17 Job Titles in Victorian Slang

A Victorian doctor—or 'squirt'—at work
A Victorian doctor—or 'squirt'—at work
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a trend emerged in English slang for bestowing mock “titles” on people employed or engaged in various jobs or pursuits. So an admiral of the blue was a publican, so-called because of the color of his apron. A queen of the dripping pan was a cook. A lord of the foresheet was a ship’s cook. And a knight of the cue was a billiard-player, a knight of the thimble was a tailor, a knight of the lapstone a cobbler, and a knight of the brush an artist. So what would your job title have been in Victorian slang?

1. Waiters & Waitresses

Barmen were known as aproners and waiters were known as knights of the napkin in Victorian slang—although if you waited tables in a pub or tavern you were more likely to be called a dash (derived either from your habit of dashing from table to table, or serving a dash of liquor). Any waiter lucky enough to work outside during the summer months, at garden parties or in beer gardens and tea gardens, was called a grasshopper.

2. Cooks & Chefs

A dripping was a (usually fairly poor-quality) chef or cook in 19th-century slang, as was a lick-fingers and a spoil-broth. Gally-swab was another name for a ship’s cook, and a Jack Nasty-face was a naval cook or cook's assistant, probably derived from the earlier use of jack to mean a newly recruited deckhand or sailor.

3. Shops & Shopkeepers

If you were a general tradesman or shop-worker in Victorian England, then you were a blue-apron or an aproner, although a disreputable shopkeeper who cheated his or her customers was known as a tax-fencer. Nicknames for specific shopkeepers included cleaver and kill-calf (a butcher); strap and scraper (a barber); crumb-and-crust-man or bapper and burn-crust (a baker); figgins and split-fig (a greengrocer); and stay-tape and steel-bar flinger (a tailor). The word shopkeeper itself was also used as a nickname for an item of stock that remained unsold for a long time.

4. Actors

Because Shakespeare was “The Swan of Avon,” a swan-slinger was a Shakespearean actor in 19th-century English. Elsewhere, actors were also called tags (from the character names that “tag” the speeches in a script), agony-pilers (particularly those who took on weighty roles), and cackling-coves (literally “chattering-men”).

5. Journalists & Writers

While a quill-driver or a pen-driver was a clerk or secretary in 19th-century slang, a hack journalist who would take on any work for cash was called an X.Y.Z. after an anonymous writer who used the pseudonym “XYZ” in a mid-1880s Times of London ad offering to work on any project going. Journalists were also known as screeds, pencil-pushers, adjective-jerkers, and chaunter-coves, while a yarn-chopper was a journalist who made up the stories they wrote about.

6. The Police

Because the London police force was established in 1829 by then-Home Secretary (and later Prime Minister) Sir Robert Peel, Victorian police officers became known as peelers and bobbies, terms still in use in Britain today. The peelers’ dark-blue uniforms were also the origin of the old nicknames blue-belly, bluebottle, gentleman in blue and white, and even unboiled lobster.

7. Lawyers

Derived from the earlier use of snap to mean a snare or noose, a brother-snap was an unscrupulous lawyer or shyster in 18th- and 19th-century slang. Lawyers were also known as sublime rascals, tongue-padders, and split-causes (because of their habit of going into lengthy explanatory discourses and nit-picking over every detail), Tom Sawyers (in London rhyming slang), and snipes—because they typically presented you with a very long bill.

8. Judges

While magistrates were known as beaks in 18th-19th century English (no one quite knows why), judges were nobs-in-the-fur-trade among Victorian criminals. (A nob was a particularly high-ranking or important person, while the fur trade referred to the white fur or ermine used to adorn judges’ robes.)

9. Teachers

Learning-shover, nip-lug (because they pulled on unruly pupils’ ears or lugs), and terror of the infantry (infantry being a slang name for the pupils of a school) were all old nicknames for schoolteachers in 19th-century English, as was haberdasher of pronouns. A schoolmaster was a knight of grammar, while a Sunday-school teacher was a gospel-grinder, or a gospel-shark.

10. Farmers

Probably derived from the Latin word for “ox,” bos, a bosken was a farmhouse in 19th-century slang, and so a farmer was a bos-man or a boss-cockie; a Billy Turniptop was a farmhand or agricultural worker.

11. Priests & the Clergy

Priests were known as devil-dodgers, men-in-black, mumble-matins (derived from the Matins church service) and joss-house men in 19th-century slang—the latter derived from a pidgin English pronunciation of the Spanish word Dios.

12. Doctors, 13. Pharmacists, 14. Surgeons, and 15. Dentists

Both clyster-pipe and squirt are old nicknames for syringes that by the 19th century had come to be used as bywords for anyone employed in dispensing medication. Water-scriger and water-caster were 16th-century words, both still in use in the 1800s, for doctors who diagnosed their patients based on examinations of their urine. Surgeons were known as bone-setters and castor-oil artists, while dentists were fang-fakers and pharmacists and chemists were potter-carriers (a pun on “apothecary”). A chemist’s assistant was a bottle-boy, and a loblolly-boy was a doctor’s assistant.

16. Bankers, 17. Cashiers & Accountants

A rag was a banknote in early 19th-century English, and so a rag-shop or a rag-box was a bank, while a rag-shop boss was a banker and a rag-shop cove was a cashier, or someone whose work involved taking and counting money.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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