A Freshwater Mariner's Guide to Colonial Slang

Updated on May 9, 2017
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New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

"Freshwater Mariners was a derogatory term often reserved for thiefs or con artists
"Freshwater Mariners was a derogatory term often reserved for thiefs or con artists

Freshwater Mariners

In the years that proceeded the American Revolution, a freshwater mariner was a derogatory term reserved for a group of men that were inexperienced and a novice at whatever they were doing. Modern day research has revealed that in the years, which preceded the American Revolution, colonial English was quite colorful and full of many slang terms.

Tools of the Trade

Tools for Making Flip
Tools for Making Flip

The Varieties of Alcohol

Before the American Revolution, colonials consumed more alcohol per resident than at any other time in our history, including today. The triangular trade brought to the original thirteen colonies large quantities of rum, which was often mixed with locally produced beer, cider, and wine. These raw ingredients provided the basis for many different types of colorful concoctions.

These powerful elixirs bore such illustrious names as Rattleskull (rum, beer and hard cider), Flip (beer, brandy, and rum), Stone Fence (rum and hard cider), Mimbo (straight rum with sugar) and Syllabub (wine, cream, and spices). And then there was Whistle Belly, which is not only a hot drink made from sour beer, bread crumbs, and molasses but also a salty reference to the sound of disturbed bowels.

Enjoying Alcohol and Tobacco

A Colonial man enjoying his drink and smoke
A Colonial man enjoying his drink and smoke

They are seldom known to be drunk, though they are very often boozy, cogey, tipsy, foxed, merry, mellow, fuddled, groatable, confoundedly cut. . .

— Benjamin Franklin (writing as Mrs. Silence Dagood)

The Sins of Alcohol

Another fascinating reality of colonial life is the manner in which our early residents believed that the consumption of alcoholic beverages was actually good for one's health. As a result, both men and women often had a good stiff shot of liquor first thing in the morning, similar to the way we consume orange juice today. And then, more often than not, more drinks were consumed during the course of the day and evening. Undoubtedly, many habitual drinkers fell within the limits of Benjamin Franklin's colorful quote posted above. But for those who didn't, there existed a whole slew of colorful expressions to remind the participant of his or hers errant ways. Here are a few examples.

  • Sluice your Gob - the act of taking a drink
  • Disguised - to be drunk
  • A Wibble - a bad drink
  • Wrapt up in Warm Flannel - to be drunk with spirituous liquors

Other colorful phrases used to describe drunks and alcoholics include:

  • He's seen a flock of moons.
  • He's been among the Philistines.
  • His head is full of bees.
  • He's halfway to Concord
  • The king is his cousin.

And then, for colonists who had had way too much to drink, there was the colorful term, Shitting through one's teeth, which described the act of vomiting.

And finally, there is the very specific Vice Admiral of the Narrow Seas, which refers to a drunken man who urinates under the table into his companion's shoes

Colonial Taverns

Colonial tavern
Colonial tavern

Colorful Slang

Without a doubt, the verbal display of salty language was not limited to the use and abuse of beer, wine, and hard drink, for many everyday events easily acquired a saucy description. For example, a dandy prat meant to be a trifling fellow, a gollumpus was a large, awkward dude and a squeeze crab was a sour-looking person. It was also possible to describe someone as an owl in an ivy bush, which meant that the person was wearing his or hers hair like a large, frizzled wig.

More practical colonial slang might have called a chamber pot, a remedy critch, tobacco was sotweed and money was shiner. And then there was bear-garden jaw, a general term applied to rude or vulgar language.


Slang Referencing Gender

Not surprisingly the use of vernacular English in the thirteen colonies included various references to both genders. Slang describing women could often be quite light-hearted. Demanders of glimmer, bawdy baskets, walking morts, doxies, delles, and kinching coes were all perfectly acceptable street terms reserved for the so-called weaker sex.

Fortunately, the men were not exempt from such rudeness, for rufflers, anglers, wild rogues, priggers, prancers, drunken tinkers, swadders, and whip jackets often came into play, when describing a group of men.

But things did not stop here, for a lady's bosom might be called an apple dumpling shop, while a woman of ill repute was often referred to as an academician, a drury lane vestal or a laced mutton. Then there was the ever-so-popular brothel, which also bore the name of a house of civil reception or a vaulting school. And let's not forget the Buttock Ball, a special type of dance that was attended by some of the women (and men) described above.

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Yes, there really was such a book. It was published in 1811 by Francis Grose and its full title read like this: Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence (“considerably altered and enlarged, with the modern changes and improvements, by a member of the Whip Club. Assisted by Hell-Fire Dick, and James Gordon, Esqrs. of Cambridge”)

Who says that the American colonist wasn't a colorful character and that he or she wasn't in the least bit vulgar and profane?


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