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Say What?: Expressions from the Victorian Era

Dear FCI,


As we all know, languages have a lifeline: they are born, live through people, and eventually die, throughout time, of course. However, aside from languages themselves, there are words and phrases that may be used in a language for a certain period of time and eventually fade out of use. We see this in expressions that people use from generation to generation, and with terminology we may use in social media. Do you all remember when “YOLO” was popular? But who says it now?


I recently found a book that grabbed my attention. It’s called Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase by J. Redding Ware published in 1909. Similar to the phrases that are born and then fade out of existence in our lifetime, this has been occurring for centuries.


This book is a dictionary of phrases and terminology heard and used throughout and near the end of the Victorian era, with entries dating back as early as the late 1700s. Many of the expressions present are now obsolete, however some entries reveal origins of expressions we still use today.


This is an interesting concept to think about: How the vocabulary we currently use originated, what faded out through time and what has been morphed into what we say today.

I’d like to share with you all some expressions I found in this book, as some really “tickled my fancy.”



  • Arfarfan'arf: a figure of speech meaning “drunk,” used to describe drunken men; “arfs” can also mean “pints” or “alcoholic drinks.”

’"E’s very arfarfanarf’—really meaning that he has had many ‘arfs’.”

  • Back slang it: to go out the back way (of a building, etc.).

  • Bags o’ mystery: an 1850s 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.”

  • Balloon juice: soda water.

  • Basket of oranges: expression used to describe a pretty woman.

“She’s a basket of oranges fit for any man’s table.”

  • Beer and skittles: a synonym for pleasure.

“Ah, Joe, if a bloke’s life was all beer and skittles we shouldn’t be doing time.”

  • Buck up and take a chilly: advice to a man to pull himself together after a hard drink.

  • Butter upon bacon: expression to state there is too much extravagance.

"Are you going to put lace over the feather, isn't that rather butter upon bacon?"

  • Can't you feel the shrimps?: expression meaning to smell the sea/ocean.

  • Chuckaboo: A nickname given to a close friend.

  • Cheese and crust: lower class exclamation, perversion of Jesus Christ.

  • Daddles: Hands.

"All was in readiness, and the men having shaken daddles... commenced the fight."

  • Dancing dogs: a satirical expression to refer to men who are dancing.

  • Dying duck in a thunderstorm: a term to refer to lackadaisical.

  • Ebenezar: an exclamation of rejoicing.

  • English pluck: a figurative term to refer to money.

"'Got any English pluck today?"

  • Establish a funk: to create a panic.

  • Fifteen puzzle: Complete confusion.

"The syrup cup was, for a while, a fifteen puzzle for the bear."

  • Gigglemug: A habitually smiling face.

  • Got a collar on: Stuck up

  • It snowed: Catastrophe, misery.

  • Last shake o' the bag: the youngest child.

  • Lollipop dress: Stripy dress, generally red and white, suggestive of sticks and confectionary.

  • Mind the grease: "Let me pass, please."

  • Money bugs: Millionaires

  • Not on borrowing terms: Not in friendly relations.

"The families of the two young souls were not on 'borrowing terms'"

  • Old geyser: an elderly man.

  • Penny puzzle: Sausage.

  • Plain as a pipe stem: utterly plain.

  • Quite a dizzy: Very clever man.

  • Rose-colored spectacles: Optimism.

  • Run home on the ear: Entirely defeated.

  • Schlemozzle: Riot, quarrel, noise of any kind.

  • Seen better days: Euphemism for saying a person is poor.

  • Sick in 14 languages: very ill.



Now, the Victoria Era was a British time period, but the English we speak today has influences from languages and countries all over the world. We develop our vocabulary through books, television, radio; foreign terms become incorporated into English terminology (like "queso," for example). English is such a diverse language, perhaps you could say the melting pot of languages. I don't know about you guys, but expanding my vocabulary is essential. We communicate through words, so why not learn as many as possible, regardless of where (or when) they came from?


While this list doesn't contain every word or phrase I found interesting, it does give you a little glimpse of the terminology of the age. Some phrases we still use, some we've seen while reading classic books, and some have been modified into phrases we say today. Who knows? A century from now there may be a dictionary defining the vocabulary we commonly speak today, as the words in them may be obsolete at that time.

Similar to how a song becomes popular for a certain duration or how a fashion style is "in" and then suddenly "out," this happens with words and phrases as well, but it's something that happens without us being aware of it. So the next time you hear a new phrase or saying, take into consideration it's potential predecessors and see how long the phrase actually lasts.


That's all for now,




*Disclaimer: All entries are taken from the Internet Archives version of Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase written by James Redding Ware published by Routledge of London in 1909. Contribution made by the University of Toronto scanned in on December 15, 2006.

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