Essential Etymological Preface: The English language is an ever-shifting beast, with corresponding changes in the meanings of words. That said, through at least the 18th century, the word “slut” was used to refer to an ugly, slovenly, unkempt person, often a woman. (For examples of this usage, check the OED2.) The Online Etymology Dictionary describes the word’s likely origins from the colloquial German schlutt, meaning a slovenly woman, and claims that its contemporary usage wasn’t cemented until some time in the 1960s. Sam Bovill has a blog post describing the word’s semantic shift, and Malcolm Jones, in an article in The Daily Beast, notes that over the centuries, “slut” has been used to refer to “men, women, dogs, and light fixtures”.
Keeping that in mind, let’s take a look at today’s featured book, a very tiny volume entitled The Merry Andrew: or, the Humours of a Fair. Here it is, with my smaller-than-most hand included for scale:
The title page doesn’t have a publication date, but my best guess is some time between 1810 and 1820.
The author includes his own cautionary preface at the start of this tale, noting that the “humours of a fair” aren’t all levity and entertainment– for instance, the surging crowds there can easily trample a small boy.
For little boys are often trod upon, and even crushed to death by mixing with the mob. If you would be safe, by all means avoid a crowd. Look yonder, Dick Wilson there has done the very thing I cautioned you against.
It’s a little hard to see his head down there at surging-crowd-knee-level, but Dick Wilson is definitely there, full of his usual bad ideas. He’s not today’s primary bad child of history, but he is, according to the author, an “impertinent little monkey”, which is definitely one of my new favorite insults.
As long as you’re not like Dick Wilson, you can see all kinds of fascinating and entertaining things at the fair. You can visit the Wheel of Fortune, pre-Vanna White:
You can see these entertaining gentlemen:
You can ignore your mother’s good advice and ride these dangerous-looking carnival rides:
(Sidenote: the text around that second illustration mystifies me. “You know what I mean by the Up-and-down? It is a horse in a box, a horse that flies in the air, like that which the ancient poets rode on.” Is that a reference to Pegasus? Did ancient poets love carnival rides? Clarifying comments encouraged.)
Because The Merry Andrew is a historical children’s book, this catalog of delights is followed by brief discourses entitled “Descant on Time”, “On Learning”, “On Business”, and “On Idleness”, and the book closes with two short rhymes, “To a Good Girl” and “To a Naughty Girl”.
Below are said good and naughty girls, looking suspiciously like the exact same lass with a slightly different hat and bustle:
So, pretty Miss Prudence, you’re come to the Fair,
And a very good girl they tell me you are.
Here, take this fine orange, this watch, and this knot,
You’re welcome, my dear, to all we have got.
So, pert Mistress Prate-a-Pace, how came you here?
There is nobody wants to see you at the Fair.
Not an orange, an apple, a cake, or a nut,
Will any one give to so saucy a slut.
(Did you keep our etymological preface in mind this whole time? Good, good.) Lesson: don’t be brazen or dirty, or you won’t get any snacks. If you’re pretty, however, you’ll get lots of desirable things, including but not limited to a “fine orange”. Now, children, go forth to the fair, unless there are crowds. Just be careful on the Up-and-down!