I recently came by a fascinating old book called Passing English of the Victorian era, a dictionary of heterodox English, slang and phrase (published 1909) written by James Redding Ware, the pseudonym of Andrew Forrester a British writer who created one of the first female detectives in literary history in his book The Female Detective (1863). The book is a collection of phrases and sayings that were at the height of their use mostly in London during the victorian era, although by the time the book was published many had been dropped from the vernacular.
In it’s preface Ware makes an interesting observation following his research that slang is a very localised thing, he says “Not only is ‘Passing English’ general ; it is local ; often very seasonably local. Careless etymologists might hold that there are only four divisions of fugitive language in London west, east, north and south. But the variations are countless. Holborn knows little of Petty Italia behind Hatton Garden, and both these ignore Clerkenwell, which is equally foreign to Islington proper; in the South, Lambeth generally ignores the New Cut, and both look upon Southwark as linguistically out of bounds; while in Central London, Clare Market (disappearing with the nineteenth century) had, if it no longer has, a distinct fashion in words from its great and partially surviving rival through the centuries the world of Seven Dials, which is in St Giles’s St James’s being practically in the next parish.“
The book runs to over 275 pages, so it’ll take a while to get to the end, but so far here are a few of my favourites.
‘Awkins: “You don’t want to be messing around with ‘im, ‘e’s a real ‘awkins and no mistake“. A severe or violent man, someone not to be trifled with. Taken from Sir Henry Hawkins, a judge, who gained notoriety as a hanging judge.
Sir Henry Hawkins
Bags o’ mystery: “Are they’re going to keep running-in polony fencers for putting rotten gee-gee into the bags o‘ mystery“. A satirical term for sausages, because no man but the maker knows what is in them. A “Polony Fencer” is a sausage seller or low class Butcher.
Bald-headed Butter: “Waiter, I’ll take a bit of bald-headed butter, if you please.” A pat of butter which is not contaminated by human hair. The phrase was taken up after reports in the newspapers of a court case where a Cheesemonger had instigated proceedings for slander against a fellow trader who had publicly cast doubt over the quality of his product.
Black-silk Barges: “I’ve had to dance with seventeen black-silk barges this blessed evening. Never again never again.” Stout women who attend dances. They dressed in black silk in an effort to disguise their rotundness.
Fall-downs: “A’porth o’ fall-downs“. The fragments of cookshop puddings which fall down while being rapidly sliced up for sale; fragments which are finally collected on a plate, and sold for a halfpenny.