Friday, March 04, 2005

I Love This Stuff

One of the best reasons to be a writer is that you get to poke your nose into all sorts of information, and you learn any number of nifty things, most of them useless (unless you go on "Jeopardy" or play a lot of Trivial Pursuit). This morning I was cruising through Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a very useful book of slang and cant, published first in 1811. It's interesting how many things were in use then which are still common now: if I tried to use the word "Dude" in the current book (set in 1811, as it happens) I don't doubt readers would rebel against it as too modern. (Dude isn't in Grose, but I've found it elsewhere, and it's acceptably period, thanks.)

This morning I reacquainted myself with chummage, the definition of which included another phrase I would not have thought to use as too modern, and whose usage I would not have guessed:

CHUMMAGE. Money paid by the richer sort of prisoners in the Fleet and King's Bench, to the poorer, for their share of a room. When prisons are very full, which is too often the case, particularly on the eve of an insolvent act, two or three persons are obliged to sleep in a room. A prisoner who can pay for being alone, chuses two poor chums, who for a stipulated price, called chummage, give up their share of the room, and sleep on the stairs, or, as the term is, ruff it.

This makes me wonder if "ruff it" is simply the author's choice of spelling (English was pretty rough-and-ready in the spelling department even in 1811) or whether it has another meaning or origin. I suppose I'm also delighted by this because YG's summer camp is Camp Roughing It (they do not, to my knowledge, make the children nap on stairs).

The racket at the prisons at the time, which were semi-private in operation, was that prisoners had to pay for everything above the most brutally bare minimum: food, light, blankets, space. You even had to pay a fee for your fetters: the more money you spent, the lighter the fetters were, and the more range of motion they permitted. So if you were really poor, sleeping on the stairs might have sounded like a good deal if it meant extra money for a decent meal or lighter bonds.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely grim stuff, innit?

What's your period source for "dude"? You might want to send it in to the OED and whoever's doing Partridge these days. They both say it's a Wildean-era neologism.

1. A name given in ridicule to a man affecting an exaggerated fastidiousness in dress, speech, and deportment, and very particular about what is aesthetically ‘good form’; hence, extended to an exquisite, a dandy, ‘a swell’.

1883 Graphic 31 Mar. 319/1 The ‘Dude’ sounds like the name of a bird. It is, on the contrary, American slang for a new kind of American young man..The one object for which the dude exists is to tone down the eccentricities of fashion..The silent, subfusc, subdued ‘dude’ hands down the traditions of good form. 1883 North Adams (Mass.) Transcript 24 June, The new coined word ‘dude’..has travelled over the country with a great deal of rapidity since but two months ago it grew into general use in New York.


8:47 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Now, of course, when you ask, I can't recall where I read that "dude" was contemporaneous with Grose. What I recall is that I blinked when I read it. Will have to go through my books and see what I can find; it is quite possible that I mis-remembered, but the basic principle--that there is language people think is quite new, which is actually pretty old.

8:53 PM  

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