Victorian slang: A to C

In 1909, J. Redding Ware sought to record the ‘passing English’ of the Victorian era, as he acknowledged that the language had already changed a great deal from even four decades earlier. Although he stressed how localized and fluid words could be, it is notable how many of the phrases he identified lasted the test of time and endured into the twenty-first century, from ‘axe to grind’ and ‘badgering’ someone to ‘belittle’ and ‘brolly’. Although his Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase provides only a snapshot of the ‘daily history of the nation’, he declared his chief hope was that the book might be ‘found amusing, if neither erudite nor useful’.

Below are some the Victorian phrases he recorded from letters A to C:

  • About and about: Mere chatter/fool’s talk
  • Academic nudity: Not wearing a cap or gown in public (Oxford)
  • Acknowledge the corn: Admitting a minor offence
  • Afternoonified: Smart (high society)
  • All a-cock: Overthrown or vanquished
  • Angel makers: Baby farmers, because so many died!
  • Arf-afr’an’arf: Drunk
  • ‘Arrydom: The kingdom and rule of ‘Arry, the typical London cad
  • ‘Awkins: Severe man (not to be trifled with) or a pricely costermonger
  • Back-hairing: Feminine fighting that ruffled up the hair
  • Bags o’ mystery: Sausages because no one knows what’s in the them
  • Bagger: Stealer of rings by seizing the hand
  • Barn-stormers: Inferior actors who play in barns
  • Barrel of Treacle: Love (London)
  • Basket of Oranges: Pretty woman (a new Australianism from finding colour when gold prospecting)
  • Batty-fang: Low london for thrashing thoroughly
  • Beanfeast: Enjoyments often connected with employees in factories (‘Beano’ comes from it, meaning great rejoicing)
  • Beast: Youth slang for a bike (taken from the word for train)
  • Beer-bottle: A stout red-faced man
  • Billy Turniptop: Agricultural labourer
  • Bit o’ crumb: Pretty plumb girl
  • Bit o’ raspberry: Attractive girl
  • Bit o’ soap: Charming girl
  • Bit o’ pooh: Flattery (speaking nonsense)
  • Blister to: Punish with moderation
  • Bloods: Navy slang for penny dreadfuls
  • Bluchers: The commonest of boots, named after the General von Blucher, the Prussian general-in-chief at the battle of Waterloo
  • Blue hen’s chick: A Devonshire word for a clever soul
  • Blue o’clock in the morning: Pre-dawn when the black sky gives way to purple
  • Bob, Harry and Dick: Sick (rhyming slang)
  • Boiled owl: Drunk (‘Drunk as a boiled owl’)
  • Bohemian Bungery: Public house patronized by struggling authors (‘bungery’ being slang for a pub)
  • Boko-smasher: Someone who hits people on the nose (‘boko’ meaning a huge nose)
  • Bone-shaker: Early bicycles
  • Boy Jones, The. A secret informant, supposedly from a chimney sweep who tumbled down the chimney and heard State secrets at Buckingham Palace
  • Bridgeting: Obtaining money under false pretenses
  • Buxton limp: Reference to the hobbling of the injured taking to the waters (in the hope of being healed)
  • Cads on castors: Bicyclists
  • Call it 8 bells: Nautical term for when it is acceptable to have a drink (8 bells meaning high noon). If it’s earlier you call it 8 bells
  • Camp: Street slang for actions and gestures that are exagerated
  • Canaries: Charity subscription papers printed on cheaper yellow paper (the word popularised by Booth of the Salvation Army)
  • Candle shop: Roman Catholic church (or ritualistic church)
  • Can’t see a hole in a forty-foot ladder: Drunk in the extreme
  • Can’t you feel the shrimps: Cockney for smelling the sea
  • Carrots: Red hair
  • Catch-penny: Street slang for gutter ballads
  • Chuck up the bunch of fives: Boxing term for dying (the fingers and thumb relaxing in death)
  • Chuckaboo: A favourite chum
  • Chucker-in-Chief: A prince among those who chuck out people from pubs
  • Churchyard cough: A fatal cold (another being ‘cemetary catarrh’)
  • Churchyard luck: The ‘good fortune’ when the mother of a large family experiences the death of children (reducing the financial burden)
  • Cinderella: A society word for a dance that ends at twelve
  • Clare market duck: Baked bullock’s heart stuffed with safe and onions that vaguely resembling a bird (a term for a cheap food satirically associated with luxury)
  • Cleavin: Boastful (from the Clare Market Cleavers, butchers who were the price and terror of the area)
  • Coal sack: Cul de sac
  • Cock and hen club: One of mixed sexes
  • Cod, To: Swindle (a cod could also mean fool or drunk)
  • Cod-bangers: Well-dressed sailors (from wealthy cod fisherman who would bring the live fish to market and then strike them)
  • Coddem: A tavern game where you have to guess which closed fist has a bean (or small item) in it
  • Coker-nuts: London slang for large breasts
  • Cold coffee: Aristan slang for elicit beer
  • Collie shangles: Quarrels (Scottish word used by Queen Victorian relating to dogs fighting)
  • Collah carriage: Railway carriage filled with women (from ‘collah’ in Yiddish meaning young girls)
  • Come out, To: To appear in society (young women)
  • Commercial legs: Military recruitment slang for being unfit for service
  • Commonsensible: Having common sense
  • Confidence man: A thief who gains the trust of someone
  • Constructive assault: A legal term for attending a prize fight (and therefore helping facilitate it)
  • Coo-ey: Greeting influenced by the Australian Aboriginal call
  • Cooking day: Navy term for a 24-hour period of excess
  • Cop: Taken/defeat/drunk
  • Copper: Sland for a policeman (taken from the street verb ‘cop’)
  • Copper captain: An officer of self-promotion (with no official rank)
  • Copper-clawing: A fight between females (possibly from ‘cap-a-clawing’)
  • Corpse-worship: Excessive use of flowers at funerals.
  • Coster: A costermonger, a great being in the low life (dresses well, flush with cash, etc)
  • Couldn’t speak a threepenny bit: Temporarily unable to speak
  • Crack: A narrow passages of houses
  • Crack the bell: Produce failure by speech or reveal a secret unintentionally
  • Cracksman: A burglar who breaks (cracks) into buildings
  • Crowbar brigade: Irish constabulary who used a crowbar to evict tenants
  • Cyclophobist: Someone who hates tradesmen’s circulars.

(Image from Abe Books)

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