A Little Splash of Historical Slang

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Language is a powerful tool, and always has been.
Through language we identify the way we think about the objects and concepts around us. Delve deep into etymology and you can trace back throughout history how we not only classify our world literally, but also how we interact with it emotionally and imaginatively through the ages.

For example, the word 'Clue' is derived from a change in the spelling of the original word 'Clew' in the 16th century. A Clue is a fact or an idea that aids to the solving of a problem...but it used to be simply a ball of string. In ancient Greek mythology the hero, Theseus descended into the Minotaur's labyrinth on what could have been a suicide mission. Even if the Minotuar didn't eat him, he would be lost forever. If it were not for his 'clew': a ball of string that he trailed behind himself so that he could find the entrance - and salvation- once more.

Words are never quite so solid and unchangeable as they may seem, despite many people's insistence on the regimentation of language. Sometimes these aid communication and sometimes they restrict it, and always they are tied up tightly with the concerns of contemporary life. Language is used as a tool to cement the ephemeral notions of class, respectibility, morality,geography and life experience. Look at how a people use language, and you look into their hearts. This is no more true than as we look into slang: the living, unpoliced language of the past.

Of course, all social intrigue aside, it's also flipping entertaining. I collected together a few slang words and phrases from history that should have never gone out of fashion.

How about we see if we can get them back into common use, eh?

Barrow/Chota Wallah
A big/small man or thing. This was regularly used as a colloquialism in the army in the late 19th-20thc. This was directly derived from Hindustani 'vālā'. Nowadays, a Wallah is a person who is employed in a particular occupation or activity (eg a 'kitchen-wallah'). So, presumably, it's someone who's so big or so small that it defines them.

Bartholomew Boar/Pig
A fat man (late 16th-17th century). This comes from the fact that roasted pigs were a very popular attraction at Bartholomew Fair, which ran in West Smithfield, London, from 1133-1855ad.

Cap Acquaintance
People only very slightly acquainted. This comes from the early 18th to 19th century when, presumably, people would doff their caps to one another. While we don't really tend to behave this way any more, it's a handy word that seems to be one rung down from even an acquaintance. (Plus the anachronism is rather part of the appeal).

Friday Face
The glum, depressed looking face of a person. This was used from around 1590ad and disappeared by the 18th century. I assume that this probably had something to do with religious changes and, later, the two-day weekend coming in. Finally Friday was something to look forwards to! Before this, Friday was a day of fasting so many people had cause to be glum.

Heady Whop
A cockney phrase for someone with an extraordinarily large head. 1880-1900ad. This then turned into saying what we might now: that they have a 'whopping head'. 

Heavy/Howling Swell
A man, or occasionally a woman, who is at the height of fashion. This was used around 1819-1910ad. Ansley in 1892 used it as: 'We're all such heavy swells, you see, we're all aristo-crats'. This is a pun of heavy as meaning to have great momentum, and heavy swell as meaning a sea that's running high.

In the 18th-19th centuries this could mean someone who is very tall and very thin. Alternatively, it could be a variation of gutless; as in, someone who lacked courage, which came in around the 19th and 20th centuries.
Another gem from the 19th and 20th centuries for a thin person, was to say that he looked "as if he were walking about to save funeral expenses."

'A narrow-soul'd,sneaking fellow'. Used between the late 17th century to the early 19th century. So someone could also go hog-grubbing.

"Hold up your head: there's money bid for you."
In other words: "Don't be so modest! For people think well of you." This was basically a proverbial catch phrase from around the 17th century to the mid 19th century. I find it a rather sweet sentiment.

A brothel. This was used around the 17th and 18th centuries and derived from the Arabic hammam, which was a hot bath. The idea was that these Turkish bath establishments were being or becoming little better than brothels.

Have January Chickens
To have children in old age. This comes from the 19th century and I think is rather a nice phrase to use nowadays, given our society's growing trend towards having children in later life.

Milk the Pigeon
To attempt an impossibility. From the mid 18th to the 20th century, though this phrase still lingers a little in milk the bull or milking cats. There's just something about it being a pigeon that rather amuses me for all the more urban types out there.

Easy as Mittens
Someone who's free in speech and/or manner. This was a phrase mainly used in London from around 1890ad.

Nose of Wax / Waxen nose
Anything - though especially a person - that is very pliable, exceedingly obliging, or utterly complacent. This was used between around 1530 - 1830ad. For example: 'I let...the constable...manage the business his ain gate, as if I had been a nose o' wax.'

A Nose to Light Candles At
From the late 16th-20th century this meant a drunkard's red nose.

Between 1890-1914 this word was often used to describe 'a woman competing with prostitutes but not depending on prostitution for her whole livelihood'.

To be on one's promotion
This was to behave with marriage on one's view and mind. This was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1836, and derived from the use of on promotion to mean on approval or on trial. In 1846, Thackery used it like this: '"Those filthy cigars" replied Mrs Rawdon. "I remember when you liked 'em, though." replied her husband...."That was when I was on my promotion, Goosey." she said.'
"Quicker than hell would scorch a feather."
This meant very promptly, and was used between the mid 19th century and the 20th century.

A rather glorious slang for an umbrella, used approximately between 1820-1910ad. 

To feign. So, for example, shuffle asleep meant to pretend to be asleep. This was used in the mid 19th century to the 20th century and comes from the notion of shuffling as being to act evasively.

An unprofessional, dishonest or rapacious lawyer (1856ad), which grew to include anyone who was not too particular about how they conducted business (1877ad). This began in the US and was Anglicized. 

Silent Beard
Female pubic hair. Not to be too crude, but this was -like rain-napper- too creative to pass up. This was used from around the 17th century to the early 19th century.

Having a wooden leg. From 1780ad.

A rather marvellous way of saying that someone is drunk. This was used from the late 19th-20th century and derived from intoxicated as in being corrupted.

"Up and Down Like a Fiddler's Elbow."
 Someone who is very restless. This was used by the mostly lower-middle class in the late 19th-20th centuries.

A gentleman who is exceedingly whiskered. This was based on a character in Sheridan's comedy The Critic in 1779ad and afterwards, especially in the 19th century, the nickname caught on. I vote that this should be brought back to call any man sporting impressively glorious facial hair. Failing that, it should at least be some cartoon superhero's name!

Yorkshire Compliment
Mid 19th-20th century. 'A gift useless to the giver and not wanted by the receiver.' As a Yorkshire girl myself, this rather makes me smile. Interestingly the word Yorkshire has been used from as early as 1650ad to imply boorishness but also a connotation of cunning, business sharpness and trickery.

  • A Dictionary of Historical Slang - Eric Partridge (abridged by Jacqueline Simpson) (1972, Penguin Reference Books)

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