Victorianisms – Adventures in Victorian Slang

Last week I turned in my final revisions for Wicked Little Secrets—a naughty and fun little Victorian romance. The release date is a few months out, giving us plenty of time to get our Victorian on.  Today I’m posting my favorite slang found in the Passing English of the Victorian era: a dictionary of heterodox English, slang and phrase. I had intended to add a few illustrations from Punch, 1865. However, as usual, I got carried away and added many illustrations from the said publication. 


Afternoonified – Smart.

 A lady entered a fashionable drapery store. The lady found nothing to please her. The shopwalker then was called. This individual, with a plausible tale or compliment, will invariably effect a sale after all other means have failed. In reply to his question whether the goods were not suitable, the fastidious customer answered: ‘ No, thank you ; they are not “afternoonified” enough for me.’ In the case of a lady armed with an argument of such calibre what was the shopwalker to say or do? Like a wise man, he expressed his regret and beat a dignified retreat. The lady did the same, but the adjective remained. — D. T., July 1897.

Agony in Red – Vermilion costume.

When the aesthetic craze was desperately ‘on’ (1879-81), terms used in music were applied to painting, as a ‘nocturne in silver-grey,’ a ‘symphony in amber,’ a ‘fugue in purple,’ an ‘andante in shaded violet’. Hence it was an easy transition to apply terms of human emotions to costumes. There are many terrible tints even now to be found among the repertory of the leaders of fashion agonies in red, livid horrors in green, ghastly lilacs, and monstrous mauves.  — Newspaper Cutting.

Beerage – A satirical rendering of peerage, referring to the brewery lords, chiefly of the great houses of Allsopp and of Guinness.

Dr Edwards as a temperance worker had some very strong things to say a few months ago on the subject of the ennoblement of rich brewers. Of course he opposed it on moral grounds, but some of the old nobility would be inclined to agree with his denunciation of the ‘beerage’ for other reasons.  — Newspaper Cutting.

Behindativeness – Referring to the dress pannier — one of the shapes with which fashion is forever varying the natural outline of the feminine frame; e.g., ‘That lady has got a deal of behindativeness.’

Burst her stay-lace – A sudden bust-heaving feminine indignation, which might even literally, and certainly does figuratively, bring about this catastrophe.


Cataract – Voluminous and many folded falling cravat, which swarmed over the length and breadth of the fashionable masculine chest.

Cheek-ache – Blushing or turning red in the face rather for the meanness of another than your own. ‘I got the cheek-ache over him.’

College – The workhouse. Term by no means satirical, and used to avoid the true expression. ‘The old gent is gorne inter the college at last.”Mother ain’t ‘ome now she’s at the college.’

Crushed (1895) – Spoony, in love with.

Quite new is the slang ‘crushed’. It is used in place of the expression, ‘mashed’, ‘struck’, etc., and is quite au fait with the summer resort girls.

One hears everywhere murmurs of Charlie Binks being utterly ‘crushed’ on Mabel Banks, and so on with regard to various things. Dora tells Flora that she is ‘crushed ‘ on Jim’s new sailor, when she really isn’t damaging his headgear at all, and so it goes. The English language is getting awfully queer! American Paper.

Dizzy Age – Elderly. Makes the spectator giddy to think of the victim’s years generally those of a maiden or other woman canvassed by other maiden ladies or others, e.g., ‘ Poor dear ; but though she is really very well, especially at a distance, on a dull day, she must be, the dove, quite a dizzy age.’

Double-breasted water-butt smasher – A man of fine bust, an athlete.

Drapery Misses – This term is probably anything now but a mystery. It was, however, almost so to me, when I first returned from the East, in 1811-12. It means a pretty, a high-born, a fashionable young female, well instructed by her friends, and furnished by her milliner with a wardrobe upon credit, to be repaid, when married, by her husband.


Fearful frights – Kicks, in the most humiliating quarters.

I shouldn’t like to be in James Carey’s boots his trousers either, if all I hear is true. He’s had some fearful frights, you bet. Cutting.

Filly – A lady who goes racing pace in round dances, e.g., ‘She’s the quickest filly in the barn.’ Either from French ‘fille’, or in reference to the use of the word in stables. ‘Colt’ is often applied to an active boy.

Filly and foal – A young couple of lovers sauntering apart from the world.

Five or seven – Drunk. From ‘five shillings or seven days’, the ordinary London magisterial decision upon ‘drunks’ unknown to the police, and reduced by Mr. Hosack, a metropolitan magistrate, to five or seven.

