20 September 2018

Fun & Games With Victorian English Slang

by Brian Thornton

My friend Michael recently had a birthday. He chose to celebrate it by hosting an open house, insisting on no gifts; he just wanted our good company.

So, of course I brought him a gift.

And I ought to have known that his "no gifts" dictum only ran one way, because he had two in hand to give to us: a novel for my wife and a book of Victorian English slang for me, the guy who writes stuff set during the Victorian era (mid-to-late 19th century, for those of you playing at home.).

And I'm here to share the wealth: or at least some highlights! Today's entry will mine the listings for A, B, and C.

All of the phrases and their definitions below are taken from Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase, by British mystery writer (and creator of one the first female detectives) James Redding Ware (1832–1909, wrote under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester). As nearly as I can tell, this compendium was compiled over many years. It was first published shortly after his death in 1909. Many of the passages contained herein would be a natural fit in such contemporary satirical works as Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary (1911).

Warning: STRANGE (and off-color, inappropriate, and, and, and...) STUFF AHEAD. Some of this makes the entries at urbandictionary.com seem straightforward!

Acknowledge the Corn: Adroit confession of minor offence to intensify the denial of the major offence: e.g., 'Sir, I believe you are after my wife–and you certainly pocketed my meerschaum last Sunday evening at 10.30.' To which the answer might be: 'Well, I acknowledge the corn–I took the pipe by incident, so to speak; but as to Mrs. H., I'm as innocent as the skipping lamb.' Said to arise from an ordinary horse-lifting case in the West of the U.S.A. The victim was accused of stealing four horses from one point and four feeds of corn from another for the said four horses. 'I acknowledge the corn,' said the sufferer–but legend says he was lynched in spite of the admission.

Adam and Eve's togs: Nakedness.

Afternoonified: Smart.

Agreeable Rattle: (ab. 1840) A chattering young man.

Alderman hung in Chains: A fat turkey decked with garlands of sausages.

Alls: Waste pot at public houses.

Blue Pig: (Maine, U.S.A.). Whisky. Maine is a temperance state, therefore liquor has to be asked under various strange names, which have generally been satirically distinguished by a strange contradiction in their component parts, as in this instance. The phrase common in Liverpool.

Bob, Harry and Dick: (Rhyming, 1868) Sick–disguised way of admitting a crushed condition, the morn following a heavy drink. (See Micky.)

Bohemian Bungery: (Strand District) Public-house patronized by struggling authors. Bohemian having been introduced by Murger for a fighting author, artist, or musician, and the tea-pot brigade having dubbed a licensed victualler a bung, from that adjunct of a beer barrel–this phrase became one of the results of time. The Nell Gwynne was once a Bohemian Bungery.

Boiled Owl: (People's) Drunk–as a boiled owl. Here there is no common sense whatever, nor fun, wit, nor anything but absurdity. Probably another instance of a common name being changed to common or even uncommon word. May be drunk as Abel Doyle–which would suggest an Irish origin like many incomprehensible proverbs too completely Anglicized.
    It is a well-known fact in natural history that a parrot is the only bird which can sing after partaking of wines, spirits or beer; for it is now universally agreed by all scientific men who have investigated the subject that the expression, 'Drunk as a boiled owl' is a gross libel upon a highly respectable teetotal bird which, even in its unboiled state, drinks nothing stronger than rain-water. –D.T. 12th December, 1892.

Boko: (Common) A huge nose. Corruption of 'beaucoup', the 'o' being national and preferred to the French 'ou'.

Boko-smasher: (Street) For elucidation of this elegant occupation see Boko.

Bone: (London, 1882) A thin man. Hence–'The bone has made a remark.' (Surrey Pantomime, London, 1882)

Bone-shaker: (Youths, 1870 on) The earliest bicycle–which tried to break bones incessantly.

Cart: (Peoples' 18th cent.) A metaphor for the gallows–to which terminal its victims were jolted in a cart. Still heard in provincial places–'You be on'y fit for the cart'–doubtless now used without the least idea of its original meaning. In London the cart tavelled, only too often, several miles from Newgate to Tyburn Tree, whose site was that of the Marble Arch in Hyde Park. Used by all the dramatists in the last century.

Castor: (Street) A hat. Of course from the first hats being made from the fur of the castor, or beaver; passed down to the streets, where any hat is called a castor. Superseded by Gossamer.

Casualty: (Peoples') A black eye. From the first Soudan War, when slight injuries were cabled under this head.

Cat: (Thieves') Woman in general, and a bad one in particular. Suggested probably by her smoothness, the uncertainty of her temper, and the certainty of her claws.

Chamber of Horrors: (Soc) The name of the corridor or repository in which Messrs Christie (King Street, St James's) locate the valueless pictures that are sent to them from all parts of the world as supposed genuine old masters; sent, as a rule, with directions to sell at certain prices most preposterously fixed very high. Phrase borrowed from Madame Tussaud's wax-work, where this chamber is coloured black, and filled with effigies of murderers.

Chapper: (L. London) To drink.

Chestnut: (Amer. Eng.) An old joke offered as new. Brought to England officially in 1886 by A. Daly's Company at the Strand Theatre in 'A Night Off', where the heroine tells the hero the  play was found in an 'old chest'–to which he replies, 'Very old–chestnut!'

More 'chestnuts' in two weeks!


  1. great stuff- how sad so many great phrases have been lost.

  2. They definitely had a way with words.

  3. Good information. Thanks for posting this.

  4. I quite like those, Brian. I've heard of one or two but didn't know what was meant. The only one I actually knew was chestnut.

    As for singing parrots… I've never led one to drink, but trust me– parrot singing resembles a lawnmower running over the tail of a mite slow cat.


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