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The first Italian wordlist of a language of thieves and vagabonds is in the handwriting of the Florentine poet Luigi Pulci, who died in 1484. It registers about fifty words. It is on the same undated sheet of paper as a poem by him which uses many words of argot (gergo or linguagerga in standard Italian, zerga in Venetian), but it is not simply a key to the poem.3 Pulci was a friend of Lorenzo il Magnifico, and wrote him a prose letter in

  • 1 Trumper, ‘Slang and jargons’ 660 (with further historical commentary 663); a thirteenth-century example is quoted from the romance Richars li Biaus in Sainean, Sources de largot ancien 1: 2.
  • 2 Leibniz, Nouveaux essais sur lentendement humain, in his Samtliche Schriften 6.6: 278-9, ‘celles [langues] que les voleurs ont forgees pour nestre entendus que de ceux de leur bande, ce que les Allemans appellent Rottwelsch, les Italiens lingua Zerga, les Francois le Narquois. Translation from Leibniz, New Essays (pagination as in Samtliche Schriften), spelling adjusted.
  • 3 Pulci, Lettere (1886) 170-2 (poem), 173-5 (wordlist; a corrected text is in Camporesi, Libro dei vaga- bondi 183-4).

Small Dictionaries and Curiosity. First edition. John Considine.

© John Considine 2017. First published 2017 by Oxford University Press.

gergo, which has been dated to 1466; perhaps the poem and the wordlist are of the same date as the prose letter, and were meant, like it, for Lorenzo.[1] If so, Pulci may actually have been the first person to make a wordlist of a cryptolect for reasons which had nothing to do with the suppression of vagabondage. The coterie playfulness of his use of gergo strikes an entirely different note from other fifteenth-century wordlists of cryptolects such as the ‘Basler Betrugnisse’ and the list by Jehan Rabustel which will be discussed below: it is socially elevated, clever, literary. This list was meant to be enjoyed, and many of its items are semantically quite transparent, which may either have been a feature of fifteenth-century gergo in general or a result of artful selection by Pulci: la finestra ‘the window’ is ventosa, ‘windy one’; fanciulla ‘girl’ is pesce ‘fish’; la via ‘the road’ is polverosa ‘dusty one’. The ease with which gergo could make its way into elite Italian literary culture in this wordlist may reflect a general diversity of linguistic codes available to members of the elite.[2]

The story of another early wordlist of gergo begins in 1473, when Pope Sixtus IV sent Girolamo Santucci, bishop of Fossombrone, to Germany as his legate. Santucci travelled as far as Koln. His route from Rome is not difficult to reconstruct: northwards by Florence, Bologna, and Milan, then over the Saint Gotthard Pass to Basel, and then down the Rhine to Strasburg, thence by water or road to Mainz, and thence by water to his destination.[3] At some time after his return, and probably at a date between 1484 and 1486, his episcopal vicar, Teseo Pini of Urbino (an uncle of the historian of inventions Polydore Vergil), wrote the first beggar treatise of Italian origin, the Speculum cerra- tanorum, dedicating it to Santucci. This is a catalogue of kinds of beggar, followed by a wordlist of their cryptolect, and it is almost certain that it was inspired by knowledge of the very similarly structured ‘Basler Betrugnisse’, and very probable that this knowledge was obtained as a result of Pini’s presence on Santucci’s legatine journeys to and from Rome through Basel in the previous decade.[4] It follows from this that the

‘Betrugnisse’ were already being circulated as a curious text in the 1470s—or, less probably, that Santucci saw them in an official document or archive and realized independently that they were a curiosity.

The Speculum cerratanorum is the most developed beggar treatise of the fifteenth century; in many ways, it is really much more like the Liber vagatorum than the ‘Basler Betrugnisse’. However, one difference between the Speculum and the Liber vagatorum is suggested by the facts that the former is dedicated to a patron of some eminence, and that it is written in Latin: this was not a popular pamphlet. It was, correspondingly, never printed. It had a limited circulation in manuscript, as is shown by its survival in two copies, both of the sixteenth century. One of these is undated but certainly of the sixteenth century, and the other was copied in 1589 for presentation by ‘your most devoted servant Marcello’ to Cardinal Antonio Carafa, distinguished alike as scholar, manuscript collector, and benefactor of the poor.[5] The Speculum then became the basis for an adaptation in Italian, Il vagabondo, by the Dominican friar Giacinto de Nobili, writing as Rafaele Frianoro, of which about fifteen editions appeared between 1621 and 1722; there was also a French translation, Le vagabond, with some new material, in 1644.[6] But Il vagabondo, and therefore Le vagabond, did not include the wordlist, either because De Nobili was working from a manuscript which lacked it (though it is present in both the extant manuscripts of the Speculum) or because he felt that his readers would not value it.

