New Book: `Vernon Coleman’s Dictionary of Old English Words and Phrases’

Vernon Coleman

I started collecting Victorian and rarely used words when I began writing my series of 15 books describing the life of a young doctor in the village of Bilbury in Devon. I have no idea why I did this since the books were (and are) set in the 1970s, but it seemed a fun way to spice up the language. As a result, I now have a large library containing around 100 old dictionaries, books of quotations, thesauruses and books of slang and curious old English words. And, of course, printed matter, which is largely reliable, can always be supplemented with the internet, which is an endless and inspirational source of contradictions and confusions. Wherever possible I’ve tried to include a few etymological and historical references though I do have to admit that many etymological references probably owe as much to the imaginations of their originators as anything else.

This book is full of forgotten, out of use words, words which haven’t (officially) been used since the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, words which have been lost, abandoned, changed or suppressed and words which have changed their use since they were first introduced (the definitions I have given here are the original definitions). This is a book to take with you if you have an appointment where you know you will have to wait for longer than is decent or if you need to make a journey of indeterminate length. It is a book to dip in and out of; it is a book to entertain and to educate.

I hope this is a book which will, painlessly, help you expand your word power. These are words which are an essential part of the English language; a vital part of our culture and a part of our history which is endangered. Most of these words do not appear in standard, modern dictionaries and those that do are usually defined in other ways; as a result this book is intended as an essential supplement to a good, standard dictionary. Rogues, bawds, innkeepers, pimps, brothel keepers, whores, pickpockets and shoplifters had a surprisingly large vocabulary.

I have also included one or two of the most popular street cries and details of some of the often cruel and invariably rather complicated practical jokes which were a major part of daily life in the centuries up until the year 1900.

I hope that no reader will be offended by the inclusion of the slang in this book. I am not the first editor to be aware of the hazard such inclusions must inevitably pose. In 1793, When James Caulfield published his dictionary entitled ‘Blackguardiana: or, a dictionary of rogues, bawds, pimps, whores, pickpockets, shoplifters’ he ended his Preface with these words: ‘The Editor likewise begs leave to add, that if he has the misfortune to run foul of the dignity of any body of men, profession, or trade, it is totally contrary to his intention; and he hopes the interpretations given to any particular terms that may seem to bear hard upon them, will not be considered as his sentiments, but as the sentiments of the persons by whom such terms were first invented, or those by whom they are used.’ Caulfield, whose book was priced at ‘one guinea in boards’, said that he had collected words from numerous sources including ‘The Bellman of London, first published in 1608, and other dictionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Not that this book is just about etymology. It’s also about social and cultural history. Read about the words and phrases on these pages and you will discover that within all sectors of society there was a healthy disrespect for authority. People often took the law into their hands if someone in their community broke the rules. This was as true for, say, soldiers or seamen as for gang members. They didn’t run off to complain to a senior officer, or make an anonymous complaint on social media, but they merely operated their own form of rough justice.

My aim, and hope, (and I’ve been working on this book for many years so I’m entitled to a little hope) is that at least some of these words and phrases (most of which first saw the light of day in the 19th century or before) will be revived and will return to our currently rather dull communal lexicon, overladen as it is with abbreviations and modern, technical jargon which is too often pompous and incomprehensible while also being far less colourful. These words and phrases will, I hope, add fun to your language though I should, I suppose, warn you once again that the book might not be a perfect cup of tea for the easily offended and wearily politically correct.

`Vernon Coleman’s Dictionary of Old English Words and Phrases’ is the sort of publication which has an added value as a source of entertainment, amusement and information; of the sort which I refer to as the ‘I say, Hilda, listen to this’ or ‘You won’t believe this, Gerald’ variety. (Naturally, you can interchange the names if you don’t know anyone called Hilda or Gerald).

I spent 30 years of my life working as a columnist in what then was still referred to as Fleet Street (simply because that was where the major national newspapers all had their offices) and I received many letters from readers telling me how much they enjoyed reading out bits and pieces from my columns either to their (possibly long suffering relatives) or to chums in the pub (who were, I suppose, more likely to say ‘enough’). And I also discovered that radio presenters used to read out pieces they found amusing and that many other newspaper columnists used to copy out bits which they thought their readers would enjoy. This was particularly likely to happen when I worked as the agony uncle on a tabloid Sunday newspaper.

It occurs to me that it would be a delight if readers found themselves sharing titbits from this book with friends and relatives. We all need all the smiles we can find.

You can purchase a copy of `Vernon Coleman’s Dictionary of Old English Words and Phrases’ via the bookshop on

Copyright Vernon Coleman February 2024