Tag Archives: Passing English of a Victorian Era

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.    

Twenty-Eight Of The Gang

Our language has lost some marvellous words along the way. Mawwormy was an adjective used to describe someone being picky or the act of fault finding. It owed its origin to a character in Isaac Bickerstaffe’s play of 1769, The Hypocrite. Perhaps being mawwormy is to call a dog that is reluctant to fight a meater, one that only bites into meat.

Advertising has long made its mark in popular speech. A mustard plaster referred to a dismal, doleful, pallid young man and was often used in the form of “put a mustard plaster on his chest”, an attempt to liven him up. The origin of this phrase came from a song written by celebrated music hall and pantomime writer, E L Blanchard, in association with and to promote Colman Mustard. Perhaps the youth referred to knew that his elm is grown, a premonition of imminent death. Elm wood was the most common material coffins were made from.

A Norfolk Howard was a euphemism for a frequent nighttime companion, the bed bug. It owed its origin, James Ware records in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, to a chap called Buggey who advertised in the newspapers his change of name to Norfolk Howard. As well as producing a bit of slang to describe a bed bug, Buggey’s actions provoked a wave of sympathy in the newspapers of the time for people who were saddled with objectionable or vexatious surnames.

The Times even went so far as to print a list of over a hundred surnames that it considered to be vexatious. These included Asse, Belly, Cheese, Dunce, Drinkmilke, Flashman, Bungler, Fatt, Clodde, Demon, Fiend, Funck, Hagg, Holdwater, Juggs, Idle, Kneebone, Lazy, Leakey, Milksop, Honeybum, Pisse, Pricksmall, Pighead, Poopy, Quicklove, Rottengoose, Sprat, Squibb, Shittel, Swine, Silly, Spattle, Teate, Vile, and Whale. How many possessed these surnames and how many followed Buggey’s example is not recorded.     

Twenty-Seven Of The Gang

James “Jem” Mace was a Norfolk-born boxing champion who operated, primarily, during the bare-knuckle era. He held the English Welterweight, Middleweight, and Heavyweight titles between 1860 and 1866 and was World Heavyweight Champion from 1870 to 1971 while fighting in the United States. He lent his name to a bit of slang, macing, which was a severe but regulated thrashing. Both he and the word that commemorated his prowess have fallen into obscurity.

To be marwooded was to be hung, a phrase deriving its origin from the Victorian executioner, William Marwood, whose other claim to fame was that he developed the long drop technique in 1872, a more scientific approach which took the height and weight of the prisoner into consideration in calculating the drop. In his nine years as an executioner, he hung 176 people including Charlie Peace and Henry Wainwright, the murderer of Harriet Lane. He also spawned the popular piece of doggerel; if Pa killed Ma/ who killed Pa/ Marwood. Marwood died in 1883.  

A fictional character whose name was enshrined in the argot of the time was Alfred Muntle, a handsome man with a black, bushy moustache, who appeared in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. The husband of a milliner, he changed his name to Mantalini on the supposition that Muntle would be bad for business and lived off his wife. From the 1840s Mantalini was the name give to a male milliner.   

How times have changed. In the 1890s made in Germany was used as a term used to signify something that was bad or valueless, thanks to the vast quantity of inferior goods imported from Germany, notes James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era. The term increased in its usage when it was required by law to be stamped on the goods.

More slang anon.

Twenty-Six Of The Gang

If you are looking for a different form of profane expression with which to vent your anger or frustration, why not try Lady in the straw. This was a popular oath and refers to the Virgin Mary who gave birth to her child in a stable. I think it is due a renaissance. And if you want to express your exasperation, how about leave them to fry in their own fat, an alternative to give him enough rope and he’ll hang himself?

Someone’s halitosis getting you down? Try lend us your breath to kill Jumbo. And looking for another way to call out someone’s humbug? Leather and prunella, according to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, was a corruption of lather, being whipped cream, and prunella, a sort of damson puree or plum jelly. It was initially used to denote flimsiness and by extension humbug.

London ivy was a pleasing euphemism for dust as it sticks to everything while London smoke described a yellowish-grey colour, popular as a paint colour as it hid the dirt. Making the best of everything and the desire to battle through adversity was known as best side towards London. It also reflected the desire of country folk to see London for themselves and even make their fortune. Its streets were not paved with gold, Ware sagely noted.

A long pull was something to be sought after, an over full measure of drink, either served by the publican as a favour or to attract trade. Either way, I am sure it was gratefully received. Unsubstantiated reports of such a custom may have been a long-tailed bear, an euphemism for a lie as bears do not have tails. If the barman was serving overly generous measures, the landlord may have looked through the fingers, an Irish phrase meaning to pretend not to see.