A Witty Dictionary of Victorian Slang (1909)

In the intro­duc­tion to his Dic­tio­nary of Con­tem­po­rary Slang, Tony Thorne writes of the dif­fi­cul­ty of defin­ing infor­mal speech: “A sym­po­sium on slang held in France in 1989 broke up after sev­er­al days with­out hav­ing arrived at a def­i­n­i­tion accept­able to even the major­i­ty of par­tic­i­pants.” If you’re think­ing maybe this seems like tak­ing the sub­ject a lit­tle too seri­ous­ly, I’d agree. But if we trav­el back eighty years in time and across the Eng­lish Chan­nel, we’ll meet an eccen­tric lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er who approached the task in the right spir­it.

“Here is a numer­i­cal­ly weak col­lec­tion of ‘Pass­ing Eng­lish.’ ” writes James Red­ding Ware in the Pref­ace to his posthu­mous­ly-pub­lished 1909 Pass­ing Eng­lish of the Vic­to­ri­an Era, A Dic­tio­nary of Het­ero­dox Eng­lish, Slang and Phrase.


“It may be hoped that there are errors on every page, and also that no entry is ‘quite too dull.’” He goes on in a more seri­ous tone to sum­ma­rize the rapid lan­guage change occur­ring in Eng­land in the last few decades of the 19th cen­tu­ry:

Thou­sands of words and phras­es in exis­tence in 1870 have drift­ed away, or changed their forms, or been absorbed, while as many have been added or are being added. ‘Pass­ing Eng­lish’ rip­ples from count­less sources, form­ing a riv­er of new lan­guage which has its tide and its ebb, while its cur­rent brings down new ideas and car­ries away those that have drib­bled out of fash­ion. Not only is ‘Pass­ing Eng­lish’ gen­er­al ; it is local ; often very sea­son­ably local. 

Ware—a pen name of British writer Andrew Forrester—goes on to get very local indeed in his descrip­tions, from “Pet­ty Italia behind Hat­ton Gar­den” to “Anglo-Yid­dish.” The Pub­lic Domain Review high­lights the fol­low­ing quirky entries.

Got the Morbs – tem­po­rary melan­choly
Mut­ton Shunter – the police
Bat­ty-Fang – to thrash thor­ough­ly
Doing the Bear – court­ing that involves hug­ging
Maf­fick­ing – get­ting row­dy in the streets
Orf Chump – no appetite
Poked Up – embar­rassed
Nan­ty Nark­ing – great fun

Ware’s atti­tude may be appro­pri­ate­ly infor­mal, but his method­ol­o­gy is suit­ably rig­or­ous, and this com­pre­hen­sive lex­i­con was clear­ly a labor of love. His book is a seri­ous resource for schol­ars of the peri­od, and, hell, it’s also just great fun. Read and down­load the full dic­tio­nary at the Inter­net Archive.

via The Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read A Clas­si­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Vul­gar Tongue, a Hilar­i­ous & Infor­ma­tive Col­lec­tion of Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­lish Slang (1785)

The Largest His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Eng­lish Slang Now Free Online: Cov­ers 500 Years of the “Vul­gar Tongue”

The Very First Writ­ten Use of the F Word in Eng­lish (1528)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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