English is a very old language that has changed a huge amount over the centuries. In particular, English speakers have always been very creative about inventing and using humorous slang.
But while we still have many fascinating or hilarious slang terms, the true “golden era” of English slang must have been Victorian London.
During the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution replaced traditional jobs in the countryside with new jobs in huge urban factories, and millions of people in the UK moved to the big cities. During this time, the population of London increased by 260%, reaching 4.5 million.
Until this time, poor people in Britain didn’t move around much. It was very likely that you would live and work in the town or village you were born in until you died! That means this was the first time that people from different parts of the country were pushed together in such big numbers.
You can imagine how that changed the English language. People from all over the country brought their local sayings, idioms and slang words to one place and began to influence how each other spoke.
At the same time, Britain was busy colonizing countries all over the world and trading with many others.
While there’s no doubt that the British did a lot of damage to the countries they invaded, it also meant that new people ideas, foods, and, of course, words from every corner of the world came to Britain for the first time. Often, they landed in London, helping to shape local language and slang even more!
That means there are thousands of fantastic Victorian slang words, many of which are very clever or funny… and that we wish still existed in modern English!
Here are 5 of our favourites:
An old or unmarried woman who liked to meet up with her friends for tea, cakes, and a long gossip. (A “muffin” is a type of cake and “wallop” is slang for hitting something hard).
Bags o’ Mystery
This is a brilliant term for sausages! Sausages are made by filling up a “bag” (made of animal gut) with meat from other types of the animal – usually parts that you would rather not think about! That makes them “bags of mystery” (o’ is short for “of”).
Cop a Mouse
This means to get a “black eye” (a big, dark bruise around your eye and cheekbone, usually because someone punched you). “Cop” is slang for “get” or “catch” and a black eye is roughly the same size and colour as a mouse. So, if you’d “copped a mouse” you’d caught a mouse on your face, i.e. got a black eye!
This in an offensive term for a policeman! In Victorian London, a big part of a policeman’s job would have been telling prostitutes to move on (one in 12 women in the city was working as a prostitute at this time) and “shunt” is slang for “move” or “push”.
Mutton is the meat of an adult sheep, but there’s a phrase in English, “mutton dressed as lamb” which means an older woman dressed up as a much younger one – often in an inappropriate, revealing or over-the-top way.
For that reason, “mutton” was sometimes used as slang for prostitute, and so a “mutton shunter” is the person whose job it was to push them out of certain areas of the city.
This is a great phrase for a shiny bald head. Or, in other words, one that looks like an ice rink for flies!
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