History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 August 2012

Getting your money at the best

While researching A Lily Among Thorns, I came across James Hardy Vaux's Dictionary of the Flash Language (included as an appendix in his Memoirs) (the first autobiography AND the first dictionary written in Australia!). It's a great resource for criminal vocabulary because Vaux is a dedicated author--he includes really detailed usage notes. The footnote on the original dedication of the book (dated 1812, although it looks like the book wasn't published until 1819):

"The Author (a prisoner under sentence of transportation for life) having, by an alleged act of impropriety, incurred the Governor's displeasure, was at this period banished to Newcastle, a place of punishment for offenders: these sheets were there compiled during his solitary hours of cessation from hard labour; and the Commandant was accordingly presented by the Author with the first copy of his production."

This is a two-part post because there are too many great entries I want to share with you, but here's part one:

ARM-PITS: To work under the arm-pits, is to practise only such kinds of depradation, as will amount, upon conviction, to what the law terms single, or petty larceny; the extent of punishment for which is transportation for seven years. By following this system, a thief avoids the halter, which certainly is applied above the arm-pits.

BEST: to get your money at the best, signifies to live by dishonest or fraudulent practices, without labour or industry, according to the general acceptation of the latter word; but, certainly, no persons have more occasion to be industrious, and in a state of perpetual action than cross-coves [criminals, as opposed to square-coves, honest men]; and experience has proved, when too late, to many of them, that honesty is the best policy; and consequently, that the above phrase is by no means à-propos.

BOUNCE: to bully, threaten, talk loud, or affect great consequence; to bounce  a person out of any thing, is to use threatening or high words, in order to intimidate him, and attain the object you are intent upon; or to obtain goods of a tradesman, by assuming the appearance of great respectability and importance, so as to remove any suspicious he might at first entertain. A thief, detected in the commission of a robbery, has been known by this sort of finesse, aided by a genteel appearance and polite manners, to persuade his accusers of his innocence, and not only to get off with a good grace, but induce them to apologize for their supposed mistake, and the affront put upon him. This masterstroke of effrontery is called giving it to 'em upon the bounce.

CAT and KITTEN RIG: the petty game of stealing pewter quart and pint pots from public-houses.

CHRISTEN: obliterating the name and number on the movement of a stolen watch; or the crest, cipher, &c., on articles of plate, and getting others engraved, so as to prevent their being identified, is termed having them bishop'd or christen'd.

COME TO THE HEATH: a phrase signifying to pay or give money, and synonymous with Tipping, from which word it takes its rise, there being a place called Tiptree Heath, I believe, in the County of Essex.

CRAB: to prevent the perfection or execution of any intended matter or business, by saying any thing offensive or unpleasant, is called crabbing it, or throwing a crab; to crab a person, is to use such offensive language or behaviour as will highly displease, or put him in an ill humour.

DINGABLE: any thing considered worthless, or which you can well spare, having no further occasion for it, is declared to be dingable. This phrase is often applied by sharps to a flat whom they have cleaned out; and by abandoned women to a keeper, who having spent his all upon them, must be discarded, or ding'd as soon as possible.

DRUMMOND: any scheme or project considered to be infallible, or any event which is deemed inevitably certain, is declared to be a a Drummond; meaning, it is as sure as the credit of that respectable banking-house, Drummond and Co.

FLESH-BAG: a shirt.

(Let's just look at that one again:

FLESH-BAG: a shirt.


FLAT: [I'm really happy about this one because I was so upset that "mark," meaning the target of a con man, is out of period, but then I realized "flat" can be used almost exactly the same way!] In a general sense, any honest man, or square cove, in opposition to a sharp or cross-cove; when used particularly, it means the person whom you have a design to rob or defraud, who is termed the flat, or the flatty-gory. A man who does any foolish or imprudent act, is called a flat; any person who is found an easy dupe to the designs of the family, is said to be a prime flat. It's a good flat that's never down, is a proverb among flash people; meaning, that though a man may be repeatedly duped or taken in, he must in the end have his eyes opened to his folly.

GO-ALONGER: a simple easy person, who suffers himself to be made a tool of, and is readily persuaded to any act or undertaking by his associates, who inwardly laugh at his folly, and ridicule him behind his back.

GO OUT: to follow the profession of thieving; two or more persons who usually rob in company, are said to go out together.

KIDDY: a thief of the lower order, who, when he is breeched [in funds], by a course of successful depradation, dresses in the extreme of vulgar gentility, and affects a knowingness in his air and conversation, which renders him in reality an object of ridicule; such a one is pronounced by his associates of the same class, a flash-kiddy or a rolling-kiddy. My kiddy is a familiar term used by these gentry in addressing each other.

KID-RIG: meeting a child in the streets who is going on some errand, and by a false, but well fabricated story, obtaining any parcel or goods it may be carrying; this game is practised by two persons, who have each their respective parts to play, and even porters and other grown persons are sometimes defrauded of their load by this artifice. To kid a person out of any thing, is to obtain from him by means of a false pretence, as that you were sent by a third person, &c.; such impositions are all generally termed the kid-rig.

KNAPPING A JACOB FROM A DANNA-DRAG. This is a curious species of robbery, or rather borrowing without leave, for the purpose of robbery; it signifies taking away the short ladder from a nightman's cart, while the men are gone into a house, the privy of which they employed emptying, in order to effect an ascent to a one-pair-of-stairs window, to scale a garden-wall, &c., after which the ladder, of course, is left to rejoin its master as it can.

Do you have a favorite bit of old slang? A favorite language reference book?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I searched for John Henry Vaux in Google Books and the first item in the results was the Australian Dictionary of Biography for Vaux, which suggests that he wrote the dictionary in 1811-12 while in Newcastle penal colony for the benefit of magistrates (presumably so they could understand the evidence they were hearing). It says that the Dictionary "gives a valuable glossary of London slang". I wonder whether the thieves language evolved differently in Australia over the nineteenth century to that in London over the same period?

11:34 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

This is great! I think most of us fall back on Grose. I know I do. But there's also The Canting Academy, or Devil's Cabinet Opened, which is a 17th century dictionary of thieves' cant.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

helenajust--It must have, right? I've just started reading the memoirs and I'm pretty sure his real goal was to 1) make money and 2) suck up to magistrates in the hopes of ameliorating his own legal situation. He seems like a guy with an eye for the main chance! (As well as a very talented writer.)

Isobel--I love it, and it's pretty extensive. He clearly took the project very seriously. He almost always explains how the word is used in a sentence, and so many examples of different ways to use the same word!

10:50 AM  
Blogger Sue Bursztynski said...

I like "carry on like a two bob watch". It goes back to the fifties, I think. A two-bob watch was cheap and nasty and didn't work well.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Sue Bursztynski said...

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4:11 PM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

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11:20 AM  

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