Editor's Note: Can we bring back Victorian slang?
Language is constantly evolving and changing.
Sometimes we have a new thing or action that needs a name, or we tweak the meaning of existing words – like turning “Google” into a verb (if you don’t know what I mean, Google it). And some evolutions are due to the passing fancies of pop culture – I don’t know why “cool” stuck around but “groovy” is a relic of the 60s, for example.
This etymological evolution sometimes throws me for a loop when I’m combing old newspapers for the Looking Back feature. For instance, I had to look up the word “yegg” after it turned up repeatedly in 1960s papers (it means thief).
But word nerd that I am, I was delighted to stumble across a bit of brilliance on the Internet. Thanks to website Mental Floss for publishing a list of Victorian-era slang words that are begging to be brought back into vogue. The words are taken from a slang dictionary published in 1909.
For example, why say you’re going to “start a fight” when you could say you’re going to “shake a flannin?” Get a crowd worked up with your flannin-shaking and people could start “mafficking,” or getting rowdy in the streets. If you’re not careful, you could “cop a mouse,” or get a black eye.
A riotous, noisy celebration, in 19th-century sailor slang, was a “benjo.” Break out the karaoke machine at such a celebration and you’re liable to draw out the “whooperups” – inferior, noisy singers.
A few words might be easier to bring back than others. I could see the teen girls who use phrases like “awesome sauce” picking up on terms like “chuckaboo” for best friend or “gigglemug” for someone with a perpetually sunny outlook. The only problem is these words are a little long for texting, so I’m sure the girls will have to find a way to drop a few letters.
Some of the phrases on the list reminded me of a scene in one of the “Austin Powers” movies, in which Mike Myers and Michael Caine have a conversation in “English English,” speaking entirely in obscure Cockney slang, with subtitles. I find it funny that an opaque word like “umble-cum-stumble” means “perfectly understood.” And in the 1880s, for a reason unknown to me, apparently policemen could be called “mutton shunters.”
Other words make sense, in a goofy kind of way. For instance, if something is utterly preposterous, it could “make a stuffed bird laugh.” And “got the morbs” makes as much sense for temporary melancholy as “got the blues” does.
As a writer, I love words, and often hang out with other people who love words. We consider it a kind of triumph on those rare occasions we get to use really good words that don’t apply very often – like “melee” or “brouhaha.” Now I have whole list of new words to try and introduce. But I should probably try them on my friends and family first. I wouldn’t want to create “fifteen puzzle” among my readers, or they might get “poked up” or even “mad as hops” (translation: I wouldn’t want to confuse you to make you embarrassed or mad).
Oh, too much fun.
Enjoy your MidWeek.