In 1909, writing under the pseudonym James Redding Ware, British writer 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." Forrester chronicles many hilarious and delightful words in Passing English; we don't know how these phrases ever fell out of fashion, but we propose bringing them back.
A society word meaning “smart.” Forrester demonstrates the usage: "The goods are not 'afternoonified' enough for me.”
A figure of speech used to describe drunken men. “He’s very arf’arf’an’arf," Forrester writes, "meaning he has had many ‘arfs,’” or half-pints of booze.
3. Back slang it
Thieves used this term to indicate that they wanted “to go out the back way.”
4. Bags o’ Mystery
An 1850 term for sausages, “because no man but the maker knows what is in them. ... The 'bag' refers to the gut which contained the chopped meat.”
5. Bang up to the elephant
This phrase originated in London in 1882, and means “perfect, complete, unapproachable.”
Low London phrase meaning “to thrash thoroughly,” possibly from the French battre a fin.
Nineteenth-century sailor slang for “A riotous holiday, a noisy day in the streets.”
8. Bow wow mutton
A naval term referring to meat so bad “it might be dog flesh.”
Brave or fearless. “Adroit after the manner of a brick," Forrester writes, "said even of the other sex, 'What a bricky girl she is.'”
10. Bubble Around
A verbal attack, generally made via the press. Forrester cites The Golden Butterfly: "I will back a first-class British subject for bubbling around against all humanity."
11. Butter Upon Bacon
Extravagance. Too much extravagance. “Are you going to put lace over the feather, isn't that rather butter upon bacon?”
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.”
A talkative woman.
A nickname given to a close friend.
15. Collie shangles
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 shangles (a Scottish word for quarrels or rows, but taken from fights between dogs) with collies when we came near cottages.”
16. Cop a Mouse
To get a black eye. “Cop in this sense is to catch or suffer," Forrester writes, "while the colour of the obligation at its worst suggests the colour and size of the innocent animal named.”
A delightful way to refer to your rather boring hands.
This creative cuss is a contraction of “damned if I know.”
19. 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.”
20. Doing the Bear
"Courting that involves hugging."
21. 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."
"Satirical reference to enthusiasm." Created by Braham the terror, whoever that is.
24. Fifteen puzzle
Not the game you might be familiar with, but a term meaning complete and absolute confusion.
25. Fly rink
An 1875 term for a polished bald head.
An 1870 term for "a man devoted to seduction.”
A term for especially tight pants.
“An habitually smiling face.”
29. Got the morbs
Use of this 1880 phrase indicated temporary melancholy.
31. Jammiest bits of jam
“Absolutely perfect young females,” circa 1883.
Lying, from 1896.
33. Mad as Hops
An excellent word that means getting rowdy in the streets.
35. Make a stuffed bird laugh
A street term meaning coward.
37. 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.
38. Mutton Shunter
This 1883 term for a policeman is so much better than "pig."
39. Nanty Narking
A tavern term, popular from 1800 to 1840, that meant great fun.
40. Nose bagger
Someone who takes a day trip to the beach. He brings his own provisions and doesn’t contribute at all to the resort he’s visiting.
41. Not up to Dick
42. Orf chump
43. Parish Pick-Axe
A prominent nose.
This term, Forrester writers, 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.”
45. Poked Up
46. Powdering Hair
An 18th-century tavern term that means “getting drunk.”
47. Rain Napper
49. Shake a flannin
Why say you're going to fight when you could say you're going to shake a flannin instead?
50. Shoot into the brown
To fail. According to Forrester, "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.
52. Smothering a Parrot
Drinking a glass of absinthe neat; named for the green color of the booze.
A legal term from 1889 meaning “to prompt.”
54. Take the Egg
According to Forrester, 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 2022.