The elusive slang of the turf

Show Navigation

By | From the Collections


Detail from ‘Sportsman’s slang’ (Wellcome Library, EPB / B 12926/B)

The gee-gees, the nags, the horses… no matter your preferred term for them, many a fan of the turf will be turning their attention this afternoon to one of the most famous sporting occasions of the year – the Derby Stakes, or the Epsom Derby, or to most people, just “The Derby”.

As horse racing is renowned for its insider tips and terminology daunting to the novice, we thought we would highlight a book from our collections which aims to shed light on this world.

Published in 1822, Sportsman’s slang not only aimed to elucidate the world of horse racing, but as shown from its full title, aimed to include in its lexicon of terms, many other areas of life:

Sportsman’s slang; a new dictionary of terms used in the affairs of the turf, the ring, the chase and the cock-pit, with those of bon-ton and the varieties of life / interspersed with anecdotes and whimsies, with tart quotations and rum-ones, with examples, proofs and monitory precepts, useful and proper for novices, flats and yokels

Consisting of over 200 pages, Sportsman’s slang is very much of its time, with a very 19th century conception of what ‘sport’ consisted of.  Reading Sportman’s slang now, it’s fascinating to see the examples of slang that remain in everyday use as opposed to terms that have now disappeared.  Chatter-box and To save one’s bacon are still familiar to us, but many terms are no longer as recognisable. Chaucerians may be pleased that a Canterbury tale (“a long endless story, twaddle”) has slipped from common occurrence.  Of those that have also disappeared, To outrun the Constable (“to live beyond one’s income and allowance”) has a certain straightforward logic to it, as has the rather quaint Dining Room (“the mouth”) and Dining Room Chairs (“the teeth”).

However, many of the slang terms included are not so dainty and (as is still the case) relate to matters of the flesh, whether scatological such as Kakkah-Booshah (“accidental excrematising or adventitious accession of gastrodorsed compounds, digested and hastily excised”) or more sexual: the Blanket Hornpipe “is danced at the commencement of every Honey-moon”.  At moments like this, Sportman’s slang appears not a million miles from Viz’s infamous Profanisaurus.

As for the author of the book, his identity has somewhat gone the way of many of the words he described. The name given on the title page of Sportsmans Slan’g is “John Bee”.  The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) has “John Bee” as the pseudonym of John Badcock and states Badcock “is known only by his works and even the attribution of these is uncertain”.  However, these other works do suggest a reason why a copy of Sportsman’s slang may have made its way into the collections of the Wellcome Library.

As the ODNB states, another of Badcock’s pseudonym’s was John Hinds – under which name he wrote The Veterinary Surgeon, issued in 1827 and 1829 and arranged new editions of both W. Osmer’s Treatise on the Horse and C. Thompson’s Rules for Bad Horsemen.  These books were published in 1830 – the last year in which any work published by Badcock (or his pseudonyms) have been identified.

Of these titles, this image comes from the 1829 edition of The Veterinary Surgeon, retitled Veterinary SurgeryThe text beneath the image – ‘Terms commonly made use of to denote the external parts of the Horse’ – has a nice link back to the explanatory concepts of Sportsman’s slang:


Detail from Veterinary Surgery (Wellcome Library, EPB / B 28798/B)

However, in cataloguing this edition, the Wellcome Library highlights the “uncertain attribution” alluded to in Badcock’s ODNB entry, suggesting that if ‘John Hinds’ is a pseudonym of John Badcock:

“If so, the author’s account in the preface to the his…relations with Badcock and the references in the text to his friend Jon Bee constitute an elaborate attempt at deception”.

Whilst not wishing to wade too deeply in the waters of 19th century pseudonyms, careful perusal of the pages of Sportman’s slang does suggest that that title’s author has a close familiarity with horses:

Farrier (stud) – an ignorant blockhead without education, a worker in iron, properly ferrier. The worst-written treatise on this subject now extant is that by one Clater; which for excessive ignorance of diseases, and utter stultification as to mixing of medicines, never was surpassed: let it be burnt by Jack Ketch.

The anger of this description reeks of someone knowledgeable in the subject and the book referred to – Francis Clater’s Every Man his own Farrier, or The Whole Art of Farriery Laid Open – does appear to have raised the ire of many farriers, as knowledge of their trade was opened up to others.

So, a slight question mark remains hanging over John Badcock and his identity.  What we can categorically say is that whilst offering up a sense of the world of horse racing in the 19th century, Sportsman’s slang offers no firm details on its author’s identity.  Whilst shedding light on the world of slang from that time, its author remains in the shadows.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

See more posts by this author


Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts