The Camp Chase Gazette (“the first, best, and at present the only nationally distributed publication devoted entirely to the subject of reenacting America’s Civil War”) maintains a 19th Century Slang Dictionary; the opening paragraph of the introduction gives an idea of the type of language included:

Humbug? Shecoonery? Useless truck or gum? Hornswoggling? Honey-fuggling? Not in this book, dear sir! I swan to mercy, a huckleberry above anyone’s persimmon. Some pumpkins, a caution, 100 percent certified by a Philadelfy lawyer. If not, dad-blame it, I’ll hang up my fiddle, and you can sass me, knock me into a cocked hat, give me jesse, fix my flint, settle my hash, ride me out on a rail and have a conniption fit, you cussed scalawag. Now ain’t that the beatingest language you ever did hear? Sure beats the Dutch! Pshaw! Do tell! Bully for you!

It includes copious citations with sources and dates, making it far more valuable than a mere list of items with meanings. A sample:

Huckleberry above a persimmon: a cut above. The phrase had many variations and shades of meaning.
1836: It is a huckleberry above my persimmon to cipher out how I find myself the most popular bookmaker of the day. Colonel Crockett in Texas, p.13
1844: She’s a great gal that! Show me another like her any whar, and I am thar directly. She’s a huckleberry above most people’s persimmons. Philadelphia Spirit of the Times, August 24
1885: I’m a huckleberry above that persimmon. Admiral Porter, Incidents of the Civil War, p.204

(Via a Wordorigins thread about the phrase “I have seen the elephant,” interesting in its own right—it’s apparently a southwestern expression meaning either ‘to see it all, to experience it all’ or ‘to undergo any disappointment of high-raised expectations,’ depending on who you believe.)
Addendum. Another source for 19th-century American (linked in the same thread, by aldiboronti) is the Dictionary of Americanisms, by John Russell Bartlett (First Edition, Bartlett and Welford, New York, 1848). The very first entry is quite interesting:

ABISSELFA. A, by itself, A. It will be recollected by many, that in the olden time, the first letter of the alphabet was denominated “abisselfa” when it formed a syllable by itself, [as] in the word able. The scholar, in spelling the word, was taught to say, “a, by itself, a, (rapidly,
abisselfa,) b, l, e, able.” We derive this word and the use of it from England, where it is used in Suffolk County.–Moor’s Glossary.

This is, of course, an anglicized version of “a per se a,” whose equivalent with and (“and per se and”) gave rise to the word ampersand. I wonder how many classrooms used “per se” and how many “by itself,” and when the whole practice disappeared?


  1. aldiboronti says

    Bartlett led a varied career, during which he almost cost Texas the town of El Paso.
    “On June 15, 1850, thanks to his standing in the Whig party,qv Bartlett was appointed United States boundary commissioner to carry out the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.qv Despite his ignorance of the Southwest he accepted this post because he wanted to travel, because he wanted to see Indians, and because he needed the money.
    Bartlett left New York with a large party on August 3, 1850, and landed at Indianola, Texas, twenty-seven days later. After traveling overland, he arrived at El Paso del Norte (Juárez) to begin work with the Mexican boundary commissioner, Pedro García Conde. The point where the southern boundary of New Mexico was to begin on the Rio Grande proved difficult to determine because of inaccuracies in Disturnell’s 1847 “Map of the United Mexican States,” and Bartlett allowed the boundary to be set forty-two miles north of El Paso. When American boundary surveyor Andrew B. Grayqv refused to agree to this, Bartlett departed for a tour of northwestern Mexico. He arrived in California, he then traveled east through Arizona and New Mexico to Texas, where he learned that Congress had rejected the Bartlett-García Conde line. Because of Bartlett’s error, the United States in 1853 had to negotiate the Gadsden Purchase, which set the boundary of New Mexico at 31°47′ north latitude. The Gadsden Purchase, which transferred mainly desert lands to the United States, was viewed as essential for establishing a southern route for the transcontinental railroad.”
    For the dictionary itself, the review below gives a taste of its delights.
    “From abisselfa to yourn, John Russell Bartlett’s groundbreaking Dictionary of Americanisms celebrated the language of a budding nation, whose rebellious declaration of independence was most evident in its own evolving colloquialisms. Originally published in 1848, the Dictionary of Americanisms was the first lexicon to portray the entire tapestry of uniquely American expressions in one volume, from the New England coast to the Far West and everything in between. The result is a window into everyday life and culture in a rapidly growing United States, with entries representing every region, linguistic heritage, and field of interest:
    New England: funkify, plaguy sight, kedge
    The South: marooning, catawamptiously chawed up
    New York: clockmutch, rullichies, soap-lock
    The West: scrouger, prairie bitters, I dad!
    Spanish: sangaree, chaparral, vamos
    Native American languages: netop, sagamore, supawn
    Politics: slang-whanging, Dough-Faces, to row up Salt river
    Business: wild cat bank, corner, Peter Funk
    Filled with amusing anecdotes, editorial asides, and some surprisingly modern slang……… ”

  2. aldiboronti says

    Sorry, forgot to link for the last extract above.

