17 Job Titles in Victorian Slang

A Victorian doctor—or 'squirt'—at work
A Victorian doctor—or 'squirt'—at work
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a trend emerged in English slang for bestowing mock “titles” on people employed or engaged in various jobs or pursuits. So an admiral of the blue was a publican, so-called because of the color of his apron. A queen of the dripping pan was a cook. A lord of the foresheet was a ship’s cook. And a knight of the cue was a billiard-player, a knight of the thimble was a tailor, a knight of the lapstone a cobbler, and a knight of the brush an artist. So what would your job title have been in Victorian slang?

1. Waiters & Waitresses

Barmen were known as aproners and waiters were known as knights of the napkin in Victorian slang—although if you waited tables in a pub or tavern you were more likely to be called a dash (derived either from your habit of dashing from table to table, or serving a dash of liquor). Any waiter lucky enough to work outside during the summer months, at garden parties or in beer gardens and tea gardens, was called a grasshopper.

2. Cooks & Chefs

A dripping was a (usually fairly poor-quality) chef or cook in 19th-century slang, as was a lick-fingers and a spoil-broth. Gally-swab was another name for a ship’s cook, and a Jack Nasty-face was a naval cook or cook's assistant, probably derived from the earlier use of jack to mean a newly recruited deckhand or sailor.

3. Shops & Shopkeepers

If you were a general tradesman or shop-worker in Victorian England, then you were a blue-apron or an aproner, although a disreputable shopkeeper who cheated his or her customers was known as a tax-fencer. Nicknames for specific shopkeepers included cleaver and kill-calf (a butcher); strap and scraper (a barber); crumb-and-crust-man or bapper and burn-crust (a baker); figgins and split-fig (a greengrocer); and stay-tape and steel-bar flinger (a tailor). The word shopkeeper itself was also used as a nickname for an item of stock that remained unsold for a long time.

4. Actors

Because Shakespeare was “The Swan of Avon,” a swan-slinger was a Shakespearean actor in 19th-century English. Elsewhere, actors were also called tags (from the character names that “tag” the speeches in a script), agony-pilers (particularly those who took on weighty roles), and cackling-coves (literally “chattering-men”).

5. Journalists & Writers

While a quill-driver or a pen-driver was a clerk or secretary in 19th-century slang, a hack journalist who would take on any work for cash was called an X.Y.Z. after an anonymous writer who used the pseudonym “XYZ” in a mid-1880s Times of London ad offering to work on any project going. Journalists were also known as screeds, pencil-pushers, adjective-jerkers, and chaunter-coves, while a yarn-chopper was a journalist who made up the stories they wrote about.

6. The Police

Because the London police force was established in 1829 by then-Home Secretary (and later Prime Minister) Sir Robert Peel, Victorian police officers became known as peelers and bobbies, terms still in use in Britain today. The peelers’ dark-blue uniforms were also the origin of the old nicknames blue-belly, bluebottle, gentleman in blue and white, and even unboiled lobster.

7. Lawyers

Derived from the earlier use of snap to mean a snare or noose, a brother-snap was an unscrupulous lawyer or shyster in 18th- and 19th-century slang. Lawyers were also known as sublime rascals, tongue-padders, and split-causes (because of their habit of going into lengthy explanatory discourses and nit-picking over every detail), Tom Sawyers (in London rhyming slang), and snipes—because they typically presented you with a very long bill.

8. Judges

While magistrates were known as beaks in 18th-19th century English (no one quite knows why), judges were nobs-in-the-fur-trade among Victorian criminals. (A nob was a particularly high-ranking or important person, while the fur trade referred to the white fur or ermine used to adorn judges’ robes.)

9. Teachers

Learning-shover, nip-lug (because they pulled on unruly pupils’ ears or lugs), and terror of the infantry (infantry being a slang name for the pupils of a school) were all old nicknames for schoolteachers in 19th-century English, as was haberdasher of pronouns. A schoolmaster was a knight of grammar, while a Sunday-school teacher was a gospel-grinder, or a gospel-shark.

