Whenever I come across an old word in a book or document and I don’t have a clue what it means, I refer to two old works online. The first is the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) by Francis Grose (no joke). There are two main websites I consult: www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5402 and www.fromoldbooks.org/Grose-VulgarTongue Another versions of it can be found on: http://vulgar.pangyre.org
This is a dictionary of British slang and words used among the common folk. For some of the definitions, Francis Grose seems to have drawn from the second work in this vulgar discussion; Nathan Bailey’s Dictionary of Theiving Slang (1736): http://words.fromoldbooks.org/NathanBailey-CantingDictionary or more appropriately “A Collection of the Canting Words and Terms, both ancient and modern, used by Beggars, Gypsies, Cheats, House-Breakers, Shop-Lifters, Foot-Pads, Highway-Men, &c.” By the way, Canting is defined in Bailey’s work as “the mysterious language of Rogues, Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, &c.”
Here’s how I use these vulgar dictionaries. If you’re researching the colonial white indentured servant trade you will see the term “To Spirit Away.” That simply meant to kidnap. Now don’t confuse that with a “Spiritual Flesh Broker” who was a [church] parson. If you’re researching human relations, then a “Fancy Man” is “A man kept by a lady for secret services;” while a Whore-Monger is “A man that keeps more than one mistress…”
Amazingly, some of the terms you will read in these works are similar to ones still in use today. These reference works do not have all the terms you might come across. However, they have enough to keep you amused for hours. Whoever said history was boring!