  3. Two great links there, aldi. By way of comparison, try this site for 18th Century slang in the UK: http://www.georgiarefugees.org/oldslang.htm.
    (Scotland = Itchland. Does that refer to the midgies or the quality of the tartan?)

  4. So LH never weighed in on the etymology of “humbug”? I saw the word in some Trump-trumping piece today and it weirded me out…

  5. I’m afraid the etymology of “humbug” is unknown. OED:

    Etymology: A slang or cant word which came into vogue c1750.
    (An earlier date has been given in several Dictionaries, on the ground of the occurrence of the word in the title of F. Killigrew’s Universal Jester, which the Slang Dictionary dates ‘about 1735–40’. But the earliest ed. of that work is dated by Lowndes 1754; see below.)

    Many guesses at the possible derivation of humbug have been made; but as with other and more recent words of similar introduction, the facts as to its origin appear to have been lost, even before the word became common enough to excite attention. Compare the following:

    1751 Student Jan. II. 41 There is a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion, which though it has not even the ‘penumbra’ of a meaning, yet makes up the sum total of the wit, sense and judgement of the aforesaid people of taste and fashion!..I will venture to affirm that this Humbug is neither an English word, nor a derivative from any other language. It is indeed a blackguard sound, made use of by most people of distinction! It is a fine, make-weight in conversation, and some great men deceive themselves so egregiously as to think they mean something by it!

    It’s a fine old word, and I’ve been known to employ it in my expostulations now and again.

  6. David Marjanović says

    It’s vaguely similar to German Unfug, which means “chaotic, unproductive behavior” and can be etymologized (fügen “to fit something in”), but… too vaguely for comfort.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Also sich fügen “to submit to an order”.

  8. Seeing the elephant, to which I will add, coming home from war sadder but wiser.

    Scotland = Itchland

    It refers to the traditional “curse of Scotland”, which might be midges or gonorrhea, depending on who was talking. Ambrose Bierce wrote the following pseudo-archaic verse:

    Ye Kynge his evill in me laye,
    Wh. he of Scottlande charmed awaye.
    He layde his hand on mine and sayd:
    “Be gone!” Ye ill no longer stayd.
    But O ye wofull plyght in wh.
    I’m now y-pight: I have ye itche!


    From O’Brian’s The Surgeon’s Mate, one of my favorite passages:

    ‘On deck, there,’ hailed the midshipman. ‘A sail, sir, a sail two points on the starboard bow.’

    ‘Do you make out a pennant?’ he called. It was an idle question: if the Minnie had not seen the pennant, the mark of a man-of-war, she would never have sheered off. But he wanted confirmation of his joy.

    ‘Oh yes, sir. And I believe I know her. Hermaphrodite [brig, a two-masted vessel with both square and fore-and-aft sails] on the starboard tack – she’s coming about – yes, sir, I recognize her for sure.’

    ‘What is she?’

    Humbug, sir,’ said the midshipman, in a rather hesitant roar.

    Jack could not believe he had heard aright. ‘What did you say?’ he cried.

    Humbug, sir.’ And from the bows came a peal of honest mirth, while within arm’s reach of the Captain three young gentlemen writhed in an effort to contain themselves, and all the officers were on the grin. It was a current Baltic joke, but one that newcomers could not know: just before the Russians joined the Allies a facetious captain of the Royal Navy had captured one of their vessels, a very distinctive Tyne-built hermaphrodite, a fine sailer on a bowline, and he had changed her impossible Russian name to this, the only Humbug ever known or likely to be known in the Navy list. [Alas, quite fictitious.]

    Humbug, by God. The word had been used to him, publicly, on his own quarterdeck: the boy must be drunk. For a moment Jack’s face took on a most forbidding look, and the grins died away. But then his pomp, his righteous indignation dissolved and he said ‘Very well, Mr Jevons. You will stay there till I call you.’ He gazed at the Minnie: she was jammed in a clinch like Jackson [founder of a pugilism academy and teacher of Lord Byron]. ‘Let us take in the sky sail, Mr Hyde,’ he said. ‘There is no point in endangering the mast.’ He was convinced that he could give the Minnie royals on this tack and even the foretopgallant, and still lay her aboard within the hour. He would not have to use his bowchasers.

    ‘Yes, sir,’ said Mr Hyde. ‘No, sir: no point at all. And by the way, sir, the hermaphrodite really is called Humbug. Jevons meant no disrespect.’

    ‘Is that so? Well, well. Then he may come down again. […]’

  9. I love “in a rather hesitant roar.” What a wonderful writer.

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