Useful Victorian Slang for Your Steampunk Game

Is it okay if you give somebody a lift? What if you give back answers? Do you get cheek-ache reading the news? Take a look at this curated collection of useful and colorful words and phrases of Victorian slang and make your 19th-century-inspired games more fleshed-out!

Today, we’re delving into The Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase by James Redding Ware (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2013) to uncover the long-lost gems of language that will add sparkle and sheen to your steampunk games.

The book is a curious one – it was actually published in 1909, as Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase, and the Oxford edition is just a facsimile (an exact reprint) with a new introduction. Ware was a very colorful persona with troubled youth, experience in grocery sales, and finally – a prolific writing career he has started in his late 20s. He was a journalist, a playwright, a songwriter, and a translator – all the while moonlighting as a writer of sensational ‘casebooks’ on weird and mysterious police investigations. His most popular book on this secret side is The Female Detective (published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester), introducing the first ever professional female detective character, Miss Gladden, over 50 years before women were even allowed to join the police forces in the UK.

But that’s not why we’re here. Let’s delve into the Victorian slang! For convenience, I’ve separated the slang into five categories:

  • society (‘high class’),
  • common (‘middle class’),
  • street (‘low class’),
  • navy & travel (for all your steampunk airships),
  • thieves’ cant (because you can never have too much of that).

Enjoy!


Society Slang

About and about. Mere chatter, the conversation of fools who talk for sheer talking’s sake.

Afternoonified. Smart, elegant, sophisticated.

Bitch the pot (University). To pour out the tea.

Cave (Political). A secret political combination – distinct from illegal conspiracy.

Cock-pit (Political). A convenient place for settling a sanguinary quarrel. From the pit or enclosure in which the cocks fought, and which would become much blood-stained – hence the name was given to that portion of a warship to which the wounded were taken for treatment.

Come out, to. To appear in society – applied to young women in society. The crown which finishes the work of coming out is presentation at Court.

Considerable amount of united action (Political). A conspiracy.

Cross-bench mind. Undecided, hesitating.

Dig me out. I.e., call for me; tear me from lazy loafing in the house.

Don’t sell me a dog. Do not deceive me. Derived from the experience that the purchase of a dog, most fanciers being thieves, was ever a deception.

Dress for the part. To act hypocritically.

Earth-hunger (Political). Greed to possess land.

Eat strange meat. A delicate evasion of cannibalism.

Elaborate the truth. To lie.

Flying the kite. Making public.

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

Got the morbs. Temporary melancholia.

Left the minority. No longer with the living.

Locust. Extravagant person who sweeps everything away.

New departure. Synonym for change of any kind.

Pantry politics. Servants’ talk.

Perplexed and transient phantom (Political). Politician who fails and vanishes.

Removal (Political). Assassination.

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

Sub rosa. In secret. Sometimes: under the rose.

Ugly rush (Political). Speed to prevent enquiry – forcing a bill.

Varnish. Bad champagne.

White elephant. An article (generally large and expensive), for which you have no use.


Common Slang

Afters. Sweets, pies and puddings.

All his buttons on. Sharp, alive, active, not to be deceived.

Anti-Tox. A drug to sober a drunken person, Tox is, of course, the abbreviation of intoxication.

Axe to grind. A personal end to serve, originally a favor to ask.

Back answers. Sharp retorts, quick-tongued replies, dorsal eructations, without any concession to the laws of etiquette.

Balloon (Tailors’). A week of forced idleness from want of work.

Balsam (Sporting). Money. From both medicaments being of such an agreeable character.

Bee (American). An industrious meeting – as quilting, or apple-gathering. (Also, spelling bee – note A.U.)

Bone-shaker (Youths’). The earliest bicycle – which tried to break bones incessantly.

Cheek-ache. Blushing or turning red in the face rather for the meanness of another than your own.

Clouded over. Overwhelmed by misfortune.

Come-down. Disaster, ruin, degradation, humiliation.

Devil’s dinner hour (Artisans’). Midnight, the hour for all Satanic revels. Said in reference to working late.

Dodo. A human fossil, a man who clings to the past, and condemns future days and present. (Also a slang term for Scotland Yard, for similar reasons – note A.U.)

Double-plated blow-hard. A loud and contemptible boaster.

Dun. To worry for money.

Duty. Interest on pawnbrokers’ pledges. Evasive synonym for interest. Respectable.

Flare-up. A stir, a riot, disturbance.

Fuss and feathers. Bosh, pretense, froth.

Get fits. Suffer rage from being conquered; impatient under defeat.

Gospel of gloom. Satirical description of aestheticism which tended to doleful colours, gloomy houses, sad limp dresses, and solemn, earnest behaviour.

Handful. Trouble, difficulty. Much to contend with.

Hug centre. Head-quarters of public love-making.

Introduce shoemaker to tailor. Evasive metaphor for fundamental kicking.

Keep off the grass. Be cautious.

Kill with kindness. To cause shame by overwhelming with satirical attentions a person who has misbehaved himself. It is not forgiveness but retaliation.

Knapsack descent. Soldiers in a family, either on the father’s or mother’s side, and very possibly both.

Lead poisoning (Western America). Active bullets.

Mush, gush, and lush. Mean interested criticism – critiques paid for either in money or feastings.

Nice place to live out of. Evasive way of condemning a locality.

No better than they ought to be. Worse than many.

Out of the tail of the eye. Furtive observation.

Petit bleu. Forgery.

Play low. Act meanly.

Podsnappery. Willful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient, at the same time assuming airs of superior virtue and noble resignation.

Postman’s sister. Secret informant.

Putting the value on it (Artists’). Signing a canvas. Satirical – meaning the work has no real value, and sells only by reason of the name attached.

Robbing the barber. Wearing long hair.