Foot-and-mouth disease – Swearing followed by kicking.


Get inside and pull the blinds down – Gross verbal attack delivered on the highway at a poor rider.

Gigglemug – An habitually smiling face.

Gooseberry-picker – A confidant in love matters, who shields the couple, and brings about interviews between them.

Gorblimy – A gutter phrase. A corruption of ‘God blind me’.

Grass before breakfast – Duel. May be a jocular derangement of grace before breakfast.

Dick Dawson had a message conveyed to him from O’Grady requesting the honour of his company the next morning to ‘grass before breakfast’. Lover, Handy Andy, ch. xix.

Grecian Bend – A satirical description of a stoop forward in walking noticed amongst women of extreme fashion during the last years of the Second French Empire, and which was due to the use of enormously high-heeled French boots. The fashion fell with the Empire. (See ” Roman Fall,” ” Alexandra Limp,” ” Buxton Limp.”)


Haw-haw toff – Swell, aristocrat ‘haw-haw’ being an expression very common as to the opening words of upper class men, while toff is almost the sound caused by haughtily drawing in the breath with the lower lip on the edge of the upper teeth.

He worships his creator – Said of a self-made man who has a good opinion of himself.

Keep up, old queen – Valediction addressed by common women to a sister being escorted into a prison van.

Language of flowers (Bow Street Police Court, 1860-83) – Ten shillings or seven days; the favourite sentence of Mr. Flowers, a very popular and amiable magistrate at this court for many years.

Mary Ann – An effeminate man.


No return ticket – Abbreviation of ‘He’s going to Hanwell and no return ticket’ said of a man who shows signs of madness.

Nonsensational – Sensational nonsense.

Outside Eliza – Drunk again, Eliza. Applied to intoxicated, reeling women. Derived from a police case where a barman stated that he said to the prisoner over and over again, ‘Outside, Eliza’ but she would not go, and finally smashed a plate-glass window.

Propper bit of frock – Pretty and clever well-dressed girl.

Pull down the blind – This was addressed in the first place to spooney young couples who in public were making too great a display of their love.


Rational costume – Trousers for women. Early in the fifties these appendages were called Bloomers from an American lady of that name. A generation passed, when they loomed up again as divided skirts and Bectives (probably from Lady Bective having approved the fashion). Next, about 1890, they took over the name for young boys’ knee-trousers, and were styled knickerbockers the name of which probably came from Washington Irving. Finally, in 1895, the female trouser was known as rational costume.

Repentance curl – It was a solitary, heavy curl made of a portion of the back hair, and brought over the left shoulder and allowed to fall over the left breast. The Princess of Wales brought this fashion into England (1863), where it held good for many years.

Revolveress – A woman who uses a pistol.


Secrets of the alcove – Most intimate influence of the wife over the husband.

It may be what Dumas called ‘the secret of the alcove’, but when perfectly represented, and with absolute purity, on the stage, it is very delightful to witness. Here we see a married woman using every feminine art and charm to tempt her husband back to companionship and love. D. T., 29th June 1897.

Shawl – Symptom of engagement.

Lady Clonbrony was delighted to see that her son assisted Grace Nugentin in shawling Miss Broadhurst. Miss Edgeworth, The Absentee, 1809.

 She’ll go off in an aromatic faint – Said of a fantastical woman, meaning that her delicate nerves will surely be the death of her.

She’s been a good wife to him – Satire cast at a drunken woman rolling in the streets.

Shoot your cuff – Make the best personal appearance you can and come along from the habit of wearing wide cuffs.

Six of everything – Said by workwomen and workmen’s wives in praise of a girl who marries with a trousseau meeting the respectable requirements of this phrase.

Smole – A grotesque variation of smile.

Society journal – Evasive name for a scandal-publishing newspaper.

Society journalist – A contributor to the Society Journal.

Society maddists – Term to describe people not born in society, who devote their whole lives, and often fortunes, to get into society.

Stable mind – Devoted to horses.


Tail tea – The afternoon tea following royal drawing-rooms, at which ladies who had been to court that afternoon, appeared in their trains hence tail teas.

Toileted – Dressed. Conjugated throughout.

Pretty Martha Springsteen brings suit against her husband for separation. The lady is young and good-looking and is exquisitely toileted. — N. Y. Mercury. January 1885.

Tot-hunting – Scouring the streets in search of pretty girls.

Totty all colours – Young person who has contrived to get most of the colours of the rainbow into her costume.


Venture girl – Early Victorian. Poor young lady sent out to India to obtain a husband.

