56 Delightful Victorian Slang Terms You Should Be Using

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images
These dogs are engaging in some collie shambles!

In 1909, writing under the pseudonym James Redding Ware, British writer Andrew Forrester published Passing English of the Victorian era, a dictionary of heterodox English, slang and phrase. "Thousands of words and phrases in existence in 1870 have drifted away, or changed their forms, or been absorbed, while as many have been added or are being added," he writes in the book's introduction. "‘Passing English’ ripples from countless sources, forming a river of new language which has its tide and its ebb, while its current brings down new ideas and carries away those that have dribbled out of fashion." Forrester chronicles many hilarious and delightful words in Passing English; we don't know how these phrases ever fell out of fashion, but we propose bringing them back.

1. Afternoonified

A society word meaning “smart.” Forrester demonstrates the usage: "The goods are not 'afternoonified' enough for me.”

2. Arfarfan'arf

A figure of speech used to describe drunken men. “He’s very arf’arf’an’arf," Forrester writes, "meaning he has had many ‘arfs,’” or half-pints of booze.

3. Back slang it

Thieves used this term to indicate that they wanted “to go out the back way.”

4. Bags o’ Mystery

An 1850 term for sausages, “because no man but the maker knows what is in them. ... The 'bag' refers to the gut which contained the chopped meat.”

5. Bang up to the elephant

This phrase originated in London in 1882, and means “perfect, complete, unapproachable.”

6. Batty-fang

Low London phrase meaning “to thrash thoroughly,” possibly from the French battre a fin.

7. Benjo

Nineteenth century sailor slang for “A riotous holiday, a noisy day in the streets.”

8. Bow wow mutton

A naval term referring to meat so bad “it might be dog flesh.”

9. Bricky

Brave or fearless. “Adroit after the manner of a brick," Forrester writes, "said even of the other sex, 'What a bricky girl she is.'”

10. Bubble Around

A verbal attack, generally made via the press. Forrester cites The Golden Butterfly: "I will back a first-class British subject for bubbling around against all humanity."

11. Butter Upon Bacon

Extravagance. Too much extravagance. “Are you going to put lace over the feather, isn't that rather butter upon bacon?”

12. Cat-lap

A London society term for tea and coffee “used scornfully by drinkers of beer and strong waters ... in club-life is one of the more ignominious names given to champagne by men who prefer stronger liquors.”

13. Church-bell

A talkative woman.

14. Chuckaboo

A nickname given to a close friend.

15. Collie shangles

Quarrels. A term from Queen Victoria’s journal, More Leaves, published in 1884: “At five minutes to eleven rode off with Beatrice, good Sharp going with us, and having occasional collie shangles (a Scottish word for quarrels or rows, but taken from fights between dogs) with collies when we came near cottages.”

16. Cop a Mouse

To get a black eye. “Cop in this sense is to catch or suffer," Forrester writers, "while the colour of the obligation at its worst suggests the colour and size of the innocent animal named.”

17. Daddles

A delightful way to refer to your rather boring hands.

18. Damfino

This creative cuss is a contraction of “damned if I know.”

19. Dizzy Age

A phrase meaning "elderly," because it "makes the spectator giddy to think of the victim's years." The term is usually refers to "a maiden or other woman canvassed by other maiden ladies or others.”

20. Doing the Bear

"Courting that involves hugging."

21. Don’t sell me a dog

Popular until 1870, this phrase meant “Don’t lie to me!” Apparently, people who sold dogs back in the day were prone to trying to pass off mutts as purebreds.

22. Door-knocker

A type of beard "formed by the cheeks and chin being shaved leaving a chain of hair under the chin, and upon each side of mouth forming with moustache something like a door-knocker."

23. Enthuzimuzzy

"Satirical reference to enthusiasm." Created by Braham the terror, whoever that is.

24. Fifteen puzzle

Not the game you might be familiar with, but a term meaning complete and absolute confusion.

25. Fly rink

An 1875 term for a polished bald head.

26. Gal-sneaker

An 1870 term for "a man devoted to seduction.”

27. Gas-Pipes

A term for especially tight pants.

28. Gigglemug

“An habitually smiling face.”

29. Got the morbs

Use of this 1880 phrase indicated temporary melancholy.

30. Half-rats

Partially intoxicated.

31. Jammiest bits of jam

“Absolutely perfect young females,” circa 1883.

32. Kruger-spoof

Lying, from 1896.

33. Mad as Hops

Excitable.

34. Mafficking

An excellent word that means getting rowdy in the streets.

35. Make a stuffed bird laugh

“Absolutely preposterous.”

36. Meater

A street term meaning coward.

37. Mind the Grease

When walking or otherwise getting around, you could ask people to let you pass, please. Or you could ask them to mind the grease, which meant the same thing to Victorians.

38. Mutton Shunter

This 1883 term for a policeman is so much better than "pig."

39. Nanty Narking

A tavern term, popular from 1800 to 1840, that meant great fun.

40. Nose bagger

Someone who takes a day trip to the beach. He brings his own provisions and doesn’t contribute at all to the resort he’s visiting.

41. Not up to Dick

Not well.

42. Orf chump

No appetite.

43. Parish Pick-Axe

A prominent nose.

44. Podsnappery

This term, Forrester writers, describes a person with a “wilful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient, at the same time assuming airs of superior virtue and noble resignation.”

45. Poked Up

Embarrassed.

46. Powdering Hair

An 18th century tavern term that means “getting drunk.”

47. Rain Napper

An umbrella.

48. Sauce-box

The mouth.

49. Shake a flannin

Why say you're going to fight when you could say you're going to shake a flannin instead?

50. Shoot into the brown

To fail. According to Forrester, "The phrase takes its rise from rifle practice, where the queer shot misses the black and white target altogether, and shoots into the brown i.e., the earth butt."

51. Skilamalink

Secret, shady, doubtful.

52. Smothering a Parrot

Drinking a glass of absinthe neat; named for the green color of the booze.

53. Suggestionize

A legal term from 1889 meaning “to prompt.”

54. Take the Egg

To win.

55. Umble-cum-stumble

According to Forrester, this low class phrase means "thoroughly understood."

56. Whooperups

A term meaning "inferior, noisy singers" that could be used liberally today during karaoke sessions.

This piece originally ran in 2013.

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

iStock/crisserbug
iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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