Kill the canary (shirking work) and join a chuckaboo (favorite friend) to become half-rats (partially intoxicated) so you can enjoy our entertaining list of Victorian slang terms. Our source is Passing English of the Victorian Era, a Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase, published in 1909 right after the end of the Victorian era. The author writes, “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.” Passing English is compiled from countless sources from all the classes.
A figure of speech describing drunken men. “E’s very arfarfanarf,” “meaning he has had many ‘arfs,’” or half-pints of booze.
Victorian sailor slang for “A riotous holiday, a noisy day in the streets.”
- Bitch the pot
Amongst a tea-drinking party of men it meant who will pour the tea. It was asked, “Who will bitch the pot?”
- Bone shaker
The earliest bicycle – which tried to break bones incessantly.
So bad that it might be dog flesh.
- Call it 8 Bells
Since it was bad form in nautical circles to have a drink before high noon (8 Bells), the apology for alcoholics to drink before that hour was “’Come along – I fancy the bar is this way. Call it 8 Bells.’ And they do.”
- Can’t you feel the shrimps?
Cockney slang for smell the sea.
A term in London society for tea and coffee. It was used scornfully by drinkers who preferred stronger liquors.
The high plumed hat, especially with black feathers, which rose to its greatest height in 1897. They were sometimes removed to the laps of the wearers when in the theater.
A name given to a favorite friend.
Sailors term for nothing except below contempt. “Oh, I’m Dennis, am I?” Sailors always call the ‘pig’ Dennis.
- Dig me out
Society term for call for me; stop me “from lazy loafing in the house.”
- Doing the Bear
Courting which involves hugging.
- Donkey’s breakfast
A London term for a man’s straw hat.
A mid-19th century style of beard. The ring shape was “formed by the cheeks and chin being shaved leaving a chain of hair under the chin, and upon each side of mouth, forming with the moustache something like a door-knocker.”
A satirical reference to enthusiasm.
- Fake a poke
Among thieves, to pick a pocket.
- Filly and foal
Young lovers sauntering apart from the world.
Suburban resident who, after work in the city, takes home food, especially cheap fish, in a respectable black leather bag. I was a contemptuous term used by tradesmen applied to those who lived in good suburbs without spending a penny there beyond the rent.
- Fishy about the gills
The appearance of recent drunkenness which produced a pull-down of the corners of the mouth and the squareness of the lower cheeks or gills, suggesting the gills in fish.
In the 1890s it referred to a “very immoral young girl in her early teens.”
In the mid-19th century, the thick line of black paint put on the edge of the lower eyelid to enhance the effect of the eye itself.
A man devoted to seducing the ladies.
- Gin bottle
Street term for an alcoholic, flabby, debased woman, generally over thirty.
- Going ‘ome
Lower class term for dying.
- Got the morbs
This phrase referred to a temporary melancholia.
- Gray-mare the better horse
Praise of a wife as more able than her husband.
Old-fashioned. “Though dinner dresses are rich, costly, and elaborate, if a lady appears at a fourth dinner or even a third in the same gown, it is immediately dubbed historical.”
Lower class term for a pretty girl – presumably of easy habits. History: “A girl of notoriety in Piccadilly was named “Tart”. She, in complement to her sweetness came to be called “jam tart”, and the knowing ones would ask – ‘would you like a bit of jam tart?’” The phrase then became “jam”.
Street term for wife.
A man willing to go out to dining at a moment’s notice – a parasite.
- Killing the canary
- Knocker on the front door
- Listening to oneself
- Marriage face
Sad one – because generally a bride cries a good deal, and so temporarily spoils her looks.
- Mind the grease
Let me pass, please.
Refusal of marriage by a lady. “She gave him the mitten.”
- Nanty narking
Popular from 1800 to 1840, this tavern term meant great fun.
A day visitor to the seaside, who brings his own provisions, presumably in a bag, and doesn’t spend any money at the resort he’s visiting.
- Not up to dick
Not well, feeling wretched.
- Olive oil
English pronunciation of “Au revoir.”
- One and a peppermint drop
- Parts his hair with a towel
- Powdering hair
An 18th century phrase that means “getting drunk.”
- Queen’s weather
Fine sunshine — from the “singular fact” that through Queen Victoria’s reign she almost always had fine weather when she appeared in public.
Disarrangement of another man’s furniture, but with no damage. “If you return and find your rooms in a state of chaos, your friends have been indulging in a ‘rag.'”
An umbrella – because it catches the rain.
- Rational costume
Trousers for women. Early in the 1850s these appendages were called “Bloomers” from an American lady of that name. A generation passed, when they loomed up again as divided skirts and “Bectives” (probably from Lady Bective having approved the fashion). Next, about 1890, they took over the name for young boys’ knee-trousers, and were called “knickerbockers.” Next, in 1895, the female trouser was known as rational costume.
- Smothering a Parrot
Draining a glass of absinthe neat; derived from the green color of the absinthe.
[Excerpts from Passing English of the Victorian Era, a Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase. Published 1909]