Whitechapel – Woman murder. In and about 1888 a number of women of the town in the East of London were murdered and mutilated. Before the year was out a woman murder came to be called a Whitechapel.

When charged prisoner said he knew nothing about the murder ; he was very drunk. A witness who worked with him said he had heard Nicholson say, ‘ I shall do a Whitechapel on my wife yet ‘.

Willie Willie wicked, wicked! – Satiric street reproach addressed to a middle-aged woman talking to a youth. From a county court case in which a middle-aged landlady sued for a week’s rent from a young man lodger whose defense was that he left the house because the plaintiff would not only come into his room, but would proceed to sit on his bed.

Worry the dog – Bully. Said of a man who upsets even the welcome of the house-dog, which retreats at his approach.


18 Replies to “Victorianisms – Adventures in Victorian Slang”

  1. Who would have thought that Drapery Miss would have lasted long into the 19th century? I don’t think it is well known by the Regency lovers today.
    I do like your bogs and illustrations. There are some who seem to find all sorts of good things I never come across.

  2. I think using a Drapery Miss would add a great deal of tension to a plot –trying to find a rich husband while being hounded by creditors.

  3. They had another name when Jane Austen’s relative Philadelphia was sent to India, but I can’t put a finger on it at present.
    The idea that putting a shawl around the shoulders of a girl meant an engagement could be worked into a regency, but it is rather nonsensical as gentlemen w and servants would ordinarily help a lay with an outer garment.
    The origin of the term drapery miss is said to be :
    drapery miss n. (also bit of drapery) [defined by Lord Byron, who heard it in 1811, as ‘a pretty, a high-born, a fashionable young female, well-instructed by her friends, and furnished by her milliner with a wardrobe upon credit, to be repaid, when married, by her husband’]

    a woman who is considered sexually forward and who emphasizes her appeal by a flashy style of dress.

    1823 Byron Don Juan canto XI line 385: The milliners who furnish ‘drapery Misses’ […] upon speculation Of payment ere the honeymoon’s last kisses. 1905 Sporting Times 20 May 1/5: It was hard lines to see his legitimate bit of drapery flirting with a friend. 1909 J. Ware Passing Eng. of the Victorian Era 117/1: Drapery Miss (Com. Class). A girl of doubtful character, who dresses in a striking manner. Libellous generally.

  4. Thanks Nancy! I think we all pick up odd little bits that interest us and that’s why all the blogs are different, and such fun to read each other’s… I believe that there was a term in the Regency which meant the same as Venture Girl but I can’t for the life of me recall it, though I wouldn’t argue against it being used so early, since the practice certainly existed by then. It’s nagging the back of my mind… it may have been along the lines of John Company Bride…

  5. I was so enthused that it actually fitted right into a scene I was writing:

    Elinor sniffed disapproval.
    “I’d not have expected to see so many drapery misses here, but I suppose as we have accepted it is too late to leave now without sitting through at least two dances,” she said.
    “What are drapery misses, ma’am?” asked Penelope.
    “They are those young ladies who are dressed entirely on credit, and who often stay with a better blunted friend. They generally have excellent connections but no fortune. The idea being, on the part of the milliner and mantua-maker, that they will be paid when their creations have caught the wretched creature a husband, whose first marital duties are more of the counting house than the bedroom,” said Elinor.

    Elinor is Penelope’s grandmother and definitely a lady of the Georgian era with a more robust outlook on life… I definitely saw it as pejorative!

  6. What an amazing post! Many thanks for listing the Victorian slang interpretations. The term “Mary Ann” greatly assists my graduate thesis project. The White Rabbit calls Alice “Mary Ann” and orders her to find his gloves. I always assumed Mary Ann was his maid’s name, and for whatever reason, he confused Alice with his maid. However, armed with your post, I note that a “Mary Ann” referred to a feminized male. This supports my view of Alice as blended, able to wield reason (male) and compassion (female).

  7. Yes, I cited Ware’s original text for “raven.” I was not looking for “Mary Ann” and would not have noticed without your post. Thanks again!

  8. I had a lot of fun with this; Thank You! – I’m looking at various Victorian slang sites for a story I’m writing and while this didn’t contain the magic word, it was certainly diverting!.

  9. The modern Daily Mail version of “Pull down the blind” is “Get a Room!” which is a bit revealing about changes in 100 years.

  10. Judy,


    Human nature has changed very little! But in Victorian times they had more clever expressions for things, IMHO 🙂

I would love to hear your thoughts!

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