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.

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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