The Dictionary We Wanted As Kids, But Never Knew Existed

I was 9 or 10 years old when I first discovered the best, most important use of the dictionary: Looking up swear words and giggling like a maniac.

Unfortunately, my school didn't have the good dictionaries. It had the lame student dictionaries, the ones without any fun words in it. You had to go to the library to find the good dictionaries.

There's one dictionary I wish we had when I was a kid, Francis Grose's "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue."

Nearly 30 years after Samuel Johnson published his wildly successful Dictionary Of The English Language in 1755, Grose decided to live up to his (sort of) namesake publish his own dictionary of potty words and vulgar language.

Grose in name, gross in nature.

According to the British Library's website, "Grose was one of the first lexicographers to collect slang words from all corners of society, not just from the professional underworld of pickpockets and bandits."

His "Vulgar Tongue" became one of the most important slang dictionaries in the English language in the 19th century because it was such a strong influence of other dictionaries of slang words, curse words, and regional dialects.

In other news, people write dictionaries of slang words and curse words, and now I want one. If you ever wondered what to get me for my birthday, put those at the top of your list.

I'm a well-known word nerd, someone who loves learning the etymology of language and phrases. For example, I know the answer to George Carlin's question, "Why do we drive in a parkway and park in a driveway?" I know what an interrobang is. And I know words that rhyme with "purple," "orange," "silver," and "month," words that supposedly have no rhymes.

Plus, my inner 10-year-old still loves giggling over words like "tallywags."

"A Vulgar Tongue" gave us such colorful and fun words like "bum fodder" (toilet paper), "blind cupid" (one's backside), and "fart catcher" (a footman or valet). There are a few others, but this is a family newspaper, so I'll put them on my website at

That's also where you can find out what "tallywags" means.

But this isn't just a bunch of 234-year-old words that everyone has forgotten. There are some words that have stayed with us over the last nearly-two-and-a-half centuries.

According to a 2015 story on the BBC website, Grose was the first lexicographer to record the phrases "fly-by-night," "birds of a feather," "cat call," "kick the bucket," "screw" (yes, it's what you think), "chatterbox," and "gibberish." These words would have been only been spoken by the ghosts of history if he hadn't written them down. Even "gambs" (thin, ill-shaped legs) still survived into the 1940s and '50s in gangster movies, referring to legs in general.

For "a brother of the quill" (writer) like me, this makes Francis Grose and his assistant, Tom Cocking, heroes of the English language. They may not be the heroes we wanted, but they're certainly the heroes — no, that's wrong. They're the heroes every 12-year-old boy wanted.

Because they gave us terms like "dog booby" (an awkward lout), "betwattled" ( to be surprised, confounded, out of one’s senses), and "looking as if one could not help it" (a simpleton).

If you're a real "whipster" (a sharp or subtle person) and you want to get a sense of how we spoke over 200 years ago, check out "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue" for yourself. Look for the words and phrases we still use ("Penny wise and pound foolish") and those we don't ("bottle-headed," which means devoid of wit).

You can even find some words we use whose meanings have completely changed, like "fizzle," which Grose defined as "A small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs."

I told you language could be fun!

Finally, if I may be so bold as to insert a personal commercial: I recently completed my first humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, and it's available on Amazon. I worked on this book for four years, and it's what helped me get my writer's residency at the Kerouac House in 2016. If you've enjoyed my humor columns over the years, then you'll enjoy the novel. If you've hated my columns, then buy the book for your enemies. Or you could really do some damage and give them two copies.

Photo credit: Portrait of Francis Grose, frontispiece to Supplement to The Antiquities of England and Wales (1787) (The British Museum, Creative Commons 4.0)

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available on Amazon. You can get the Kindle version here or the paperback version here.