What, in late 18th century England, did it mean to "play at 'chuck'"?
February 17, 2014 1:23 PM   Subscribe

I have read a reference from Glouchester, England in 1783 of poor children in the streets "playing at 'chuck'." I have no idea what that means.

Here's the full context. It is from a letter written by Robert Raikes, the originator of Sunday School, about why he began the program.

The beginning of the scheme was entirely owing to accident. Some business leading me one morning into the suburbs of the city, where the lowest of the people (who are principally employed in the pin manufactory) chiefly reside, I was struck with concern at seeing a group of children, wretchedly ragged, at play in the streets. I asked an inhabitant whether those children belonged to that part of the town, and lamented their misery and idleness. "Ah! sir," said the woman to whom I was speaking, "could you take a view of this part of the town on Sunday, you would be shocked indeed; for then the street is filled with multitudes of these wretches, who, released on that day from employment, spend their time in noise and riot, playing at 'chuck,' and cursing and swearing in a manner so horrid as to convey to any serious mind an idea of hell rather than any other place.

I haven't yet stumbled upon the right search terms to help me figure out what "chuck" would involve, and I am at the added disadvantage of living in 21st century America. Any clue what it meant in late 18th century England to play at chuck?
posted by Pater Aletheias to Grab Bag (8 answers total)
Best answer: Chuck-farthing, a relative of the later game pitch-penny.
posted by inturnaround at 1:26 PM on February 17, 2014

Chuck was slang at the time for prostitute.
posted by brujita at 1:28 PM on February 17, 2014

Best answer: Yep, probably Chuck-farthing.

chuck-farthing, n.

a. A game of combined skill and chance in which coins were pitched at a mark, and then chucked or tossed at a hole by the player who came nearest the mark, and who won all that alighted in the hole. (In modern use probably often applied to pitch and toss, or the like.)

1699 B. E. New Dict. Canting Crew, Chuck farthing, a Parish-Clerk (in the Satyr against Hypocrites) also a Play among Boies.
1712 R. Steele Spectator No. 466. ⁋3, I catched her once..at Chuck-Farthing among the Boys.
1712 J. Arbuthnot John Bull in his Senses ii. 9 He lost his Money at Chuck-Farthing, Shuffle-Cap, and All-Fours.
1771 T. Smollett Humphry Clinker III. 216 He understands..games from chess down to chuck-farthing.
1841 Dickens Barnaby Rudge xxxvii. 149 They presently fell to pitch and toss, chuck-farthing, [etc.].
posted by zamboni at 1:29 PM on February 17, 2014

Response by poster: You guys are great! Here I thought this was some ultra-obscure stumper. Not having the word "farthing" in the reference made this nigh impossible to Google. Thanks!
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:32 PM on February 17, 2014

"Chuck" just means "throw" (and is still commonly used to mean that in at least north-west england), so I wouldn't be so sure it's that specific game ahead of anything else involving throwing things.
posted by gregjones at 1:36 PM on February 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Other books about Raikes paraphrase him, but give chuck-farthing its full name:
In front of the cottages, and on the meadows they faced, swarms of little ragamuffins of all ages and both sexes were romping, the bigger boys and even girls, for the most part, as one can imagine, indulging in the roughest horse- play. But what particularly horrified Raikes was the awful language these small children employed towards one another even in their play and the sight of many of them wrangling savagely over gambling games such as * chuck ' or ' chuck-farthing/ The young pagans swore at one another and used the vilest of language expressions and words which they were too young to know the meaning of, and which they must have picked up from evil elder companions, or, alas, from wicked, coarse parents.
All the factory people and other working men are free on that day, and they spend their time in noise and riot, playing at chuck-farthing, and fighting and swearing so horribly, it makes me think sometimes that hell can't be much worse.
posted by zamboni at 1:37 PM on February 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

> Chuck was slang at the time for prostitute.

For the benefit of those who might read this thread and be misinformed: no, it wasn't. I've checked the OED, Farmer & Henley, Green, even the unreliable Partridge, and there is nothing resembling such a definition. And may I ask people not to just post whatever random half-remembered bullshit they come up with into these threads; trust that someone will come along with an actual answer. (In this case, someone already had, so there's even less excuse.)
posted by languagehat at 6:55 AM on February 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

Diana Gabaldon uses it in the context for prostitute in Outlander and The Exile. I asked in her compuserve forum where she found it and she told me it might have been Fanny Hill. It doesn't turn up there, but may in another 1700 era erotic novel.
posted by brujita at 2:38 PM on February 18, 2014

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