Victorian Vernacular: A Glossary of Terms
Afflictions: Black mourning clothes.
Air one’s heels, to: To loiter/ dawdle about.
Apothecary: A chemist. In Victorian times, apothecaries often carried out unofficial, rudimentary medical care to those who could not afford to visit a physician or surgeon.
Back-to-backs: Rows of terraced houses, literally built back-to-back. Originally built for industrial workers, and found mainly in impoverished areas.
Black-coach: A hearse.
Black Maria: A police coach, used either to transport police constables to a crime scene, or to transport prisoners to the police station.
Bobby: a police constable.
Bog-trotter: Disrespectful/vulgar slang for an Irishman.
Chiv: slang – a blade. Also used as a verb ‘to stab’.
Chive: slang – to stab.
Clubmen: Paid-up members of a gentlemen’s club.
Coffee Houses: Popular meeting places for men of various social levels to drink exotic coffee and exchange ideas.
Collar: Police slang for arrest.
Costermonger: A street seller, usually specialising in fruit and vegetables.
Dilettante: A person of independent means pursuing a specialist interest for leisure rather than occupation; usually a patron of the arts.
Down-at-heel: an unfortunate man, lacking funds; scruffy. Often applied to destitute gamblers.
Fence: receiver of stolen goods.
Fenian(s): Common name of members of the Fenian Brotherhood and Irish Republican Brotherhood, who believed that Ireland had a right to independence from British rule, and that right should be secured by means of an armed revolution.
Frowst: A smoky or ‘concentrated’ atmosphere, as in a smoking room or thick smog.
Gentlemen’s Clubs: Social meeting places for gentlemen of means, usually exclusive in their membership and restricted to particular careers, political affiliations or interests.
Gig: A two-wheeled, one-horse cart, usually for two passengers.
Growler: Colloquial term for a Clarence or Brougham carriage; a four-wheeled, two-horse carriage seating up to four passengers.
Hansom Cab: A light, single-horse carriage seating two passengers.
Ha’penny: Half a penny, or two farthings.
Ha’penny Bumper: Slang for a two-farthing omnibus ride.
Home Rule: The idea of Irish independence through a self-governing body within the greater organisation of the British government.
Illustrateds, the: One of the many illustrated newspapers available in Victorian Britain, such as the Illustrated Daily News, the Police Gazette and the Pictorial Times.
Jack-tar: a sailor.
Jigger-gin: a potent alcoholic drink; quite lethal in large quantities. Jigger is also used to describe a measure of gin.
Lamplighters/Lampmen: Men whose job is light the gaslights of the city at dusk, and put out the lights at dawn.
Long Peace, the: ‘Pax Britannica’ – referring to Britain’s peaceful relations with Europe 1815-1914. A misnomer, as Britain was engaged in many wars against non-European powers at this time.
Muckworm: Vulgar slang for a miser.
Mudlark: A scavenger, particularly of the mud-banks of the Thames.
Neck or Nothing: slang – a desperate gambit; also used to mean ‘swift’. Possibly has origins in steeplechase.
Neddy: slang – blackjack; cosh.
Omnibus: A horse-drawn bus or wagonette – affordable and somewhat crowded public transportation.
Penny Dreadful: A novella of dubious quality, usually containing sensational or unsavoury content. Purchased for the cover price of one penny, hence the name.
Penny-a-liners: Derogative term for a jobbing journalist, paid pittance for his work on the gossip columns.
Pinch of the game, the: Crucial moment, the crux of the matter. Colonial slang.
Punch: A popular satirical magazine, formerly ‘Punchinello’.
Quod: slang – prison.
Rag-and-famish: The Army & Navy Club. Coined by Captain Willliam Higginson Duff when offered the infamously Spartan food at the club.
Rum/ a ‘rum do’: slang – an unsavoury or suspicious turn of events.
Sharpish: slang – quickly. also Quick-sharpish: Make haste.
Smug: slang – to arrest a crook.
Table-rapper: A medium who conducts a séance by means of ‘table-tipping’ or ‘table-rapping’, whereby the legs of the table lift from the floor and bang out a yes-or-no answer to a question.
Tokay: A sweet, Hungarian wine, often consumed in the evenings after dinner by gentlemen.