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Smithfield Slang

March 16, 2024
by the gentle author

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Jonathon Green, the foremost lexicographer of slang, introduces his predecessor Robert Copland who is believed to have recorded slang for the first time at the entrance to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield in the sixteenth century.

Jonathon Green in Smithfield

After forty years as a lexicographer of slang, everything appears through the gaudy, gruesome, grubby prism of the vulgar tongue, the resolutely oppositional vocabulary I call the ‘counter-language.’ Even Smithfield, which has taken life from its hosting of dead flesh – both human and animal – for eight-hundred years and is now facing cultural extinction at the hands of ever-vampiric, philistine greed.

Occasionally, I like to walk there in the early hours, dodging the abattoir trucks and glorying in this longevity, but glorying above all that across the way, outside St Bartholemew’s Hospital, the first devotee of my craft assembled the first slang ‘dictionary’. It is not quite a dictionary, just a few words included in a lengthy narrative poem, and it is not exactly slang, as spoken by the mass, but simply the ‘cant,’ or criminal jargon of wandering beggars. Yet even slang lexicographers need a creation myth and this is it. That Barts was founded by Rahere, who may have played jester to Henry I, compounds the pleasure – for what else does slang do but let wit murmur doubt in the ears of complacent power?

The poem’s author was Robert Copland, a printer, bookseller and stationer, of whom we know frustratingly little beyond a professional life spanning the years 1508-47. He worked primarily as an assistant to the printer Wynkyn de Worde who, in turn, had been William Caxton’s principle assistant from 1476 until the master-printer’s death c.1491. Indeed Copland claimed to have worked for Caxton too. In the preface to his book Kynge Apollyon of Thyre (1510) he states that he gladly follows ‘the trace of my mayster Caxton, begyninge with small storyes and pamfletes, and so to other,’ but given their respective dates, this relationship is more likely figurative than factual.

By 1547, it would seem that Copland in his turn had taken on the role of London’s leading printer, although this position had fallen upon him through chronology – de Worde had died in 1535 – rather than any particularly outstanding talent. Andrew Borde, writing that year in Prognostications or The Pryncyples of Astronamye, mentions ‘old Robert Copland… the eldist printer of Ingland.’ Somewhat later, writing in his Bibliographica Poetica, the eccentric eighteenth-century antiquary Joseph Ritson described him as ‘the father of his profession’ but this was overly generous. Still, the Dictionary of National Biography credits his contribution to the evolution of printing and, in The xij Fruytes of the Holy Ghost (1535), he uses the comma stop for the first time in a black letter book. Prior to that, the virgule (a thin sloping or upright line occurring in medieval manuscripts either denoting the caesura or as a punctuation-mark) or dash was the norm. He worked at times with his brother William who may have been that same William Copland who as church-warden of St Mary Bow donated a new bell, the Bow-bell, which chimed fifth in the ring. It was heard every night at nine, cheering the London apprentices, who on hearing the Bow-bell knew their day’s work was over. And to be within the sound of that bell, as would become traditional, was to mark one a true Londoner, a Cockney.

Copland’s catalogue ranged widely, including the first English translation of the surgeon Galen (1542) and the scatological Jyl of Braintford’s Testament (c.1535),  an early repository of the fart joke. Sometime between 1529 and 1534, Copland created the work for which he remains known. The Hye Way to the Spytell-Hous, loosely translated as ‘The Road to the Charity Clinic’- a spytell house being a form of charity foundation, dealing specifically with the poor and indigent and especially with those suffering from a variety of foul diseases. It is a verse dialogue, supposedly conducted  between Copland and the Spytell House Porter. Bart’s is not specified, but it has always been the assumed backdrop and it would have been a short walk from the printer’s shop at the sign of the Rose Garland near the Fleet bridge.

Trapped in the hospital porch by a snow storm, Copland strikes up a conversation with the Porter, taking as their subject the crowd of beggars who besiege the Spytell House ‘Scabby and scurvy, pock-eaten flesh and rind / Lousy and scald [scabby], and peeléd [naked] like an apes / With scantly a rag for to cover their shapes, / Breechless, barefooted, all stinking with dirt.’ The pair discuss why some are allowed in and others rejected and, within this framework, Copland notes and the Porter describes the various categories of beggars and thieves, as well as the tricks and frauds that are their stock in trade.

The Hye Way falls into two halves, the first focussing on beggars, the second on fools. Whatever the source of the ‘criminological’ verses, the second half would appear to have been influenced by Robert de Balzac, one of the minor French writers whose work Copland would have known, and author of Le Chemin de l’Ospital (The Road to the Hospital) 1502. And while de Balzac’s catalogue of fools does not deal in crime, it undoubtedly gave the English author his title.

Copland provides vivid descriptions of a wide range of what would become known as ‘the canting crew’ – ‘diddering and doddering, leaning on their staves, / Saying “Good master, for your mother’s blessing, / Give us a halfpenny.”’ Some, explains the Porter, are justified in their beggary, others are not.

