WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Billingsgate Language

We’ve just wrapped up another presidential election cycle here in the good ol’ USA, but I don’t think we’re going to be lucky enough to wrap up the ill will, hurt feelings, and fears that our continued march into the 21st Century is bringing. This is a politics-free zone here, but I’d be lying if I said that the verbal diarrhea of bleating clodpoles, both red and blue, didn’t inspire this week’s word.

Billingsgate Language (noun)

Foul language, or abuse. Billingsgate is the market where the fishwomen assemble to purchase fish; and where, in their dealings and disputes, they are somewhat apt to leave decency and good manners a little on the left hand.

Billingsgate is one of the twenty-five wards of London whose location was on the northern bank of the Thames, just west of the Tower of London. It was the city’s original water gate and the busiest harbor in the city, where corn, coal, iron, wine, salt, pottery, miscellaneous goods – and most importantly, fish – were bought and sold.

But Billingsgate was also known for another commodity – rough language. The hawking cries of the fish vendors were loud and crude. The women, in particular, took no prisoners with their tart tongues.

A New Catamaran Expedition!!! by Isaac Cruikshank, published by William Holland 1805, Library of Congress.

A New Catamaran Expedition!!! by Isaac Cruikshank, published by William Holland 1805, Library of Congress.

In the above drawing, catamarans loaded with fishwives are dispatched to France to terrorize the enemy. The wives’ speech balloons read “We’ll pepper you scoundrels”, “Give it ’em well, my hearties.”, “Yea ye dirty Blackguards we’ll soon be with you.”, and “Look at our ammunition, you poltroons.”

Hans Turbot Quarrelling With a Fishwoman. at Southampton in Presence of Count Cork Screw by William Austin, 1773, British Museum.

Hans Turbot Quarrelling With a Fishwoman. at Southampton in Presence of Count Cork Screw by William Austin, 1773, British Museum.

Considering the gentlemen characters have closed mouths, I’m not sure how much arguing is going on. The fishwoman is pretty rough-looking, tattooed, and giving a right scolding to all present.

Title and author unknown.

Title and author unknown, from Georgian Gentleman Mike Rendell.

We don’t even need a title to figure out the story to this little gem. The fishwoman – evidently so angry and agitated that her chemise fell down – is putting some hurt on the Frenchie, much to the shock of his compatriot and delight of hers. Another fishwoman is also in danger of losing her top, but will not be deterred from her patriotic duty of putting a lobster on the bare buttocks of the enemy. As you do.

I’ll close with the lyrics of The Bloody Battle of Billingsgate, sung to the tune of The Orange, from the English Broadside Ballad Archive. Brace yourselves: this is Billingsgate.

Beginning with a Scolding bout between two young Fish-women, Doll and Kate.

One morning of late, hard by Billingsgate,
There Dolly she happen’d to meet with young Kate,
They Quarrel’d and Fought, and made a sad Rout,
And if you wou’d know, Sirs, what it was about,
I will tell ye.

Last Wednesday night, young Kate did invite
The Husband of Dolly, her Joy and Delight,
And merrily they, did Frolick and Play,
A whole Winter’s night, till the morning next day;
was it fitting?

You’re Impudent grown, shall I lye alone,
And you have delight, while his poor Wife has none;
You saivry young Sow, I will not allow
Such doings, but here I will pummel ye now,
ye bold Strumpet.

Marry gap, Mistress Gill, my mind to fulfill,
I’de have you to know he shall come when he will,
And yet not by stealth, ye impudent Elf,
I have as much right to the Man as your self,
he’s no Husband.

I’de have ye know before I do go,
That I can a Lawful Certificate show;
Thus I am his Wife, the joy of his life,
But you have between us created much strife,
ye bold Strumpet.

A Twelvemonth ye Whor’d, then he did afford
A Marriage, by leaping twice over a Sword,
Your Shams I degrade, for Robin he said,
That under a Hedge-Row that Writing he made;
hopeful Marriage.

Ye pittiful Trull, I never did gull
Like you, the poor Drummer, last Summer, at H[ul]l
An impudent Stock, went breaking his Lock,
And stole the man’s Shirt, for to make ye a Smock.
ye bold Strumpet.

Slut this is a Lye, she then did reply
But here is one truth, which you cannot deny,
Ye pittiful Punk, last week ye were Drunk,
Four men had ye home, and they told me ye stunk
like a Pole-Cat.

Are you not a shame, to all of your name?
All honest good people against you exclaim:
You left your poor Brats, and went to the t[?] [?]ats
There lay with a Man for a bushel of Sp[yri]ts,
out upon ye.

I’ll make ye to smoak, for what ye have spoke
Since you do so often my patience provoke,
What flesh can forbear? besides I declare,
Your Neighbors knows all well enough what you are
Mistress Trinkets.

She gave her a thrust, and said, do your worst,
If you have much Money that does lye and rust,
W[h]y then go to Law, I won’t stand in awe;
With that down her Face she her Tallents did claw,
with a vengeance.

The other she flew, and gave her her due,
First tore off her Hood, Quoif, and Filleting too:
They fight and did Scold, and both kept their hold,
At length in the Kennel together they roll’d,
like two fat Sows.

The Women and Men, soon parted ‘um then,
And bid them be Friendly and quiet agen:
Their words did prevail, together they Sail,
And drank up two quarts of hot Brandy and Ale,
in good Friendship.


Based on the pictures of riots and bleeping of soundbites on the streets of America, Billingsgate Language and behavior is neither relegated to history nor confined to the fish market.


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