Victorian Slanguage

I was fluttering about a fascinating website called Mental Floss the other day and uncovered a covey of rather nifty bits of Victorian slang, a few of which I’d like to share. We have had slang since we have had language and often it serves either as a shorthand or as a euphemism for regular expressions. These caught my eye as I wonder why we no longer use them.

Bags of Mystery” referred to sausages since, “no man but the maker knows what is in them.” The bags are the inflated intestines which held said mystery. As people in the food industry today are none too careful about what they put into our ground sausage, I shudder to think what surprises these bags held for the unsuspecting consumer. The Victorians kept very lovely, regimented gardens but they were not known for their fastidiousness (except with language). You weren’t allowed, for example, to refer to “legs,” as that was too provocative (“limbs” was the term employed instead). Likewise, nothing about digestive activities could be referenced—at least, not by ladies—and, sex was something all good Victorians pretended did not occur. Imagine how surprised new brides were when they understood for the first time what their grooms wanted to do to them after the party was over. Most were given one instruction about the wedding night: “Close your eyes and think of England.” No wonder so many men drank too much, rushed off to war, or took up with dance-hall girls. Hmm, I wonder if there’s a secondary meaning for “bags of mystery.”

Another euphemism about food was “Bowwow Mutton,” a term used by sailors to refer to meat that was so bad “it might be dog flesh.” It’s difficult to think of any food as revolting as mutton, but without any effort to regulate the quality let alone the identity of meat products, poor people and those in the armed forces must have been forced to consume the most disgusting items on the off chance they might thereby get some protein. Only a century or so earlier, people had eaten rats to fend off starvation. Perhaps the daily ration of grog helped the bowwow mutton go down. I’ve never been in the service, but I have had the “pleasure” of dining in university cafeterias where the chef’s special looked an awful lot like squirrel…

Encountering this next term, I initially considered whether it meant the same as a modern term called “choke the chicken,” which most men might recognize as a euphemism for sex for one. Not so. The term, “smothering a parrot” had no connection to the 20th century slang and also did not refer to murder of fowl of any sort. It was a popular term referring to downing a glass of absinthe, as the liqueur has a greenish tinge not unlike the coloring of South American parrots. One could think of more accurate words for the alcoholic beverage banned for many years because its use could lead to blindness or insanity. I seem to remember someone arguing that wood-worm was the culprit.

If the man drinking absinthe had a bald head, his confrères would refer to said bare pate as a “Fly Rink.” This is a bit of visual humor, describing in unflattering terms the appearance of that spare ring of hair still attached to an otherwise polished dome. Anyone doffing his hat would be at the mercy of stray flies and gnats that must have been a constant source of annoyance before the introduction of screens and insecticides.

Similarly, to “Cop a Mouse” meant that you had received a black eye, probably in a losing fight. They were still using “mouse” to refer to the color and size of such an injury into the 1930s, as evidenced in old movies of the period. To “cop” means to catch, suffer, or get and has no connection to the slang “cop” or “copper” in reference to police officers. It is still part of 20th century slang (“cop a feel”).

The final phrases are not euphemisms nor are they derogatory terms; instead, their aim was to compliment the person described. When someone showed him/herself to be fearless and brave, Victorian gentlemen would call him/her “Bricky.” Since a brick was the closest thing to permanent, and was seemingly immune to fire and flood, many people on both sides of the Atlantic preferred brick houses to wooden ones, especially after the natural disasters that had played havoc with so many homes and businesses. To be like a brick meant that you would not fail, you would not give in to fear. This was at odds with “lily-livered cowards” who were so frightened that they had the strength of a soft, wilting lily.

And so, we achieve our final term, “Bang Up to the Elephant,” which has nothing to do with the circus animal so popular during the Victorian era except as metaphor. Rather, it meant “perfect, complete, unapproachable.” If you have ever seen the noble elephant in person, this makes great sense. Elephants have excellent memories, they cry for lost loved ones, they care for orphaned infants, and they willingly obey trainers whom they could crush with one foot. They are generally gentle and kind, despite their huge size. If you achieve some proximity to perfection, then, it would be like being bang up to the elephant—you will be, then, unapproachable by the rest of us mortals.

squirrels and coffee

©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD (except as noted)

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