CLOSE
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

56 Delightful Victorian Slang Terms You Should Be Using

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

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.

arrow
History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
arrow
History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios