Victorian slang

An amusing list of Victorian slang from Passing English of the Victorian era, a dictionary of heterodox English, slang and phrase, 1909, by James Redding Ware (who, incidentally, under the pen name of Andrew Forrester, created one of the first fictional female detectives.)

I especially like Afternoonified: A society word meaning “smart”, e.g. “The goods are not ‘afternoonified’ enough for me.”

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

Dipping into the Passing English dictionary:

Flapper, which I’d always thought of as a 1920s term, was in use as early as 1892 for “A very immoral young girl in her early ‘teens’.”

Flash dona: A high-class low-class lady (thieves’ word).

Gospel of Gloom: Satirical description of aestheticism which tended to doleful colours, gloomy houses, sad limp dresses, and solemn, earnest behaviour.
Were these Victorian goths?

Fit in the arm: A blow. In June 1897 one Tom Kelly was given into custody by a woman for striking her. His defence before the magistrate took the shape of the declaration that ‘a fit had seized him in the arm’, and for months afterwards back street frequenters called a blow a fit.

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

Who took it out of you? Meaning wholly unknown to people not absolutely of lower class.

An interesting find– Deuce: Dusius–the erotic God of Nightmare, passing (15th century in England) into Robin Goodfellow.
The most familiar shape of Deuce is Robin Goodfellow, whose pictorial representation has long since been turned out of good society. If any curious reader is desirous of seeing him in his habit as he lived, he must be prepared to pay him five pounds for a copy of Mr Thomas Wright’s remarkable little book upon Phallic worship. Its study will enable him to comprehend Shakespeare’s allusions to this alarming personage–probably Robin Goodfiller.

The internet seems to have nothing on Robin Goodfiller outside of this dictionary. According to Wiktionary, dusius is “a kind of evil spirit”, from  Gaulish *dusios (incubus, monster), probably from Proto-Indo-European *dʰeus- (spirit). Compare Czech duše (soul).

Dusius exists today as an Italian folk/viking metal band.

And Whitechapel Warriors: Militia of the Aldgate district; and
White Army, The: A band of men who formed themselves together to combat social evil.
Was Victorian London adorned with roaming bands of vigilantes and do-gooders? The only other reference I can find to Whitechapel warriors is in a dialogue, Bon Gaultier and his Friends, in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1844. Bon Gaultier was a nom de plume of the writers William Edmondstoune Aytoun and Sir Theodore Martin, and their Whitechapel warriors seems to be an epithet for an invented regiment, the Ninth Poltroons, after whom we hear about “the Black Skulkers, a fine cavalry regiment, which made war principally upon its own account.” I may want to borrow them.
(I drift, but I’ll forget this if I don’t write it down — I read somewhere that the tradition of natty cavalry uniforms got started when mounted soldiers would raid the baggage trains and dress in what they seized. And now I can’t find the article again, chiz.)

As for the White Army (of London), I can’t find any other record of it.


A few more from The Art of Manliness, Manly Slang from the 19th Century:

Bully Trap: A brave man with a mild or effeminate appearance, by whom the bullies are frequently taken in.

Fart Catcher: A valet or footman, from his walking behind his master or mistress.

Gullyfluff: The waste — coagulated dust, crumbs, and hair — which accumulates imperceptibly in the pockets of schoolboys.

Half-mourning: To have a black eye from a blow. As distinguished from ” whole-mourning,” two black eyes.

Out of Print: Slang made use of by booksellers. In speaking of any person that is dead, they observe, “he is out of print.”

Tune the Old Cow Died Of: An epithet for any ill-played or discordant piece of music.

2 thoughts on “Victorian slang

  1. Dusius exists today…
    What would we do without metal bands??

    I’m really fascinated by the chain of Robin Goodfellow associations though – I had never gotten around to looking up representations of him prior to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but of course it makes sense that he’d be a faunic/priapic character. (Is “Goodfiller” just a sex joke?)

    Google Books has the highly relevant 1865 text “A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus and its Connection with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients” available, which conflates dusii with fauns and incubi, and also cites for them the name “ficarii,” possibly because “they were fond of figs”…

    • I can’t access the book, but Wikipedia has an entry on Dusios that I wouldn’t recommend to fig fans.

      “Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition” (1892) by Charles Godfrey Leland, the author of “Aradia, Gospel of the Witches”, has an entry on Dusio (

      ‘In what may be called the Irregular Minor Mythology of Anglo-Saxony, or Saxonyankeedom, and in which Jingo and the Dickens are prominent deities, there is one power known as the Deuce. I have always inclined to think that this word is only the Latin Deus, but philologists deduce it from a French goblin, one Dus, who is described as early as the fifth century as Dusius. Deus means God, while Dus, according to DU CANGE, is found in almost all the Slavonic, Celtic, and Teutonic tongues of Europe, always as a kind of devilkin, a seducer of virgins.’
      ‘I conjecture that there was an Etruscan or Sabine Dus–the parent or origin of the domestic goblin, also of the fauns. There occurs very often on vases the fox-tailed, phallic, laughing god with a flat face and snubbed nose–always as wanton and indecent.’

      Someone told the author this: ‘Dusio is a mischievous little folletto, or goblin. He teases girls, sometimes he acts as a nightmare, very often he inspires lascivious dreams and has connection with women. Sometimes as a little imp not more than three inches high he perches on their pillows. He is not bad, but mischievous. He haunts houses and fireplaces.’

      This accords with Brewer’s (via Wikipedia) description of RG as a ‘ “drudging fiend”, and merry domestic fairy, famous for mischievous pranks and practical jokes. At night-time he will sometimes do little services for the family over which he presides.’

      More from Leland: ‘Pliny tells us that hand-mills were invented at Volsinii, and that some of them turned of their own accord (Pliny, xxxvi. 29), “from which,” says Dennis, “it would appear probable that ‘that shrewd and knavish sprite called Robin Goodfellow’ was of Etruscan origin–a fact worthy the attention of all Etrusco-Celtic theorists.” The reader will find in several chapters of this my book much to confirm this conjecture.’

      Seems a bit flimsy to me, but I’ve only dipped into the rest of the book. There’s an entry on a similar spirit, Attilio (, where Leland says:

      ‘The Dusio and Faun, and every one of the prototypes of Robin Goodfellow and Puck, and the House-Brownie are represented as frolicking sprites, always misleading girls. In the North, under chaster influences, these wanton sprites soon sobered down into very moral beings, not going beyond boyish mischief. But in Italy nothing has changed, and so they still remain the same rogues among the girls which they were even while satyrs hopped about in the woods, and lemures prowled near tombs and witches took out men’s hearts-and people were all so happy!
      Attilio is certainly here a lar familiaris, a spirit of the fireplace, a sprite who ever since the days of Tarquin and Tanquil has seduced the servant-maid in Tuscan families, even as he seduced Ocris, “she who waited on the table” of yore. He is in the kitchen and he cooks the dinner, and is altogether of the fireplace. Of his existence I have but a single authority or witness. He corresponds altogether to the French Lutin.’

      Re ‘Goodfiller’, ‘Goodfellow’ sounds to me like a euphemistically nice name for a mischievous and potentially quite troublesome spirit, probably conferred after the diminution of god to goblin? Whether that would that preclude an earlier ‘Goodfiller’, I’m not sure. Might be, erm, a bit of a stretch — it sounds more like a pun that would have gone the other way — but I haven’t a shred of expertise to back up an opinion!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.