Ever groped for trout in a peculiar river? Know the difference between a quimstake and a dry mouthed widow? Slang is one of the most delightful things about the English language, and nobody knows this better than Jonathon Green, the author of Green's Dictionary of Slang and perhaps the foremost lexicographer of slang in the world.
"I was always a great fan of slang," Green says. "I'm 69 and I've been doing it for well over 30 years now. It is my life's work, in everything sense."
Over his career, Green has collected 130,000 words and phrases and about 600,000 accompanying examples. (You can see the full archive on his website The Timelines of Slang.)
"Although it's always reinventing itself—and this is true of all of slang—there are basic themes that never go away," he explains. "If you go back to the 16th century and the 17th century, you can see that the penis is always going to be a gun, a club, a knife, a dagger—in other words, some kind of boys' toy. The vagina is always going to be this frightening, scary, dark hole. And that's because slang is 99 percent written from a male point of view."
If you want to see the ingenuity of slang in action, look no further than all the bizarre words and sayings people have used over the centuries to mean penis, vagina, and sex. We asked Green to explain a few of the weirdest ones.
A bit of summer cabbage (circa 1895)
"Summer cabbage" is hard to work out, I must admit. It means to have sex. "Cabbage" itself is used in slang to mean the vagina, as has the "cauliflower," the "mushroom," and the "artichoke." There's also "take a turn among the cabbages" to mean have sex. Let's put this one down to a late Victorian slang joke.
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Box the Jesuit (c. 18th century)
According to my predecessor Francis Grose, who wrote slang dictionaries in the 18th century, it was a Navy term. Grose says it is a sea term for masturbation, and then he comments, "a crime it is said, much practiced by the reverend fathers of that society." This is traditional anti-religiosity to do with the Jesuits, who were not well thought of in England—particularly in the 18th century when this was coined.
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Clatterdevengeance (c. 1659)
This is one of my favorites. It comes from the mid-17th century and it means the penis. It sums up slang's take on the organ, in a way: You've got the macho noise of "clatter" and this image of a man waving it around; you've also, with "vengeance" got slang's invariable misogyny. There's a story that goes with it—I found it in a propaganda news-sheet from the English Civil War—this soldier goes into a bar and claims he's going to rape all the barmaids. The barmaids, however, have their own big knife; they advance on him with it, pull out his clatterdevengeance, threaten to cut it off, and he faints. So it's a triumph for womankind!
Dry mouthed widow (c. 1942)
The dry mouthed widow is the hand—the dry hand that substitutes for the wet vagina. There's a lot of terms of this sort, like "Rosie Palm and her Five Daughters" and "Mrs Palm and her Five Daughters." They all refer to the hand that a man uses to masturbate.
Engage in three to one and bound to lose (c. 1793)
This is a late 18th century term. Again, it means to have sex. The "three" represents the penis and the two testicles, the "one" is the vagina, and the "loss" is of semen when you ejaculate.
Flock of geese flying out of one's backside (c. 1959)
This is a fine Australian phrase that is an attempt to represent orgasm. One must consider this sensation to be a positive term!
Grope for trout in a peculiar river (c. 1603)
Basically, the peculiar river is the vagina. This is a class act, because this is Shakespeare from the play Measure for Measure. It's one of the earliest versions of the equation of women and fish. You do get an "old trout" to mean an old woman, but that is a hundred or so years later. Basically, the peculiar river is the vagina. Why "peculiar"? It's slang's male point of view again.
Holy poker (c. 1860)
Originally, the holy poker was an instrument of punishment used on souls who were in purgatory. But this is a pun on "hole" and a pun on "poke", and it's the penis. Nothing else to say, really!
Irish toothache (c. 1883)
The poor Irish do very badly in slang. Slang is not kind to them. The "Irish toothache" means "erect penis"—so intercourse is "to give a hot poultice to the Irish toothache". This is one of those pretty rare slang terms which comes from the woman's point of view. She, through the heat of her sexually aroused vagina, is giving a "hot poultice" to this poor bloke who's got the Irish toothache.
Johnny Hog-Leg (c. 1978)
A hog-leg is the nickname for a Colt Single Action Army revolver, otherwise known, some might suggest paradoxically, as the peacemaker. Johnny Hog-Leg—a man with a large penis—dates to 1978. It's not terribly common.
Knight of the golden grummet (c. 1935)
Knight of the golden grummet refers to a homosexual person, particularly one who takes the passive role in anal sex. A grummet is British navy jargon for a rope ring. "Gold," in terms of slang, means excrement. In the 16th and 17th century, when people went around to empty cesspits and collected what was called nightsoil, they were either called Tom Turdman—which is pretty obvious—or a goldfinder. So the golden grummet is, to be coarse, the arsehole.
