A few years back I marveled at the internet believing it the only place I could go to access an “urban slang” to English dictionary or translator (urbandictionary.com is one of my favorites). As an aged and balding white man, knowing and learning “the slang” meant a certain measure of “conversation” with my students. They seemed shocked that I knew some of their lingo, but soon figured out that I needed a computer to translate. Now they have apps that can translate that slang. Suddenly, I have an image of Mitt Romney in the streets of Boston poking at his 4G phone trying to figure out whether he’s been dissed or not.

All this comes about because of a post made on H-Albion that’s made the rounds for a couple of weeks. H-Albion is a list-serve for history geeks of many things English/British. Someone was looking for the meaning of an old English phrase, “a woman in the straw.” The phrase itself did not interest me, but the fact that some people purported to know did. I am, after all, about to embark to Bristol University on a mission of eighteenth-century British cultural history. Assuredly I will come across the “fo’ shizzle” phrases of two or three centuries ago. But how will I know what they mean? Will I be the next H-Albion abuser to post questions about “women in the straw” or some other such arcane phrase?

After a couple of weeks of H-Albion chatter, I jumped on Google’s NGram Viewer to see what I could see. I typed in the phrase and put a date search of 1700 to 2000. Voila. One of the first books (of the few million Google has already scanned) that came up with a direct match of the phrase was a 1788 publication authored by Francis Grose entitled, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: in other words, a London-based “urban slang” to English dictionary some 224-years old.

Cover page to Grose’s book – all those years ago.

Cha-ching! Best of all, the book was downloadable in both PDF and ebook form. I am now a twenty-first century balding white guy capable chasing down the urban slang of over two-hundred years ago.

Oh, “woman in the straw” – term referred to the condition of women following childbirth. Poor women slept on straw mattresses, which, when bloodied, could be easily cleaned. Remove the old straw, put in new straw. During the eighteenth century, with the rise of the middle class and rampant consumption, some well to do women who bled after a difficult birth were given straw mattresses rather than risk sullying a proper one. So the phrase pertains to a woman’s postpartum days – according to Francis Grose – in a “vulgar” sort of way.

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