Tag Archives: slang

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!

Twelve Of The Gang

Having been released by my body-snatcher I settled down in a Bohemian bungery and proceeded to get drunk as a boiled owl. And very pleasant it was too. Perhaps I should explain the purport of a sentence which, otherwise, due to the high content of Victorian slang might seem incomprehensible.

A body-snatcher was a term used between the 1840s and 1860s in London to describe a cab driver. Their practice was to snatch a fare into their cab to prevent the unwitting client from falling into the hands of their rivals. It owed its origin to the practice of the resurrection men who lifted newly buried corpses from their graves to feed the unsatiable demand of medics for fresh bodies to extend their knowledge of the human anatomy. The most famous practitioners of this shady crime were Burke and Hare.

A Bohemian bungery was a pub, particularly one frequented by struggling authors, especially apt in my case. Bohemian was a term introduced by Henri Murger in his Scenes of Bohemian Life, published in 1851, to describe artists, authors, and musicians who lived an unconventional life and struggled to make a living. Bungery was a term used by abolitionists to describe a public house, a word derived from the bung which was used to stop the contents of a barrel from spilling out.

Boiled owl was yet another euphemism for being drunk. Its derivation is not clear, but one suggestion is that it is a corruption of being as drunk as Abel Doyle which, if so, suggests Irish roots. One correspondent in December 1892 took grave offence to this calumny on the drinking habits of an owl. He wrote “it is a well-known fact in natural history that a parrot is the only bird that can sing after partaking of wine, spirits, or beer; for it is now universally agreed by all scientific men who have investigated the subject that the expression “Drunk as a boiled owl” is a gross libel upon a highly respectable teetotal bird which, even in its unboiled state, drinks nothing stronger than rainwater”.

Be that as it may, it is a lovely phrase. Cheers!

Ten Of The Gang

Crime was often a necessity for members of the lower orders simply to keep the wolf from the door. Black-bagging was a crime that was at its height during the expansion of the railways in the 19th century and the construction of palatial railway termini. Dynamite was used to clear obstructions and was packed in black bags. If the dynamite failed to go off, it would lie dormant in the black bag and some enterprising thieves would carry it off, no doubt to sell it on or attempt to crack a safe with.

So endemic was black-bagging that the authorities would offer rewards for information that would lead to the arrest of the culprits. This in turn led some to wonder whether such excessive rewards would merely tempt others to try their hand at the crime.

The fruits of a successful robbery were not always wisely spent. Blewed his red ‘un is a an almost incomprehensible case in point. Red ‘un was a variant of redding which was a thieves’ word for a watch. Blew as a verb meant “to dissipate” but it had a very specific connotation when it came to money. You only blew your money if you spent it on drink and so our phrase is shorthand for informing us that someone had spent the proceeds from a stolen watch on drink.

I wonder if the thief had earned enough money to block a quiet pub, a phrase used to denote someone staying a long time in a tavern with the implication that they were a sot.

Seven Of The Gang

Bad cess to ye! is a phrase I do not normally use, but, I suppose, it has the benefit of leaving a look of bewilderment on the face of my victim as they would probably not know what I was on about. According to Passing English of the Victorian Era, it was in common use in England and meant bad luck to you. Cess, though, was Irish in origin and was used to denote board and lodging and was even used in the preamble to a piece of Irish legislation aimed at regulating the misbehaviour of Irish gentlemen who went around “cessing themselves and their followers, their horses and their greyhounds, upon the poorer inhabitants”.

A bad egg is someone who is thoroughly disreputable. What I did not know was that it was American in origin, although no longer used there, but crossed over the Atlantic to become a colloquialism in England. A bad hat is also a disreputable person, a unsatisfactory mess-mate. It owes its origin to the Irish and, in particular, to those unsavoury Hibernian characters who wore bad high hats.  

Badges and bulls’ eyes was a piece of Army slang coming out of the Boer War. The badges and medals which adorned the uniforms of officers made for an excellent target for the Boer snipers.

A bag o’ beer was a quart of beer made up of a half of fourpenny porter and a half of fourpenny ale. It was once known as a pot o’ four ‘arf and ‘arf, before being abbreviated to four ‘arf and then to bag o’ beer. It might have gone down well with a bag o’ mystery, sausages, so called because no man other than the maker knows what is in them, the lexicographer sagely notes.

Bag and baggage meant thoroughly or completely and its popularity was down to a Prime Minister whose name is synonymous with bags, William Ewart Gladstone. He recommended that the Turk should be turned out of Europe bag and baggage.

Six Of The Gang

The names of some objects become a portmanteau word to describe that machine, irrespective of its manufacturer. A classic example would be a hoover. In the 19th century this fate befell Aspinall. It was enamel, the word used either as a noun or a verb, and was derived from Aspinall, the inventor and manufacturer of an oxidized enamel paint. It was more widely used to refer to any form of enamel or paint.

‘Awkins was a term used to denote a severe man, one not to be trifled with. It owed its origin to a judge, Sir Frederick Hawkins, who in 1880s earned himself a reputation amongst the lower and criminal classes as a hanging judge. He was a right ‘Awkins.

In the public house a baby referred to a small measure or a half. A baby and nurse was a term for a small bottle of soda-water with two-penny-worth of spirits added. A baby’s public house, though, was a mother’s suckling breast. Passing English of the Victorian Era gives an insight into the, by modern standards, lax standards of behaviour in the 1880s by reporting “a six-year-old baby that is suckled at the breast when it asks for baby’s public house, and that fills up the intervals between refreshment by smoking cigarettes”. Call the authorities”    

If you were to enter a pub at the time, you would need to keep a careful look out for a back row hopper, described as “an impecunious man who enters one of these houses on the pretence of looking for somebody, and the certain hope of finding somebody ready and willing to pay for a drink”. We have all met those.