On the local news a few nights ago, the anchorman commented on a criminal caught shoplifting, referring to the culprit as being "light-fingered." This is a lovely term, almost poetic and even containing a bit of sarcastic compliment. I bet, though, that the anchorman had no idea that he was using a term recorded as slang over three hundred years ago. "Light Finger'd," defined as "Thievish" can be found in _A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, In its several Tribes of Gypsies, Beggers, Thieves, Cheats, &c. with An Addition of some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all sorts of People, (especially Foreigners) to secure their Money and preserve their Lives; besides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New_, which was published in London in 1699. This has now been reissued by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, as _The First English Dictionary of Slang 1699_, even though there was nothing known as slang in 1699; that term was first recorded in 1756. What the compiler of the dictionary would have said was that he was collecting not slang, but "cant terms," the jargon of thieves and beggars. To this he added naval terms, hunting terms, words for sexual activity, and plenty of insults. It is no longer "wholly New," but it is decidedly "Diverting and Entertaining."
The introduction to the volume is by John Simpson, who is the chief editor of _The Oxford English Dictionary_. He explains that we know almost nothing about the compiler of this dictionary, who is identified only on the title page as B. E. Gent, with that "Gent" not being his name but his claim to be a gentleman. B. E. included plenty of terms besides "light-fingered" that we still use today. "Banter" is defined as "a pleasant way of prating, which seems in earnest, but is in jest, a sort of ridicule." A "biggot" is "an obstinate blind Zealot." There are plenty of terms for drinking, starting with an amusing term for non-alcohol, "Adam's-Ale," which simply means water. We might say now that someone is high on alcohol, and in those days he was "in his Altitudes." You could call someone a dullard, a word included here, but just beneath it is "Dulpickle," which is defined as meaning the same as dullard. I was delighted to find "jobbernoll" here for "a very silly Fellow." I have actually heard that one used, by that lover of exotic words, W. C. Fields, in _The Bank Dick_: "Don't be a jobbernoll! You're not one of those, are you?" With intent merely to designate and not to impugn, many criminals are listed by enterprise. "Anglers," for instance, were "Cheats, petty Theivs, who have a Stick with a hook at the end, with which they pluck things out of Windows, Grates, &c." A "Clank-napper" stole silver tankards.
Simpson calls the dictionary "in many ways a masterpiece," and says it is "`entertaining' enough for dipping into, but also short enough to make a sequential read enlightening." B. E., whoever he was, promised it to be "diverting and entertaining," and it surely is; I don't think there are other dictionaries I'd care to read beginning to end. To read the book whole is to have a good opportunity to wonder at the mysteries of how some words which were coined for criminal or roguish jargon have become common stock English today, and how some have never made it out of the narrow streets, dark taverns, and debtors' prisons of 17th-century London.