Pini closes his main text and introduces his wordlist by saying that the beggars call their language variety Gorgones (he evidently had a form like gergons or jargon in mind), and that he supposes the name to refer to the way that the beggars bewilder their victims before taking their money, turning them to stone, as it were, like people who have seen the head of the Gorgon.[7] But, Pini continues whimsically, the little book he has written is called Speculum, ‘Mirror’: when Medusa saw the reflection of her own petrifying face, she turned to stone, and when the evildoers described in the Speculum cerratanorum see their images in it, they will mend their ways, or at least do less harm.[8] [9]

The untitled wordlist which follows registers about 180 words in the language of the vagabonds, not starting with the word for ‘God, as many non-alphabetized wordlists did, but with the word for ‘bishop’, Lu capelluto, followed by the word for his vicar, Lu bisciulco.12 Before long are the words for ‘charity’ and ‘hospital’ and ‘poor man’, which are likelier to have been part of the active vocabulary of fifteenth-century vagrants.[10] Did Pini just make up those first two words, or did he really elicit them from informants, or are they part of a clerical slang? Certainly the wordlist as a whole must be founded on the observation, by Pini or an intermediary, of spoken language. The glosses are usually in Latin, though a few Italian words appear: calorgna, for instance, is ‘la gamba’ (‘the leg’).[11] This suggests the possibility that the wordlist as it stands is adapted from one in which more, perhaps all, of the glosses were in Italian. A few place-names also appear: La civita de nerchie is Rome (nerchia is still slang for ‘penis’— but Nerchio is ‘a priest’ in the wordlist), La Moscia is Perugia, and so on.[12] The word which Pini uses for Perugia is the medieval Perusium, not the classical, and humanistic, Perusia, and this small point, taken in combination with the Italian glosses in the wordlist, is suggestive. After the smartness and polish of the main treatise, the wordlist seems a little rougher. Pini might have dispensed with it but, like Conrad Gessner at work on Mithridates, he decided to add a wordlist of the language of vagabonds to a work with which it did not cohere perfectly, as if he found it so interesting that he could not resist putting it in. Perhaps the Speculum cerratanorum provides the first example of a European compiler making a wordlist of more than a hundred items simply because he was carried away by interest in a language variety of which he believed the records to be sparse or non-existent.

A last manuscript vocabulary of gergo which may be as early as the end of the fifteenth century is preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence. This is a tiny book, of eleven numbered folios in 32mo format, which was in the great library of the Gaddi family until its purchase and incorporation into the Biblioteca Magliabechiana in the 1750s. It registers 237 words. The bijou format and the bibliophile provenance of the manuscript suggest that, like the two fifteenth-century vocabularies which precede it, and unlike the fifteenth-century vocabularies of Rotwelsch and argot, its contents were meant to give pleasure to an elegant elite readership.[13]

The first printed wordlist of gergo was likewise a decidedly literary accomplishment. This was the Nuovo modo de intendere la lingua zerga, published anonymously but now known to have been the work of the poet Antonio Brocardo, who was a disciple of the philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi at Bologna, and died shortly after being attacked in a sonnet by Aretino, who prided himself thereafter on the deadliness of his invective.[14] Brocardo used gergo for literary effect, and verses of his which feature gergo, including his dedication of the work to the courtesan Marietta Mirtilla, are printed at the end of his wordlist. So, as in the case ofthe work ofLuigi Pulci, belles-lettres and the lexicography of this unrespectable language variety went together. The contents of the wordlist suggest that in this case, unrespectable does not simply mean ‘criminal’: the presence of, for instance, different terms for doctors of medicine, philosophy, theology, and laws makes it clear that there is university slang in the list rather than simply the cryptolect of thieves and vagabonds.[15] [16]

The Nuovo modo was not a large book: the 1558 Venice edition, for instance, is an octavo of twenty-four leaves. But it was still much more extensive than its manuscript predecessors, and unlike them, it offered two alphabetical sequences (of five or six hundred entries each): for each letter of the alphabet, there is a gergo-Italian wordlist and then an Italian-gergo one, so that readers could in theory not only decode texts which included words of gergo, but also sprinkle gergo into their own writings. A seventeenth-century owner of a copy now at Stanford University did j ust this, using gergo in the composition of an ode to feasting, of which the manuscript is now bound with the printed text of Brocardo’s wordlist; likewise, dramatists gave lines in gergo to suitable characters, and some of these are clearly indebted to the Nuovo modo.19 Like the Liber vagatorum, the Nuovo modo was a considerable publishing success: 34 editions are extant from the period from 1545 to 1628, and others have been lost.[17] The 1558 title page calls it a work alike delightful and invaluable.[18] Whether it was really of practical value is doubtful, but the delight which successive generations of readers took in its literary qualities is clear enough.