Like a herd of turtles (c. 1940s)
This is another fine Australian image. It's used for a woman who has sex enthusiastically. This is from the late 1940s: "You ought to take her out to the toolies [tool shed], she'll go like a herd of turtles!" Whether a herd of turtles are particularly sexually excitable, I do not know. It defeats me, this one.
Master John Goodfellow (c. 1653)
This is one of many words coined by the writer and translator Sir Thomas Urquhart in his English version of Rabelais' epic 'novel' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais was big on lists, making up many of the synonyms himself, and Urquhart had to find English words to match. Here is one for penis, that of the infant Pantagruel who, being a giant, presumably already boasted an impressive member. The list derives from a scene in which that same penis, an object of both wonder and delight, is being dandled by an enthusiastic gaggle of court ladies. Urquhart translates this as: "One of them would call it her pillicock, her fiddle-diddle, her staff of love, her tickle-gizzard, her gentle-titler. …" There are lots more.
Nebuchadnezzar on the greens (c. 1890)
This refers to the penis, and dates back to around 1900. It comes from Nebuchadnezzar II, the King of Babylon and is a play on the slang "greens," which in the 19th century meant intercourse, and the king's madness, during which period he ate grass. The somewhat ponderous joke being that since grass is green, the king and the penis both enjoyed "greens."
Off at Hill Gate (c. 1976)
This is one of a number of terms for coitus interruptus—the joke being that in all cases the man "gets off" one stop before a given railway terminus. There are lots of other slang words which refer to the same thing and use various railway stations one stop before the end of the line, including "off at Edge Hill," "off at Gateshead," "off at Green Island," and so on.
Paw paw tricks (c. 1896)
This is presumably from "paw," the word for a hand (originally used for animals, and then humans). It refers to masturbation, which seems to play on the idea of a hand. But it also refers to any form of naughty, childish trick and was originally used by nurses on children. In 1788, Grose suggests it is derived from the French word "pas, pas", possibly spoken by a French nurse.
Quimstake (c. 1890)
Quimstake is very simple. It's a compound of "quim," meaning vagina, and the "stake" is the image of the penis as a weapon—in this case a stick. So it's a vagina stick; a penis. There is also quim wedge, which means the same thing.
"Up the bum, no babies!" This is defined as anal intercourse as a means of contraception.
Rufus (c. 1900)
"Rufus" in Latin means red. The word in slang is used of the female genitals, so this refers to the genitals and pubic hair of a redheaded woman.
Swinging the dolphin (c. 1922)
This is another of these naval phrases for masturbation. The "dolphin", if you want to look at it that way, is the penis and the hand swings it in masturbation. Swinging the dolphin is the naval equivalent of the army term "blanket drill," which means "in bed and masturbating."
Tippet de witchet (c. 1700)
Tippet de witchet is the vagina. The tippet is defined in the OED as a long narrow slip of cloth or hanging part of the dress, formally worn either attached to or forming part of a hood, headdress or sleeve. The point being, the woman wears a certain garment and by metonymy, the tippet comes to mean the female genitals. You get a similar thing with "smock". The "witchet" may just be assonance to create a pleasing sound.
UTBNB (c. 1999)
"Up the bum, no babies!" This is defined as anal intercourse as a means of contraception. Whether people still use it, I don't know. This came from a wonderful book called Roget's Profanosaurus, which in turn is produced by Viz Comics. It says "a reliable but illegal contraceptive device, the opposite of an IUD."
Vice versa (c. 1940)
This is very simple. It's the alphabetical version of what it is, which is a 69. It's as simple as that. This is used in a gay context. Thus in 1940, we find an Australian writer using "vice versa" in in this line "Likes his vice versa […] I always thought he was a bit of a horse's hoof!" "Hoof" is rhyming slang for "poof."
There are a number of terms in which the vagina is seen as a way of a woman making money. There's the money maker, there's the breadwinner, and the bank.
Watergate (c. 1560)
This is a vagina which has become moist with sexual excitement. Watergates were something you had in irrigation systems, and the gate is a word for vagina. It's 1560, which is pretty much almost as far back as slang has been collected.
Exchequer (c. 1680)
There are a number of terms in which the vagina is seen as a commodity; a way of a woman making money. There's the "money maker," there's the "breadwinner," and the "bank." In the case of the bank and the exchequer, there's an extra pun on "making a deposit" – meaning the ejaculation of semen. This is from 1680.
Yo-yo (c. 1929)
Yo-yo is another pun for penis, usually a small one. Like the penis, a yo-yo "goes up and down" – another pun, and like many of slang's efforts, gruesome stuff!
Zum-zum (c. 2004)
Zum-zum is from the Caribbean, the West Indies. It means the vagina. It might be a variation on the better-known "pum pum," which comes from the Creole African language for "pumbe," which means the female vulva.