Improve Your Wordpower (Part Two)

Dr Vernon Coleman

Another small selection of Victorian words, taken from `Vernon Coleman’s Dictionary of Old English Words and Phrases’

Cads on castors – bicyclists (cyclists were not popular in the 19th century because they were considered to be a hazard to pedestrians; today cyclists seem unpopular with both pedestrians and motorists)
Catch fart – a servant employed to follow closely behind their master or mistress and, presumably, to ‘catch any farts emitted by their master or mistress’; maybe the servant was merely required to take the blame for any gaseous eruptions, particularly noisy or ill-smelling ones
Catch-penny – cheap ballads for which the sheet music was sold in the street (In 1824 a publisher called Catchpin printed a penny ballad called ‘We are Alive Again’, about a man who was executed for the murder of a fellow called Weare. The sheet of music sold 2,500,000 copies which was pretty good going since this was almost twice the population of London at the time.)
Caterwauling – going out at night ‘in search of intrigues’
Cat’s Foot – henpecked man
Cats’ Party – gathering of women
Cheese toaster – sword
Cheshire – perfection (as in ‘She’s the Cheshire’, although ‘She’s the Stilton’ was also heard)
Chest and bedding – breasts (name popular with sailors, for some unknown reason)
Chitterlins – bowels (‘I have a rumpus in my chitterlins’)
Chrematophobia – fear of money; perhaps the rarest of phobias
Chump – head; also a young fool who has been, or is about to be, cheated of his money by a young woman
Church work – any work which proceeds slowly was described as church work; modern motorway repair work could be described as ‘church work’ as indeed could almost anything involving the law, the civil service and the medical profession
– the bizarre theory that smoking cigarettes was a dangerous habit was known as cigareticide and was first aired in 1883, though it was dismissed as utter nonsense by the medical establishment which, as it nearly always does, acted in its own financial interests rather than in the interests of patients
Cinder garbler – servant maid who sifts ashes from cinders
Civility money – fee charged by bailiffs for conducting their affairs with civility
Clackbox – male chatterbox
Claim – to recognise someone while out and about (as in ‘I claim you, don’t I?’)
Clap – venereal disease (someone with a venereal disease was said to have gone out by Had’em and come home by Clapham)
Clap on the shoulder – to be arrested for debt
Clatterfart – gossip; first used in 1552 though I don’t know by whom
Clergyman’s daughter – prostitute (amateur or professional)
Clerisy – literary folk, regarded as members of a social group
Cloak twitchers – rogues who hang around the entrances to dark alleys in order to snatch cloaks from the shoulders of people passing by
Cloven – a woman who passes as a maiden but isn’t one
Cloven inlet – vagina and environs
Clover – to live in clover is to live in luxury
Cock alley – if you have to ask what this means then you aren’t old enough to know
Come and have a pickle – invitation to a snack
Come and wash your neck – invitation to have a drink
Comstockism – prudery, specifically objecting to the painting of women without clothes. Comstock was an American who campaigned constantly against nudity in art. He was reputed to turn out the light when taking a bath.
Condom – prophylactic, named after an 18th century English physician and military man called Dr Condom; early condoms were made of tortoiseshell, which must have been fun for all concerned though later condoms were made from the dried gut of a sheep; there is some dispute about how the inventor spelt his name and some ancient dictionaries describe him as Colonel Cundum; extra added confusion is offered by the fact that a cundum is also a scabbard for a sword and an oil skin case for holding the regimental colours
Corner Boys – youths and men who stand on street corners doing nothing very much; loafers
Cosey – small cosy pub where the patrons could (or can) be found drinking, singing, dancing and, generally, having a good time at any time of day
Cotquean – a man doing a woman’s work and having feminine concerns
Counterfeit crank – a cheat; especially one who pretends to be ill when he (or she) isn’t
Covent Garden ague – venereal disease
Cowcumbers to pickle – was a street cry heard for centuries from the days of Queen Elizabeth I; in the late 18th century, street traders would sell cucumbers at a penny for twelve
Cow-juice – milk
Coxcomb – a fool but a vain and conceited fool; taken in the 16th century from the cap worn by a court jester, which was called cockscomb
Cranky gawk – awkward, rather stupid youth not much good for anything
Crapulence – relating to drinking and drunkenness in all its variegated forms
Crapulous – to feel ill, usually having had too much to eat or drink, hungover (‘It was a good party last night, I feel positively crapulous today.’)
Crave a boon – to make a special request
Cream pot love – when a young man flirts with a dairy maid in order to get hold of cream and other tasty products
Crinkum-crankum – word of contempt for over-decorated things; architecture with unnecessary knobs on and the collected debris which fills living rooms with, it seems, the sole purpose of collecting dust; became a rather contemptuous word for fussy, over decorated things and was therefore a word exceedingly well used in Victorian times; also sometimes used, rather strangely, as a euphemism for the vagina and surroundings and this doubtless led to some confusion from time to time
Crinoline – stiffened or hooped petticoat draped over bell shaped cage and often quilted with horsehair; the idea was to make a skirt stick out but the snag was that if a woman wearing a crinoline leant too far forward she would display to those behind her more than was, at the time, considered proper. Moreover, a gust of wind could also endanger the wearer’s modesty by lifting the entire structure into the air
Crinoline cage – the metal cage over which was worn layers of petticoats and a dress
Crispin’s holiday – every Monday is Crispin’s holiday
Cross-grained – difficult person (taken from the fact that cross-grained wood is difficult to use) Cross patch – peevish person, usually a boy or girl
Cunny warren – girls’ boarding school
Curbing Law – using a hook to steal goods out of a window (the curb is the hook and the curber is the thief)
Curds and whey – in the 18th century, milk and cream sellers, usually Welsh or Irish girls, sold cream at one shilling and four-pence a pint and sold milk at four-pence a quart
Cut a finger – to release odiferous intestinal gases (heaven may know why a smelly fart should be described as a cut finger but no one on earth seems to know though doubtless a PhD student bereft of more useful ideas will one day make this puzzle his life’s work; in spiritual terms a cut finger is said to be a sign that change is necessary though I would venture to suggest that a cut finger may also be a result of the finger’s owner being careless with a sharp knife)

This short selection of Victorian words is taken from the `C’ section of the book `Vernon Coleman’s Dictionary of Old English Words and Phrases’. You can purchase a copy of the book via the shop on

Copyright Vernon Coleman March 2024