10. Farmers

Probably derived from the Latin word for “ox,” bos, a bosken was a farmhouse in 19th-century slang, and so a farmer was a bos-man or a boss-cockie; a Billy Turniptop was a farmhand or agricultural worker.

11. Priests & the Clergy

Priests were known as devil-dodgers, men-in-black, mumble-matins (derived from the Matins church service) and joss-house men in 19th-century slang—the latter derived from a pidgin English pronunciation of the Spanish word Dios.

12. Doctors, 13. Pharmacists, 14. Surgeons, and 15. Dentists

Both clyster-pipe and squirt are old nicknames for syringes that by the 19th century had come to be used as bywords for anyone employed in dispensing medication. Water-scriger and water-caster were 16th-century words, both still in use in the 1800s, for doctors who diagnosed their patients based on examinations of their urine. Surgeons were known as bone-setters and castor-oil artists, while dentists were fang-fakers and pharmacists and chemists were potter-carriers (a pun on “apothecary”). A chemist’s assistant was a bottle-boy, and a loblolly-boy was a doctor’s assistant.

16. Bankers, 17. Cashiers & Accountants

A rag was a banknote in early 19th-century English, and so a rag-shop or a rag-box was a bank, while a rag-shop boss was a banker and a rag-shop cove was a cashier, or someone whose work involved taking and counting money.

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

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members

iStock.com/kali9
iStock.com/kali9

The words we use for family members in English are specific about some things, and vague about others. Our vocabulary marks a distinction between our mother and her sisters (some languages use one word for mother and maternal aunts), but doesn't say whether siblings are older or younger (some languages have different words for brother and sister depending on their age relative to you). We lack words that pick out particular family members (we have cousin, but what about child-of-my-father's-brother?) as well as certain general terms (we have siblings for brothers-and-sisters, but what about nieces-and-nephews?)

If you look hard enough, you can find some words to help fill in the gaps. Here are 11 unusual English kinship words for family members.

1. Patruel

This one means "child of your paternal uncle." Also, a child of your own brother. It hasn't gotten a lot of use in the past few centuries, but it was once convenient to have a term for this relationship because it factored into royal succession considerations. The first citation for it in the OED, from 1538, reads, "Efter his patruell deid withoutin contradictioun he wes king."

2. Avuncle

Your mother's brother. Latin distinguished between patruus, father's brother, and avunculus, mother's brother. (There was also amita, father's sister, and matertera, mother's sister.) It's the root of the word avuncular, meaning "having to do with uncles" or "uncle-like" (i.e., kind and friendly, like an uncle). You won't find the word avuncle in the dictionary, but it has been used in anthropology texts and in papers concerning royal matters.

3. Niblings

Your nieces and nephews. You won't find this in the dictionary either, but use of this term seems to be growing among favorite aunts and uncles who want an easy way to refer to their little bundles of sibling-provided joy in a collective or gender-neutral way.

4. Fadu

Your father's sister. Latin amita covers this relationship, but we don't have to reach that far back to find an English equivalent. Old English made a distinction between aunts and uncles depending on whether they were maternal or paternal. We lost all that when we borrowed the more general aunt and uncle from French.

5. Modrige

"Your mother's sister," from Old English.

6. Fœdra

"Your father's brother," from Old English.

7. Eam

Your mother's brother. It survived in some dialects as eme, with a more general meaning of uncle or friend, into the 19th century.

8. Brother-uterine

Your half-brother from the same mother. This is a term used in old legal documents or other discussions of inheritance and succession. Half-siblings of the same mother are uterine and of the same father are consanguine.

9. Brother-german

Full brother, sharing both parents. Nothing to do with Germany. The german here is related to germane, which originally meant "of the same parents" and later came to mean just related or relevant.

10. Double cousin

Full first cousin, sharing all four grandparents. This comes about when a pair of sisters marries a pair of brothers, among other circumstances.

11. Machetonim

The parents of your child's spouse. Your child's in-laws. Ok, this is a Yiddish word, but one that, like a lot of Yiddish words, has poked its way into English because it fills a gap. When it comes to marriage, this can be a very important relationship, so it’s good to have a word for it. If your parents get along with their machetonim, the family—the whole mishpocheh—will be happier.

This story was republished in 2019.

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