Read CHAPTER III of The Complete English Tradesman, free online book, by Daniel Defoe, on


In the last chapter I gave my thoughts for the instruction of young tradesmen in writing letters with orders, and answering orders, and especially about the proper style of a tradesman’s letters, which I hinted should be plain and easy, free in language, and direct to the purpose intended.  Give me leave to go on with the subject a little farther, as I think it is useful in another part of the tradesman’s correspondence.

I might have made some apology for urging tradesmen to write a plain and easy style; let me add, that the tradesmen need not be offended at my condemning them, as it were, to a plain and homely style ­easy, plain, and familiar language is the beauty of speech in general, and is the excellency of all writing, on whatever subject, or to whatever persons they are we write or speak.  The end of speech is that men might understand one another’s meaning; certainly that speech, or that way of speaking, which is most easily understood, is the best way of speaking.  If any man were to ask me, which would be supposed to be a perfect style, or language, I would answer, that in which a man speaking to five hundred people, of all common and various capacities, idiots or lunatics excepted, should be understood by them all in the same manner with one another, and in the same sense which the speaker intended to be understood ­this would certainly be a most perfect style.

All exotic sayings, dark and ambiguous speakings, affected words, and, as I said in the last chapter, abridgement, or words cut off, as they are foolish and improper in business, so, indeed, are they in any other things; hard words, and affectation of style in business, is like bombast in poetry, a kind of rumbling nonsense, and nothing of the kind can be more ridiculous.

The nicety of writing in business consists chiefly in giving every species of goods their trading names, for there are certain peculiarities in the trading language, which are to be observed as the greatest proprieties, and without which the language your letters are written in would be obscure, and the tradesmen you write to would not understand you ­for example, if you write to your factor at Lisbon, or at Cadiz, to make you returns in hardware, he understands you, and sends you so many bags of pieces of eight.  So, if a merchant comes to me to hire a small ship of me, and tells me it is for the pipin trade, or to buy a vessel, and tells me he intends to make a pipiner of her, the meaning is, that she is to run to Seville for oranges, or to Malaga for lemons.  If he says he intends to send her for a lading of fruit, the meaning is, she is to go to Alicant, Denia, or Xevia, on the coast of Spain, for raisins of the sun, or to Malaga for Malaga raisins.  Thus, in the home trade in England:  if in Kent a man tells me he is to go among the night-riders, his meaning is, he is to go a-carrying wool to the sea-shore ­the people that usually run the wool off in boats, are called owlers ­those that steal customs, smugglers, and the like.  In a word, there is a kind of slang in trade, which a tradesman ought to know, as the beggars and strollers know the gipsy cant, which none can speak but themselves; and this in letters of business is allowable, and, indeed, they cannot understand one another without it.

A brickmaker being hired by a brewer to make some bricks for him at his country-house, wrote to the brewer that he could not go forward unless he had two or three loads of spanish, and that otherwise his bricks would cost him six or seven chaldrons of coals extraordinary, and the bricks would not be so good and hard neither by a great deal, when they were burnt.

The brewer sends him an answer, that he should go on as well as he could for three or four days, and then the spanish should be sent him:  accordingly, the following week, the brewer sends him down two carts loaded with about twelve hogsheads or casks of molasses, which frighted the brickmaker almost out of his senses.  The case was this:-The brewers formerly mixed molasses with their ale to sweeten it, and abate the quantity of malt, molasses, being, at that time, much cheaper in proportion, and this they called spanish, not being willing that people should know it.  Again, the brickmakers all about London, do mix sea-coal ashes, or laystal-stuff, as we call it, with the clay of which they make bricks, and by that shift save eight chaldrons of coals out of eleven, in proportion to what other people use to burn them with, and these ashes they call spanish.

Thus the received terms of art, in every particular business, are to be observed, of which I shall speak to you in its turn:  I name them here to intimate, that when I am speaking of plain writing in matters of business, it must be understood with an allowance for all these things ­and a tradesman must be not only allowed to use them in his style, but cannot write properly without them ­it is a particular excellence in a tradesman to be able to know all the terms of art in every separate business, so as to be able to speak or write to any particular handicraft or manufacturer in his own dialect, and it is as necessary as it is for a seaman to understand the names of all the several things belonging to a ship.  This, therefore, is not to be understood when I say, that a tradesman should write plain and explicit, for these things belong to, and are part of, the language of trade.

But even these terms of art, or customary expressions, are not to be used with affectation, and with a needless repetition, where they are not called for.

Nor should a tradesman write those out-of-the-way words, though it is in the way of the business he writes about, to any other person, who he knows, or has reason to believe, does not understand them ­I say, he ought not to write in those terms to such, because it shows a kind of ostentation, and a triumph over the ignorance of the person they are written to, unless at the very same time you add an explanation of the terms, so as to make them assuredly intelligible at the place, and to the person to whom they are sent.

A tradesman, in such cases, like a parson, should suit his language to his auditory; and it would be as ridiculous for a tradesman to write a letter filled with the peculiarities of this or that particular trade, which trade he knows the person he writes to is ignorant of, and the terms whereof he is unacquainted with, as it would be for a minister to quote the Chrysostome and St Austin, and repeat at large all their sayings in the Greek and the Latin, in a country church, among a parcel of ploughmen and farmers.  Thus a sailor, writing a letter to a surgeon, told him he had a swelling on the north-east side of his face ­that his windward leg being hurt by a bruise, it so put him out of trim, that he always heeled to starboard when he made fresh way, and so run to leeward, till he was often forced aground; then he desired him to give him some directions how to put himself into a sailing posture again.  Of all which the surgeon understood little more than that he had a swelling on his face, and a bruise in his leg.

It would be a very happy thing, if tradesmen had all their lexicon technicum at their fingers’ ends; I mean (for pray, remember, that I observe my own rule, not to use a hard word without explaining it), that every tradesman would study so the terms of art of other trades, that he might be able to speak to every manufacturer or artist in his own language, and understand them when they talked one to another:  this would make trade be a kind of universal language, and the particular marks they are obliged to, would be like the notes of music, an universal character, in which all the tradesmen in England might write to one another in the language and characters of their several trades, and be as intelligible to one another as the minister is to his people, and perhaps much more.

I therefore recommend it to every young tradesman to take all occasions to converse with mechanics of every kind, and to learn the particular language of their business; not the names of their tools only, and the way of working with their instruments as well as hands, but the very cant of their trade, for every trade has its nostrums, and its little made words, which they often pride themselves in, and which yet are useful to them on some occasion or other.

There are many advantages to a tradesman in thus having a general knowledge of the terms of art, and the cant, as I call it, of every business; and particularly this, that they could not be imposed upon so easily by other tradesmen, when they came to deal with them.

If you come to deal with a tradesman or handicraft man, and talk his own language to him, he presently supposes you understand his business; that you know what you come about; that you have judgment in his goods, or in his art, and cannot easily be imposed upon; accordingly, he treats you like a man that is not to be cheated, comes close to the point, and does not crowd you with words and rattling talk to set out his wares, and to cover their defects; he finds you know where to look or feel for the defect of things, and how to judge their worth.  For example: ­

What trade has more hard words and peculiar ways attending it, than that of a jockey, or horse-courser, as we call them!  They have all the parts of the horse, and all the diseases attending him, necessary to be mentioned in the market, upon every occasion of buying or bargaining.  A jockey will know you at first sight, when you do but go round a horse, or at the first word you say about him, whether you are a dealer, as they call themselves, or a stranger.  If you begin well, if you take up the horse’s foot right, if you handle him in the proper places, if you bid his servant open his mouth, or go about it yourself like a workman, if you speak of his shapes or goings in the proper words ­’Oh!’ says the jockey to his fellow, ‘he understands a horse, he speaks the language:’  then he knows you are not to be cheated, or, at least, not so easily; but if you go awkwardly to work, whisper to your man you bring with you to ask every thing for you, cannot handle the horse yourself, or speak the language of the trade, he falls upon you with his flourishes, and with a flux of horse rhetoric imposes upon you with oaths and asseverations, and, in a word, conquers you with the mere clamour of his trade.

