Dot Wordsworth


‘Look at all this bumf,’ said my husband, shaking some ‘guidance’ on how to fill in his tax return and sounding like someone out of Much Binding in the Marsh.

I mentioned last week the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, in its several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggers, Thieves, Cheats, &c (1699), an anonymous work, attributed only to B.E., Gent. The Bodleian Library has republished it in a nice little edition under the title The First English Dictionary of Slang, but you can read it free online. Among its modern-sounding expressions is bumfodder. The Canting Crew might not yet have used the term bumf (unrecorded before the 1880s), but they had already established the vigorous unabridged term, defined as ‘what serves to wipe the tail’. It was a useful word with which to mock authors whose output ended up lining pies or hanging in a jakes.

It was not used as a euphemism, for the 17th century felt no need of one for arsewisp. That was the word which the 15th-century Promptorium Parvulorum gave as the English for anitergium, a Latin word formed on the model of facitergium, ‘face-wipe’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a slightly earlier example of bumfodder from Thomas Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais, which mentions ‘arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole-cleansers, and wipe-breeches’. The word wisp derives, like wipe, from the Old English wipian, ‘to wind round’. A wisp, as of hay, was a thing used for wiping.

For B.E., a wiper, by contrast, is ordinarily a ‘handkerchief’. A speckt wiper is a ‘coloured handkerchief’, and to bite the wiper is to ‘steal the hand-kerchief’, just as bite the roger is ‘steal the portmanteau’ (though in another context a roger was what men rogered with).

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