In 1909, British writer James Redding Ware (who also wrote under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester) published Passing English of the Victorian era, a dictionary of heterodox English, slang and phrase. “Thousands of words and phrases in existence in 1870 have drifted away, or changed their forms, or been absorbed, while as many have been added or are being added,” he writes in the book's introduction. “‘Passing English’ ripples from countless sources, forming a river of new language which has its tide and its ebb, while its current brings down new ideas and carries away those that have dribbled out of fashion.” Ware chronicles many hilarious and delightful words in Passing English; we don’t know how these slang terms ever fell out of fashion, but we propose bringing them back.
1. Academy Headache
“When art became fashionable to a severe degree this malady appeared,” Ware explained. “[N]ow applied generically to headaches acquired at any art galleries.”
A society word meaning “smart.” Ware demonstrated the usage: “The goods are not 'afternoonified' enough for me.”
3. Amen Corner
A California term for a church.
A figure of speech used to describe drunken men. “[He’s] very arfarfanarf,” Ware wrote, “meaning that he had many ‘arfs,’” or half-pints of booze.
5. Back Slang It
6. Bags o’ Mystery
An 1850 term for sausages, “because no man but the maker knows what is in them,” according to Ware. “The ‘bag’ refers to the gut which contained the chopped meat.”
7. Bang Up to the Elephant
This phrase originated in London in 1882, and meant “perfect, complete, unapproachable.”
Low London phrase meaning “to thrash thoroughly,” possibly from the French battre à fin.
9. Basket of Oranges
This phrase, which referred to a pretty woman, originated in Australia before making its way to England. “A metaphor founded on another metaphor,” Ware wrote, “the basket of oranges being a phrase for the discovery of nuggets of gold in gold fields.”
10. Beer Bottle
Not something you drink out of, but a street term for “a stout, red-faced man.”
Nineteenth-century sailor slang for “A riotous holiday, a noisy day in the streets.”
12. Bow wow mutton
A naval term referring to meat so bad “it might be dog flesh.”
More Articles About Slang:
Brave or fearless. “Adroit—after the manner of a brick,” Ware wrote, “said even of the other sex, ‘What a bricky girl she is.’”
14. Bubble around
A verbal attack, generally made via the press. Ware demonstrated its usage with a sentence from theThe Golden Butterfly: “I will back a first-class British subject for bubbling around against all humanity.”
15. Butter Upon Bacon
Extravagance. Too much extravagance. “Are you going to put lace over the feather—isn’t that rather butter upon bacon?”
16. Can’t you feel the shrimps?
A Cockney phrase from 1877 meaning “smell the sea.”
A London society term for tea and coffee “used scornfully by drinkers of beer and strong waters ... in club-life is one of the more ignominious names given to champagne by men who prefer stronger liquors,” according to Ware.
18. Champagne Weather
A rather sarcastic society term used from 1860 onward to refer to bad weather.
“Blushing or turning red in the face rather from the meanness of another than your own.”
20. Cheese and Crust
What the low classes would have said instead of Jesus Christ. “Frightful at first sight, this phrase suggests a slight sense of respect by its veiling of the oath,” Ware wrote. “Also a little touching as being a phrase associated with comfort to those amongst whom comfort is little known.”
A nickname given to a close friend.
A talkative woman.
A 19th-century German term for “malignant gossipers,” according to Ware. “Much after the use of tea talker in England.”
24. Collie shangies
Quarrels. A term from Queen Victoria’s journal, More Leaves, published in 1884: “At five minutes to eleven rode off with Beatrice, good Sharp going with us, and having occasional collie shangies (a [Scottish] word for quarrels or rows, but taken from fights between dogs) with collies when we came near cottages.” (Ware got this term wrong—he spelled it collie shangles.)
25. Cop a Mouse
To get a black eye. “Cop in this sense is to catch or suffer,” Ware wrote, “while the colour of the obligation at its worst suggests the colour and size of the innocent animal named.”
26. Cut a Finger
A lower-class phrase meaning “to cause a disagreeable odor.”
A delightful term taken from boxing to refer to your rather boring hands. Ware cited an example that read, ”All was in readiness, and the man having shaken daddles, the seconds retired to their corners ... ”
This creative cuss is a contraction of “damned if I know.”
29. Damned Good Swine Up
A term from 1880, “suspected to be of American origin,” for a loud quarrel.
A street term meaning “smart, active, adroit. One of the alliterative phrases with absolutely no meaning.”
31. Dizzy Age
A phrase meaning “elderly,” because it “makes the spectator giddy to think of the victim’s years.” The term usually refers to “a maiden or other woman canvassed by other maiden ladies—or others.”