Thus, if you go to a garden to buy flowers, plants, trees, and greens, if you know what you go about, know the names of flowers, or simples, or greens; know the particular beauties of them, when they are fit to remove, and when to slip and draw, and when not; what colour is ordinary, and what rare; when a flower is rare, and when ordinary ­the gardener presently talks to you as to a man of art, tells you that you are a lover of art, a friend to a florist, shows you his exotics, his green-house, and his stores; what he has set out, and what he has budded or enarched, and the like; but if he finds you have none of the terms of art, know little or nothing of the names of plants, or the nature of planting, he picks your pocket instantly, shows you a fine trimmed fuz-bush for a juniper, sells you common pinks for painted ladies, an ordinary tulip for a rarity, and the like.  Thus I saw a gardener sell a gentleman a large yellow auricula, that is to say, a running away, for a curious flower, and take a great price.  It seems, the gentleman was a lover of a good yellow; and it is known, that when nature in the auricula is exhausted, and has spent her strengh in showing a fine flower, perhaps some years upon the same root, she faints at last, and then turns into a yellow, which yellow shall be bright and pleasant the first year, and look very well to one that knows nothing of it, though another year it turns pale, and at length almost white.  This the gardeners call a run flower, and this they put upon the gentleman for a rarity, only because he discovered at his coming that he knew nothing of the matter.  The same gardener sold another person a root of white painted thyme for the right Marum Syriacum; and thus they do every day.

A person goes into a brickmaker’s field to view his clamp, and buy a load of bricks; he resolves to see them loaded, because he would have good ones; but not understanding the goods, and seeing the workmen loading them where they were hard and well burnt, but looked white and grey, which, to be sure, were the best of the bricks, and which perhaps they would not have done if he had not been there to look at them, they supposing he understood which were the best; but he, in the abundance of his ignorance, finds fault with them, because they were not a good colour, and did not look red; the brickmaker’s men took the hint immediately, and telling the buyer they would give him red bricks to oblige him, turned their hands from the grey hard well-burnt bricks to the soft sammel half-burnt bricks, which they were glad to dispose of, and which nobody that had understood them would have taken off their hands.

I mention these lower things, because I would suit my writing to the understanding of the meanest people, and speak of frauds used in the most ordinary trades; but it is the like in almost all the goods a tradesman can deal in.  If you go to Warwickshire to buy cheese, you demand the cheese ‘of the first make,’ because that is the best.  If you go to Suffolk to buy butter, you refuse the butter of the first make, because that is not the best, but you bargain for ’the right rowing butter,’ which is the butter that is made when the cows are turned into the grounds where the grass has been mowed, and the hay carried off, and grown again:  and so in many other cases.  These things demonstrate the advantages there are to a tradesman, in his being thoroughly informed of the terms of art, and the peculiarities belonging to every particular business, which, therefore, I call the language of trade.

As a merchant should understand all languages, at least the languages of those countries which he trades to, or corresponds with, and the customs and usages of those countries as to their commerce, so an English tradesman ought to understand all the languages of trade, within the circumference of his own country, at least, and particularly of such as he may, by any of the consequences of his commerce, come to be any way concerned with.

Especially, it is his business to acquaint himself with the terms and trading style, as I call it, of those trades which he buys of, as to those he sells to; supposing he sells to those who sell again, it is their business to understand him, not his to understand them:  and if he finds they do not understand him, he will not fail to make their ignorance be his advantage, unless he is honester and more conscientious in his dealings than most of the tradesmen of this age seem to be.