Screamer (Press). Alarmist article or leader.

Seven times seven man. Hypocritical religionist.

Sling joints. Gain a living rather by physical than mental effort.

Sympathetic truth (Artists’). True, but not too true – some concession to the artistic ideal.

Toast your blooming eyebrows. Probably a delicate way of telling the man to go to blazes.

Wet a line. Go fishing.

Without authorial expenses (Literary). Cheating, piracy, theft.

Word-mongering (Press). Redundancy of description. Used in critical scorn.


Street Slang

All a treat. Perfection of enjoyment, sometimes used satirically to depict mild catastrophe.

‘Apenny-lot day. A bad time for business – really, when everything has to be sold cheap.

Bags o’ mystery. A satirical term for sausages, because no man but the maker knows what’s in them.

Bet your boots (Western American). Absolutely safe betting – the boots being the most serious item of expense in the Wild West uniform.

Block a quiet pub. To stop a long time in a tavern […]; to remain quietly drinking in an out-of-the-way public house.

Blue o’clock in the morning. Pre-dawn, when black sky gives way to purple. Rhyming fancy, suggested by two o’clock in the morn. Suggestive of rollicking late hours.

Busking (Street-singers’). Going from pub to pub singing and reciting, generally in tow with a banjo.

Carry me out. A satirical expression, pretending defeat, humiliation, and pardon. Sometimes ‘carry me out and bury me decent.’

Choker. A lie, in its most direct form.

Conversation, a little. Violent swearing.

Cut a finger. To cause a disagreeable odour.

Dive. An underground drinking bar.

Dominoes. Teeth, when bad and yellow. When white, they are ivories.

Fighting the tiger. Gaming, with all its consequences,; some of which are desperate. Practically applied – desperate game.

Find cold weather. To be bounced or expelled (from a public house).

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

Get your eye in a sling. Warning that you may receive a sudden and early black eye, calling for a bandage – the sling in question.

Gigglemug. A habitually smiling face.

Give a lift. A sharp quick kick.

Horse’s meal. Meal without drink. Contemptuous expression, inferring the absence of beer.

Looking seven ways for Sunday. Squinting.

Mind the grease. Let me pass, please.

Pill. Dose, suffering, sentence, punishment. Endless in application.

Red-hot treat. Extremely dangerous person.

Scarpe along. To live somehow from day to day, to scrape off a living.

Take off my coat. Challenge to fight.

Unfair done by. Ill-treated.

Virtue rewarded. Prison van – ironical reference to the moral nature of its occupants, and based upon the initials V.R., which used to be seen on each side.


Nautical & Travel Slang

Beach-comber. A pirate, a beach-loafer, or a yachting tourist. In its earlier shape it referred to the pirate who made a landing and swept up all he could – that is, he ‘combed the beach’.

Com. A commercial traveller in business.

Corroboree. A drunken spree, in which there is much yelling.

Deal of weather about. Bad meteorological times. For sailors fine weather is no weather at all. On the sea the word always means discomfort and struggle, as may be seen in its use, ‘weather the storm’.

Duck-pond. The shallow bathing place on the lower deck, effected by a rig-up of sail-cloth, made watertight, fixed to the deck, and in which the cadets wash and roll themselves, in batches, under the watchful eyes of a warrant officer.

Dusty. A ship’s steward’s assistant.

Hard tack. A sea biscuit.

Hardware. Ammunition in general, and shells in particular.

Her Majesty’s naval police. Sharks – whose presence all over the world prevents the sailors from deserting by way of harbour water.

Look slippery. Hurry up, be quick – from the association of slipperiness and speed.

Schooners, frigates, and full-masters. Degrees of comparison as to the capabilities in the Navy – the least accomplished being the schooner, the frigate the youth who is handy at his business, and the full-master the achieved youngster who can learn no more of the art – of navigation understood.

Sky-pilot. Chaplain.

Wet ship. Ship in which captain and company drink heavily.


Thieves’ Cant

Away. A man is never spoken of as ‘in prison’, though he is there for many a ‘stretch’. It would evince great want of etiquette to mention the detaining locality, e.g., ‘Mine’s away, bless ‘is ‘art,’ […]. The answer should be, ‘A ‘happy return ‘ome to ‘im, mum’.

Back slang it. To go out the back way.

Bit-faker. Counterfeit money-maker – from ‘bit’, money, and ‘fake’, to make, or rather cunningly to imitate.

Con. Simply disguised convict.

Copper’s Nark. A policeman’s civilian spy.

Coster. Short for costermonger, a great being in low life, generally a sort of prince, and often a king o’ the costers.

Crack a case. To break into a house.

Crush the stur. To break from prison.

Dance upon nothing. To be hanged – the convulsive motions of the legs in the air suggesting the phrase.

Dipping. Picking pockets – literally dipping.

Do a bust. To burst a house open; burglary.

Do one’s bit. To carry out one’s enforced contract as a felon with the Government.

Dookin. Fortune-telling.

Fill, to give a. To deceive.

Flash. Imitation gold coins – the name probably suggested by their glitter.

Gallersgood. Corruption of gallows’ good. So bad that it is worthy of the gallows.

Greys. Evasive name for silver – from its colour presumably; and figuratively, money.

Little go. First imprisonment.

Nap the regulars. Receive or grab the customary portion of the money resulting from the sale of stolen property.

Penny loaf. Cur – one afraid to steal; a man who would rather live on a penny loaf than steal good beef.

Portable property. Easily stolen or pawned goods – especially plate.

Put the light out. Kill.

Readied the rosser. Bribed the police.

Rushing business. Robbery by adroitness, cheating under the semblance of fair treatment.

Spooning the burick. Making love to a friend’s wife.

White soup. Melted silver – run down from stolen plate, to avoid identification.


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