Tag Archives: Passing English of a Victorian Era

Thirty-Eight Of The Gang

According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, there were compensations to be had from a spell of wet weather. Pavement were rudimentary and soon turned into a sea of mud, heralding the arrival of Shulleg Day. To prevent their long dresses from dragging in the mud, women would hitch them up, revealing a glimpse of ankle and lower leg to onlookers. Shulleg is a mangling of show-leg.

We know what a sit-down supper is, but what is fascinating was why it was necessary to emphasis that a meal would be taken sitting at a table. Apparently, in the late 1850s the medical press began to agitate against the practice of ostentatious and expensive banquets. The result was a more economical approach to feeding an assembled crowd, by inventing the stand-up meal, which by necessity was a thinner meal than a banquet. Old-fashioned people, Ware wryly observes, adopted this term to emphasis the difference.

Looking for an inventive way to describe an impossibility? Try six buses through Temple Bar, a phrase attributed to the MP, General George Thompson, who represented Tower Hamlets from 1847 and was a prominent abolitionist. John Bright, speaking in Leeds on October 18, 1883, gave some colour to the phrase when speaking against the proposed Suffrage Bill. He said that those proposing it “will be committing that great mistake which our old friend General Thompson used to describe as being made by the man who insisted on driving six omnibuses abreast through Temple Bar”. They just would not fit!

Thirty-Seven Of The Gang

According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, to see the elephant was to see something out to its conclusion. This colourful phrase owes its origin to the world of the circus where the final and most thrilling act, designed to send the spectators home happy and begging for more, involved an elephant.

Rail travel boomed in the mid-19th century and new lines and stations sprang up, especially around the metropolis. One such was Walworth Road Station on the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway which opened in May 1863, originally as Camberwell Gate but changed its name in in January 1865. It was built on a viaduct over three roads.

Even by 1868 it had earned a bad reputation, known as Shoot because of the immense number of persons “shot” out there”. Its poor reputation persisted through the years. The South London Press in November 1882 wrote, “a recent writer on the condition of Italy adduces the wretched character of most of the railway stations as evidence of the poverty of the country. I would give something to know his opinion of Walworth, as evidenced by the condition of the Shoot!” The station closed for good on April 3, 1916, and nothing remains of it today.

As a station, Walworth Road may have said to have shot into the brown, a figurative expression for failure. It came from rifle practice, a poor shot missing the black and white target altogether and landing in the brown butt, the earth.

Thirty-Six Of The Gang

According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, sapper was music hall slang for a gay, irresistible dog, derived from the chorus of a song popularised by Therese, a famous Parisian music hall cantatrice. It went, “rien est sacré pour un sssapeur”. She came over to appear on stage in London in 1866.

Is the language someone uses indicative of their social status? I raise the point in considering the terms used for safety matches. They were known as lucifers, but many regarded the term to be ludicrously pompous. The middle classes toned the description down by calling them lucifer matches, while the working classes just called them scratchers which described them to a tee. I shall go to my local fish and chip shop and ask for a bag of scaffold-poles and see what I get. It was London slang for the chips that accompanied fried fish, another example of nomenclature fitting the look of the object described.

I was familiar with the term of scrumping, taking fruit from a tree without the owner’s permission, but scrunging was a new one on me. It referred to the taking of unripe apples and pears, Ware opining that it was intended to replicate the sound made in attempting to eat these hard fruits. To be caught scrounging might have been second-hand sun, a term used to denote nothing to be proud of and derived from the poor unfortunates whose only daylight in their accommodation came courtesy of a reflection from a neighbouring wall.

Thirty-Two Of The Gang

What is a pig month? According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era it was any of the eight months without an R in their name when it was said to be safe to eat pork.

Pork is a common ingredient in pies. One of the first pie shops in London was established by Henry Blanchard, probably from around 1844. There all manner of pies could be purchased, ranging from fruit to meat to eel. It proved enormously popular with the paying public as pies cost just one penny. It was less well received by the itinerant pie sellers. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, noted that “the penny pie shops, the street men say, have done their trade a great deal of harm. These shops have now got mostly all the custom, as they make pies much larger for the money than those sold in the street”.

Perhaps these disgruntled pie sellers were instrumental for coining the phrase pie shop as a synonym for a dog, for the simple expedient that was what they alleged to be the main ingredient of the pies.

In street argot a pill was a dose, punishment suffering or a sentence because of being endless in its application. A pill pusher, though, was a doctor.

An objection that could be levied at Johnson’s government is that they are guilty of podsnappery. This was defined as “a wilful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient, at the same time assuming airs of superior virtue and noble resignation”. If only the latter was true.

Twenty-Nine Of The Gang

Not the cheese, according to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, meant not satisfactory. According to Dr Brewer, it came from the Persian and Hindu word for a thing cheez, but others thought it was a corruption of the French phrase, ce n’est pas la chose. The Irish preferred not up to rap, the rap and abbreviation of rapparee, good for nothing, the name given to worthless base metal coins that circulated in Ireland in the early to mid-18th century.

Not today, baker was said to a youth paying unwanted attention to a young lady, although originally it was said by housewives to bakers making their morning call when their wares were not required.

I have used oh my eye on occasions as a form of exclamation, but I had not realised that it was a corruption of the opening words of the prayer to St Martin, the patron saint of beggars, a mihi.

Another historical character whose name was adopted into slang was Ignatius Pollaky, a consulting detective in the mode of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, based in Paddington Green, who spent decades, until he retired in 1880 at the height of his fame, unravelling swindles and tracking down foreign fugitives. His fame was such, partly fuelled by the enigmatic advertisements he had printed in the newspapers, that his name became a household word, often appearing in newspapers and in popular song and stories. Oh, Pollaky became a form of protest against overbearing and urgent enquiries.

The English have a reputation for being resistant to foreign languages or for mangling foreign phrases. Here are another couple of examples of this trait. Olive oil was a Music Hall variant of the French phrase au revoir and on for a tatur meant fascinated, entranced, used of a man at a bar making eyes at the barmaid, said to be a variant of tête à tête. Some things never change.