Tag Archives: Passing English of the Victorian Era

Fifteen Of The Gang

In London a bender was the name given to sixpenny piece because of its propensity to wear down and bend. It was also the name given to an elbow but its more common usage to denote a drunken spree may, according to James Ware’s Passing English of a Victorian Era, be a corruption of Bon Dieu. Good God, I never knew that.

The prelude to many a bender is an early drink. In naval circles in the 19th century, it was not good form to take a sip of alcohol until noon, when eight bells rang. For those who could not wait, the phrase call it 8 bells was a sign to denote the party’s agreement that, irrespective where the hands of the clock were, it was time for a drink.

Often the bender would result in someone not being able to see a hole in a forty-foot ladder, a delightful way to express the degree of their inebriation. To pay for the drink may result in the request to smash a thick ‘un. This was a request to change a sovereign. There is an element of despair in the phrase because the sovereign, a visible sign of affluence amongst the poor, once changed, had gone, and perhaps the owner would never possess another on again.

The morning after there may be an inquest as to what the drunken sot had got up to. A proposition may be put to them with the rider, can you say uncle to that? It was a challenge to come up with a plausible answer to the question posed. Depending upon the state of their wits, it may seem to be a carriwitchit, a puzzling question.

To sober up, there may be a need to resort to cat-lap, a term used, with some derision, by drinkers of alcohol to describe tea and coffee. It was also used in London’s club land to describe champagne by those who preferred their liquor stronger.          

Fourteen Of The Gang

Fashion comes and go and so, inevitably, slang associated with a particular look has a short shelf life too. Panniers were a form of women’s undergarment, wide and dome-shaped, so enormous that a woman wearing one could easily take up three times the space of a man. Inevitably, a woman wearing one would provoke some comment, giving rise to the 1880s term behindativeness, as in “that lady has got a deal of behindativeness”. Sadly, the term used to denote an exaggerated female form has long fallen out of use.

A belcher was a form of handkerchief featuring either light spots against a dark background or dark spots against a light background. It was named after the prize-fighter, Jim Belcher, who always entered the ring with a handkerchief with white spots against a background. Other fighters soon copied him, picking their own set of colour combinations. It was also the name given to a spotted tie.

To bell the cat was to risk taking the lead in some enterprise. It was Scottish in origin, a reference to a fable in which some enterprising mice plotted to put a bell around the neck of a cat so that they would know when it was coming but argued about who would take the lead. It also had an historical connotation. A group of Scottish nobles plotted to enter Stirling Castle and seize Spence, a favourite of James III, and hang him. Lord Gray asked who was going to bell the cat, the Earl of Angus volunteered and ever after was known as Archibald Bell-Cat, at least according to James Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian Era.

Baking has seen a renaissance in recent years. We are all familiar with the perils of a soggy bottom but what about a Bellering Cake? This was the name given to a plum cake where the fruits had sunk so low in the mix that they had to beller or bellow to make themselves known. I am sure it was delicious, nonetheless.

Thirteen Of The Gang

Booze is a term we use to this day to describe alcoholic drink, especially, but not restricted to beer. Passing English of the Victorian Era, compiled by James Ware and published in 1909, suggested that it was a corruption of the English verb, to bouse, which had appeared in printed form since around 1567. However, in 1885, Mr O’Donovan, described as an Eastern traveller, claimed that it was Persian for beer, although the correspondent noted that the famed Orientalist was noted for his sense of humour.

Judges were as out of touch with ordinary life in Victorian times as they are claimed to be now. Ware records this exchange between some learned gentlemen during a hearing of the Southampton election petition, although sadly he does not date it. “A witness describing a procession of costermongers said, “I heard some men shout that they wanted some more booze”. Mr Justice Wright: What? Willis: Booze, my lord, drink. Mr Justice Wright: Ah!

A booze-fencer or booze-pusher was a licensed victualler while a booze-shunter was a beer drinker. The latter phrase, Ware claims, came from the railways. Shunting was a term used to describe moving something from place to place and the beer drinker moved “the beer, or booze, from the pot into his visceral arrangements”. The term was started, he goes on, by porters and guards of the South-Western Railway who used “the larger public houses in the neighbourhood of the terminus in Waterloo Road”.  

A bottle o’ Spruce signified zero or nothing, as in “I care not a bottle o’ Spruce”. Spruce beer was a cheap beer which was made from the buds and needles of spruce trees. It was an unappealing dark brown-greenish concoction which had a piney turpene flavour, although some described it as having the smell of Vicks Vapo-rub and pine needles. It sold for tuppence a bottle, perhaps giving rise to the expression “I don’t give tuppence for it”. Clearly it was the 18th and 19th century equivalent of Marmite!

Five Of The Gang

Slang is often characterized by the mangling of foreign phrases, abbreviating phrases, and dropping aitches, the latter for long periods being associated with a lack of education or belonging to the lower orders. You can imagine that an ‘appy dosser was not too concerned about the sanctity of their aitches, being so poor that they did not have sufficient to rustle up the money for a bed in a common lodging-house.

In the early 1880s someone running for a bus may have been encouraged by their fellow passengers with the cry of “Archer up”. This became a popular form of congratulations and meant that you were sure to win. Its origin, Passing English of the Victorian Era informs us, came from the celebrated exploits of a jockey of that name who rose from nowhere to prominence in 1881. His riding style was considered to be the height of recklessness, a trait he carried on into his private life, shooting himself dead. An abbreviation of Archer’s up on the saddle, it fell out of use, almost immediately after the jockey’s demise.

Arer is a fascinating word, being an emphatic version of the common verb, are. It was used in phrases like “we are, and we couldn’t be any arer”. Time for a revival, methinks.

To have an argol-bargol was to have a row. Argol was derived from argil, used by one of the gravediggers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Bargol was a nonsense word, introduced to rhyme with argol and to give the phrase a little more character. It is almost certain that the more modern argie-bargie is a further abbreviation of this Victorian term. One of the wonders of the English language is its ability to change subtly and imperceptibly.

Four Of The Gang

For a three-lettered word all is a big one, suggesting completeness. As I grow older, all I ask for is that I will have all my buttons on, a phrase that was popular in the 1880s to denote someone, usually elderly, who was sharp, active, alive, and not to be deceived. All-a-cock meant vanquished or overthrown, possibly a version of knocked into a cocked hat.

All my eye and Betty Martin was an expression of disbelief with the implication that the other party was a liar. St Martin was the patron saint of beggars and the opening line of the prayer associated with him went “O, mihi beate Martine”. Our phrase was a corruption of the Latin and, according to Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian Era, was used by beggars when asking for alms. Its usage broadened to become an expression of doubt.

All over grumble was obvious while all over red was dangerous. Alls, meanwhile, was slang for the waste pot at a public house. On the pewter counters of pubs were a number of holes, down which the slops and spillage of the servings went. It was popularly believed, and probably rightly so, that these alls went back into the beer and so the expression it must be alls was used to denote a pint of bad beer.

An ally was a go-between, a term almost certainly derived from the French verb aller, while an Ally sloper was a dissipated-looking old man with a red and swollen nose. Perhaps he was an animal, a jocund term given to habitues of pubs that bore zoological names such as The Bear, Bull, Lion, Dragon and the like. He may, though, just have suffered an ‘Apenny-lot day, a term used by costers to describe a bad day’s trading when everything had to be sold off.

As long as he had all his buttons on, though.