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My history hero: Susie Dent chooses Francis Grose (1731–1791)

Susie Dent, lexicographer and television presenter, chooses antiquarian lexicographer Francis Grose as her history hero

A 19th-century engraving of Francis Grose
Published: November 29, 2020 at 5:09 pm
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Francis Grose: in profile

Francis Grose was an antiquarian, lexicographer and draughtsman. Born in London, the eldest of seven, he began publishing a series of writings entitled The Antiquities of England and Wales in 1772, before going on to compile his famous A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785). The father of 10 died during a visit to Ireland, aged 59.

When did you first hear about Francis Grose?

Fairly late on, I confess. For many lexicographers, Samuel Johnson [1709–84] is the main man. His Dictionary of the English Language laid many of the foundations of modern lexicography, and it’s a dictionary for the ages. It wasn’t until I was preparing a talk for the Johnson Society that I also began to learn about Grose, a contemporary of Johnson who was similarly engaged in collecting words and their usage – but of a very different kind. While Johnson looked to the poets and great writers, Grose gathered his knowledge in brothels and gambling dens, taverns and slums. He was one of the earliest commentators on popular culture before the 20th century, so in many ways he was even more of a pioneer than Johnson.

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What kind of man was he?

Grose was an ex-army captain who loved curios of architecture as well as language. He’s still celebrated as a notable antiquary of the 18th century, and he loved to sketch – he produced the period’s most extensive series of illustrations of ancient monuments. His personality, and physique, were huge: his friends joked he was Grose by name and gross in appearance. He was a champion drinker and a witty storyteller, who set off on his slang-gathering sprees at midnight, entertaining all wherever he went, but listening all the while, and recording the turns of phrase and jargon he overheard.

What made Grose a hero?

He opened up an entire underground language that other lexicographers had shunned. In many ways he threw down a gauntlet against the sanitised version of English that Johnson himself had set out to preserve. Grose would have none of such censorship and prudery: for him, the language of the common people was as important as that of the literary heroes other dictionary compilers turned to for ‘their’ version of English. Crucially, this was also a time when sections of society lived in terror of a French-style revolution, so it certainly took a lot of courage to prioritise the language and morals of the lower classes.

What would you ask Grose if you could meet him?

That’s easy – I would love to know if he ever met Samuel Johnson. There is no record of the two men ever coming together, but they both loved fine wine and repartee, and I have a sense that – once Johnson had got over the shock of all those so-called ‘low words’ – they would have relished a good debate.

Finally, what’s your own favourite word in Grose’s dictionary?

It has to be ‘betwattled’, which means “to be surprised, confounded, and out of one’ senses”.

Susie Dent is the resident lexicographer and adjudicator on Channel 4’s Countdown. Her book, Word Perfect: Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year, is published by John Murray and out now. She was talking to York Membery

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This article was first published in the November 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine

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