These wordlists of gergo all circulated in association with literary texts. Likewise, the corresponding language variety from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain, called germanta, is well documented from poems into which it was introduced, and other literary texts including picaresque novels. A wordlist of germanta was compiled by the court official Cristobal de Chaves, who also wrote an interesting description of the prison of Seville, and may therefore have had first-hand acquaintance with a criminal cryptolect. It was published in Barcelona in 1609, seven years after his death, to accompany a collection of literary texts with the title Romances de germania. It runs to about 1350 words in the new edition of 1779.[19]

  • [1] Pulci, Lettere (1886) 58-60. Sainean associates the list with the prose letter in gergo, and dates the letterand therefore the list to 1472 (Largot ancien 12), and this date has sometimes been repeated, but it is amistake. For one thing, the list accompanies the verses in gergo, not the prose letter. For another, there isno reason to date the letter itself to 1472. Sainean gives two sources for his account of list and letter: Pulci,Lettere (1886) 58 and 170, where no date is assigned to either, and Pitre and Salomone-Marino, ‘Lettere eparole’ 295, which describes the letter as ‘scritto verso il 1472, giving Pulci, Nuove lettere (1882) as a source.The prose letter indeed appears in the Nuove lettere (21-2), as does the wordlist (25-7), but neither is dated,and the editors of the Nuove lettere simply observe that the prose letter is ‘senza nota di luogo e di tempo’(30). They therefore place it after the dated and datable letters by Luigi Pulci in their edition, which belongto the years 1466-72, and before the final letter in their edition, in last place because it is not by Luigi butby his brother Bernardo, and this final letter happens to belong to 1473. Pitre and Salomone-Marino sawthe prose letter in gergo between letters of 1466-72 and of 1473, and supposed wrongly that this orderingindicated its date; Sainean took their date on trust; and his date has been taken on trust in its turn.
  • [2] See Burke, ‘Languages and anti-languages’ 25-8.
  • [3] The journey was broken at Strasburg and Mainz because cargoes had to be unshipped at those citiesfor legal reasons: see Disco, ‘Taming the Rhine’ 27-8 for details, and Erasmus, letter of circa 15 October1518 to Beatus Rhenanus, in his Opus epistolarum 3: 392-401, for an account of a journey from Basel toKoln in which the Strasburg-Mainz section was indeed taken by road.
  • [4] Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi clvii-clviii (Pini), clx (the importance of Santucci’s journey); Atkinson,Inventing Inventions 71-2 (Pini and Vergil).
  • [5] Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 5-6; more on Carafa and his manuscript, with the text of the prefatory letter by ‘Marcellus servus addictissimus, ibid. 169-78.
  • [6] Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 89-90.
  • [7] In Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 69, ‘Eas [dictiones] ipsi Gorgones appellant, ut, puto, a capiteGorgonis dictas: nam, sicut illi qui Gorgonis caput in scuto aspiciebant in lapides vertebantur, sic isti suissermonibus simplices homines et mulieres attonitos reddunt, demum fortunis spoliant.’
  • [8] In Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 69, ‘Nos ergo opusculum hoc speculum appellemus, ut Medusasuam formam aspiciens vertatur in saxum, hoc est, ut homines ipsis improbis artibus dediti recognoscentesfallacias suas in hic respiciant et convertantur, vel cogniti minus laedant.’
  • [9] In Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 71, ‘Lu capelluto idest episcopus | Lu bisciulco vicarius.’
  • [10] In Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 71, ‘La calmona elemosina | Cagnardo hospitale | Lasca pauper.’
  • [11] In Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 74.
  • [12] In Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 76 (place-names), 72 (‘Nerchio idest praesbiter’).
  • [13] Text in Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 187-96; description (and Gaddi provenance) in Mazzatinti,Inventari dei manoscritti 12: 119-20; for the purchase of the Gaddi library, see Chapron, ‘Ad utilitapubblica’224-31.
  • [14] Text in Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 197-254; summary of scholarship on Brocardo and the Nuovomodo in Schiff, ‘Lingua zerga in the Grimani banquet plays’ 399-400.
  • [15] In Camporesi, Libro dei vagabondi 215: ‘Dottor de medicina Dragon de farda | Dottor de philosofiaDragon del re di Persia | Dottor de theologia Sbasidor de perpetua | Dottor de legge Dragon del gran soprano’
  • [16] The copy of Nuovo modo de intendere la lingua zerga with a manuscript bound with it has beendescribed online at, but has not, as of May 2016, been fully catalogued; for the drama, seeSchiff, ‘Lingua zerga in the Grimani banquet plays’ 399.
  • [17] Schiff, ‘Lingua zerga in the Grimani banquet plays’ 400.
  • [18] Brocardo, Nuovo modo (1558), title page, ‘Opera non men piaceuole, che utilissima’.
  • [19] Niederehe, Bibliografia cronologica 2: 39; Chaves, Romances de germania (1779) 151-200.
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