Mental Floss
WORDS

17 Job Titles in Victorian Slang

Paul Anthony Jones
A Victorian doctor—or 'squirt'—at work
A Victorian doctor—or 'squirt'—at work / Hulton Archive/Getty Images
facebooktwitterreddit

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a trend emerged in English slang for bestowing mock “titles” on people employed or engaged in various jobs or pursuits. So an admiral of the blue, for example, was a publican, so-called because of the color of his apron. A queen of the dripping pan was a cook. A lord of the foresheet was a ship’s cook. And a knight of the cue was a billiard player, a knight of the thimble was a tailor, a knight of the lapstone a cobbler, and a knight of the brush an artist. So what would your job title have been in Victorian slang?

1. Waitstaff

Barmen were known as aproners and waiters were known as knights of the napkin in Victorian slang—although if you waited tables in a pub or tavern you were more likely to be called a dash (derived either from your habit of dashing from table to table, or serving a dash of liquor). Any waiter lucky enough to work outside during the summer months, at garden parties, or in beer gardens and tea gardens, was called a grasshopper.

2. Cooks and Chefs

A dripping was a (usually fairly poor-quality) chef or cook in 19th-century slang, as was a lick-fingers and a spoil-broth. Gally-swab was another name for a ship’s cook, and a Jack Nasty-face was a naval cook or cook's assistant, probably derived from the earlier use of jack to mean a newly recruited deckhand or sailor.

3. Shops and Shopkeepers

If you were a general tradesman or shop-worker in Victorian England, then you were a blue-apron or an aproner; a disreputable shopkeeper who cheated his or her customers was known as a tax-fencer. Nicknames for specific shopkeepers included cleaver and kill-calf (a butcher); strap and scraper (a barber); crumb-and-crust-man or bapper and burn-crust (a baker); figgins and split-fig (a greengrocer); and stay-tape and steel-bar flinger (a tailor). The word shopkeeper itself was also used as a nickname for an item of stock that remained unsold for a long time.

4. Actors

Because Shakespeare was “The Swan of Avon,” a swan-slinger was a Shakespearean actor in 19th-century English. Elsewhere, actors were also called tags (from the character names that “tag” the speeches in a script), agony-pilers (particularly those who took on weighty roles), and cackling-coves (literally “chattering-men”).

5. Journalists and Writers

While a quill-driver or a pen-driver was a clerk or secretary in 19th-century slang, a hack journalist who would take on any work for cash was called an X.Y.Z. after an anonymous writer who used the pseudonym “XYZ” in a mid-1880s Times of London ad offering to work on any project going. Journalists were also known as screeds, pencil-pushers, adjective-jerkers, and chaunter-coves, while a yarn-chopper was a journalist who made up the stories they wrote about.

6. The Police

Because the London police force was established in 1829 by then-Home Secretary (and later Prime Minister) Sir Robert Peel, Victorian police officers became known as peelers and bobbies, terms still in use in Britain today. The peelers’ dark-blue uniforms were also the origin of the old nicknames blue-belly, bluebottle, gentleman in blue and white, and even unboiled lobster.

7. Lawyers

Derived from the earlier use of snap to mean a snare or noose, a brother-snap was an unscrupulous lawyer or shyster in 18th- and 19th-century slang. Lawyers were also known as sublime rascals, tongue-padders, and split-causes (because of their habit of going into lengthy explanatory discourses and nit-picking over every detail), Tom Sawyers (in London rhyming slang), and snipes—because they typically presented you with a very long bill.

8. Judges

While magistrates were known as beaks in 18th- and 19th-century English (no one quite knows why), judges were nobs-in-the-fur-trade among Victorian criminals. (A nob was a particularly high-ranking or important person, while the fur trade referred to the white fur or ermine used to adorn judges’ robes.)

9. Teachers

Learning-shover, nip-lug (because they pulled on unruly pupils’ ears, or lugs), and terror of the infantry (infantry being a slang name for the pupils of a school) were all old nicknames for schoolteachers in 19th-century English, as was haberdasher of pronouns. A schoolmaster was a knight of grammar, while a Sunday-school teacher was a gospel-grinder, or a gospel-shark.

10. Farmers

Probably derived from the Latin word for “ox,” bos, a bosken was a farmhouse in 19th-century slang, and so a farmer was a bos-man or a boss-cockie; a Billy Turniptop was a farmhand or agricultural worker.

11. Priests and the Clergy

Priests were known as devil-dodgers, men-in-black, mumble-matins (derived from the Matins church service), and joss-house men in 19th-century slang—the latter derived from a pidgin English pronunciation of the Spanish word Dios.

12., 13., 14., and 15. Doctors, Pharmacists, Surgeons, and Dentists

Both clyster-pipe and squirt are old nicknames for syringes that by the 19th century had come to be used as bywords for anyone employed in dispensing medication. Water-scriger and water-caster were 16th-century words, both still in use in the 1800s, for doctors who diagnosed their patients based on examinations of their urine. Surgeons were known as bone-setters and castor-oil artists, while dentists were fang-fakers and pharmacists and chemists were potter-carriers (a pun on “apothecary”). A chemist’s assistant was a bottle-boy, and a loblolly-boy was a doctor’s assistant.

16. and 17. Bankers and Cashiers/Accountants

A rag was a banknote in early 19th-century English, and so a rag-shop or a rag-box was a bank, while a rag-shop boss was a banker and a rag-shop cove was a cashier, or someone whose work involved taking and counting money.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.

facebooktwitterreddit