Tag Archives: Passing English of a Victorian Era

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.

Twenty-Five Of The Gang

The death penalty, execution by hanging, brought an end to many a criminal’s career. Those for whom such a gruesome ending could be foreseen were told hemp’s grown for you, meaning that their name was already on an executioner’s cord. The rope used to hang convicted felons was made from flax which, in turn, came from hemp.

To avoid a life of crime might be described as hill-top literature, sound advice. When cycling took of in the latter part of the 19th century, it was customary for boards to be positioned at the top of a steep hill warning cyclists of the steepdescent in front of them.James Ware, in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, tells the tale of a cyclist in Ireland (natch) who hurtled down a steep and dangerous hill and was surprised not to see a board with the usual warnings. When he got to the bottom of the hill, he found a sign proclaiming that “This hill is dangerous to cyclists”.

A phrase which I will endeavour to use when the occasion arises is to introduce the cobbler to the tailor, a marvellously vivid and inventive way to kick someone up the backside.

Kodaking is a fascinating example of the use of new technology to develop slang. It derived from what Ware described as the snap=shot photographic camera, named after its inventor, and was used to describe the practice of surreptitiously obtaining information. It was used in a theatre review of Sir Henry Irving’s performance in Richard III; “our eyes are riveted on his face, we are interested in the workings of his mind, we are secretly kodaking every expression, however slight”.     

Twenty-Four Of The Gang

Another colourful piece of slang that referred to a contemporary event whose notoriety has faded into the mists of time is Harriet Lane, a reference to Australian canned meat. It was so called, James ware avers in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, because of its unedifying appearance akin to chopped up body parts.

Harriet Lane, the mistress of Henry Wainwright, a brush maker, was murdered by him in 1874 and her body was buried in his warehouse. The following year, Wainwright was declared bankrupt. He disinterred her body and with the assistance of his brother, Thomas, and another brush maker, Alfred Stokes, sought to rebury her elsewhere. Stokes was suspicious of the packages he was handling, opened one up, saw it contained body parts, and notified the police.

At the subsequent trial, Henry was found guilty of murder and was hung on December 21, 1875, while Thomas was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact. I think I will give a can of Harriet Lane a miss. Perhaps I would be better off having a hasty pudding. This was a piece of Victorian fast food, consisting of flour and water, boiled for five minutes.

I know several people about whom I could say he never does anything wrong, a satirical musical hall phrase used to describe someone who can never do anything right. They are almost as bad as someone who worships his creator, said of a self-made man who thinks a lot of himself. Such terms of opprobrium may be assuaged if they had a heap o’ saucepan lids, rhyming slang for money via dibs.

More slang anon.