By day on stilts or Stooping on crutches
And so dissimule as false loitering slowches,
With bloody clouts all about their leg,
And placers [plasters] on their skin when they go beg.
Some counterfeit lepry, and other some
Put soap in their mouth to make it scum,
And fall down as Saint Cornelys’ evil [epilepsy].
These deceits they use worse than any devil;
And when they be in their own company,
They be as whole as either you or I.

The Porter also describes such ‘nightingales of Newgate’ (the great prison was but a stone’s-throw from Bart’s) as those who claim to have been imprisoned in France ‘and had been there seven years in durance,’ or falsely imprisoned in London only to face poverty on their release. And explains how, once enough money has been earned, all such villains repair to brothels and taverns, dressing up in far from ragged finery and making ‘gaudy cheer.’  There are false scholars, and quack doctors, and – inevitably – corrupt clergy, whom the Porter characterises as monks, driven from the dissolved monasteries and posing as Pardoners. And as his descriptions reach their end, the Porter offers a list.

For by letters they name them as they be
P a Pardoner; Clewner a C;
R a Roger; A an Aurium, and a Sapient.

The clewner, a senior villain, may be linked to the Gaelic cluainear, a cunning fellow, a hypocrite, Erse cluanaire, a seducer, a flatterer, or Manx cleaynagh, a tempter.  The Roger pretended to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge. pronounced with a hard ‘g’, the word is ostensibly a version of Southern-English rogue, but may be linked to Gaelic ruaigair, a pursuer, a hunter, and Lowland Scottish rugger, an outlaw. The aurium is a fake priest, possibly from Latin aurius, an ear (i.e. that which hears confession), and the sapient a travelling quack, from Latin sapiens, a wise man, a term also found, with the same meaning, in the Liber Vagatorum.

In all, Copland’s verses offer fifty-one examples of cant. Among them are apple squire, a pimp – bouse, alcohol and bousy drunken – callet, a whore – cove, a man – darkmans, the night – dell, a young female tramp, still perhaps a virgin but seen as an embryonic whore – dock, to have sex, especially to deflower – gan, the mouth – instrument, the penis – jere, excremen – lift, to steal – make, a halfpenny – nab-cheat, a hat – nase, drunken – nug, to enjoy sexual foreplay – patrico, a priest or wandering beggar posing as one – peck, to eat – poke, a wallet or purse – poll, to rob by trickery rather than violence –prancer, a horse-thief – ruffler, a villain, of the ‘first rank of canters’ who posed as a discharged soldier though equally likely might have been a former servant – tour, to spy on and win, a penny.


Public execution at Smithfield, 1546

Etching of Robert Copland, possibly early nineteenth century  (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)

Robert Copland’s printer’s device

Robert Copland’s The Hye Way To The Spyttell House (1529-1534)

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The Cockney Alphabet by Jonathon Green

4 Responses leave one →
  1. March 16, 2024

    The only puzzle for me is when does slang remain slang and when does it become mainstream English?

  2. March 16, 2024

    Wonderful article! I love language, and the evolution of language, and the vernacular of various locations… they fascinate me. An Irish farmer has a vocabulary vastly different from the vocabulary of a Norfolk farmer, for example, and both might be incomprehensible to a Londoner, but it’s all English.

    If you ever find yourself with nothing to do for a few hours (ha!), look up William Holloway’s ‘A General Dictionary of Provincialisms’ (1838), which is in the British Museum and available digitally on Google Books. It contains thousands of regional words that have fallen out of usage (and many that have not), and many of them are colourful and evocative. It also traces their origins.

  3. March 16, 2024

    What a great article! Thank you.

  4. March 16, 2024

    Mother’s milk!!!!!! I absolutely love slang, dialects, specialized terms, and arcane phrases.
    My father’s family is from Western Pennsylvania, and growing up in Pittsburgh exposed me to
    a lavish brew of multi-ethnic terminology, exclamations, curses, entreaties, and suchlike. When my mother commanded me to “Go red up your room!”, she was using slang inspired by the Scottish phrase, “to make ready”. Throughout childhood and my teen years, I enjoyed being surrounded by the vibrant slang of Poles, Italians, Russians, African Americans, Scots, Germans and more. The steel mills that defined Pittsburgh was a gateway for all those groups, and made the town (dubbed “Hell with the lid off” ) the most remarkable place to grow up. I wouldn’t change a flake of coal dust.

    My Dad, who spent his youth playing baseball throughout the Mid Atlantic and the South, became a master curator of regional slang and local customs. As an athlete, “luck” was always a welcome thing, and he learned a zillion “lucky” superstitions. Pass a field, and see a white horse? — One must immediately lick their thumb, and imprint that into the fist of the other hand, officially “stamping” the horse sighting. A guarantee of good luck. He had lucky socks. No hats on the bed. Ohhhhhhh, NEVER a hat on the bed. And so on. Now I am the happy keeper of the superstitions, the phrases, the (forgive me) profane jokes, and the memories.

    Thank you GA for a fascinating post on a treasured topic. Hurrah!

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