one of the criminal fraternity and have to keep making up slang terms for your day’s work. Especially when some of the jobs you’ve been involved in stop being lucrative and eventually become retired. Quite apart from anything else, it takes time for a new slang term to percolate around your gang and their contacts, so must be galling to suddenly discover your roaring trade in knock-off Beatle wigs or stolen filofaxes has been superseded by the changing times.
This collection salutes those terms that have fallen from use partly because they are old and language is always changing, and partly because nobody (or at least, practically nobody) commits these criminal offences in quite this way anymore.
They are all taken from the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, an 1811 compendium of utter filth, by Francis Grose. There is every change we shall make a return to extracts from this tome in subsequent posts:
Christening – the act of taking a stolen watch and erasing the name of its maker, replacing it with the name of a fake maker.
Amusers – thieves who would throw snuff (or dust) into the eyes of their victims in order to rob them of the valuables.
Blue pigeons – thieves who go after the lead off from church roofs and houses.
Autem divers – pickpockets who work mainly during church services.
Rub bubbers (or Clank Nappers) – people who steal silver tankards from pubs.
Ark ruffians – waterside robbers who would start a row with passengers on a boat, climb aboard, beat their victims, strip them and cast them overboard. Also called badgers.
Pinch on the Parson’s side – to defraud the parson of his tithe.
Buffer – someone who steals animals—horses and dogs, mostly—and sells their skins.
Sneaking budge – to break into a house (possibly using a little cudgel or small tool known as a bess or betty) with the express intention of stealing clothes, specifically cloaks.
Reverence – this one is just plain gross. It was considered a fair punishment for indecency—should someone be caught having a poo near a footpath or highway and the person catching them say the word reverence—that without moving, they should take off their hat with their teeth and toss it back over their heads, so that it would roll down their backs and become fouled. A refusal to do so could result in being pushed over, with a similar result (only worse). This is referred to as “an ancient custom,” which does make you bless the invention of the public lavatory.
Parson – a priest.
Tithe – a regular payment made to the church, most commonly 1/10 of a person’s annual wage.
Cudgel – a short club or hitting stick of some sort.
Tankard – a metal cup for drinking beer.
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