32. Do a Stamp
An American term that made its way to England meaning “take a walk.” You could also do a smile, meaning “to take a drink” (a phrase that was apparently rare even in Ware’s time) or do a moan, which was apparently a Navy phrase for a growl.
33. Doing the Bear
“Courting that involves hugging.”
34. Don’t Sell Me a Dog
Popular until 1870, this phrase meant “Don’t lie to me!” Apparently, people who sold dogs back in the day were prone to trying to pass off mutts as purebreds.
A type of beard “formed by the cheeks and chin being shaved leaving a chain of hair under the chin, and upon each side of mouth forming with moustache something like a door-knocker,” according to Ware.
36. Eat Strange Meat
A euphemism for cannibalism, which people sometimes had to resort to in order to survive. But according to the example Ware cited, “Life is not worth the imputation of having ‘eaten strange meat.’”
A “satirical reference to enthusiasm” that Ware said was created by Braham the terror (likely John Braham, a famous tenor opera singer).
38. Evening Wheezes
The Victorian version of fake news, “spread in evening half-penny papers in order to sell them.”
39. Fifteen Puzzle
Not the game you might be familiar with, but a term meaning “complete and absolute confusion” ... from the game you might be familiar with.
40. Fly rink
An 1875 term for a polished bald head.
41. Foot-and-Mouth Disease
A Lancashire term for “swearing followed by kicking.”
An 1870 term for “a man devoted to seduction.”
A term for especially tight pants.
“An habitually smiling face.”
45. Got the Morbs
Use of this 1880 phrase indicated temporary melancholy. You could also say you’ve “got the woefuls,” which according to Ware meant “miserable, wretched, in the dumps.”
46. Jammiest bits of jam
“Absolutely perfect young females,” circa 1883.
Another way to say “lying,” from 1896.
48. Mad as Hops
This term was used to describe someone who was excitable.
An excellent word that means “getting rowdy in the streets.”
50. Major MacFluffer
A theatre phrase for a “sudden lapse of memory, and use of words to call the attention of the inattentive prompter.”
51. Make a Stuffed Bird Laugh
A street term meaning “coward.”
53. Mind the Grease
When walking or otherwise getting around, you could ask people to let you pass, please. Or you could ask them to “mind the grease,” which meant the same thing to Victorians.
A street term for scolding, as delivered by a woman.
55. Mutton Shunter
This 1883 term for a policeman is so much better than “pig.”
56. Nanty Narking
A tavern term, popular from 1800 to 1840, that meant “great fun.”
57. Nose bagger
Someone who takes a day trip to the beach. He brings his own provisions and doesn’t contribute economically at all to the resort he’s visiting.
58. Not up to Dick
Not well? You’re not up to Dick.
59. Nurse the Hoe-Handle
A term from agricultural America meaning “lazy.” You’re not being a lump on your couch—you’re nursing the hoe-handle!
60. Orf chump
No appetite. (Orf is apparently a variation of off.) Not to be associated with orf his chump, which apparently means “cranky” and has nothing to do with the latter phrase.
61. Parish Pick-Axe
A prominent nose.
This term, Ware wrote, describes a person with a “wilful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient, at the same time assuming airs of superior virtue and noble resignation.”
63. Poked Up
64. Powdering Hair
An 18th-century tavern term that means “getting drunk.”
65. Rain Napper
66. Raked Fore and Aft
This mariners’ term, meaning “desperately in love,” was apparently a “figure of speech from damage done to the whole of rigging by a well-directed shelling.”
68. Shake a Flannin
Why say you’re going to fight when you could say you’re going to “shake a flannin” instead?
69. Shoot into the brown
To fail. According to Ware, “The phrase takes its rise from rifle practice, where the queer shot misses the black and white target altogether, and shoots into the brown i.e., the earth butt.”
Secret, shady, doubtful.
71. Smothering a Parrot
Drinking a glass of absinthe neat; named for the green color of the booze.
72. Sponge it Out
This term, used beginning in 1883, meant “forget it."
73. Start a Jolly
A term from theatre and music halls meaning “to lead applause.”
A legal term from 1889 meaning “to prompt.”
75. Take the Egg
According to Ware, this low-class phrase means “thoroughly understood.”
A term meaning “inferior, noisy singers” that could be used liberally today during karaoke sessions.
This piece originally ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2023.
Are you a logophile? Do you want to learn unusual words and old-timey slang to make conversation more interesting, or discover fascinating tidbits about the origins of everyday phrases? Then get our new book, The Curious Compendium of Wonderful Words: A Miscellany of Obscure Terms, Bizarre Phrases, & Surprising Etymologies, out now! You can pick up your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or Bookshop.org.