Clichés and Sayings of the Victorian Era
Often in the historical books we read, we become fascinated and curious about some of the witty and thought provoking language of the time. So, we thought to invite you to travel back with us to the Gilded Age, to learn some of the popular lingo originating or in use during that fascinating period of contrasts.
Ace Up His Sleeve: more or less a surprise hidden weapon. Thought to have become popular during the time cardsharps were rampant in the 19th century.
All to the Good: originally an accounting term which referred to a balance on the plus side.
The Almighty Dollar: thought to have been coined by Washington Irving in his 1837 publication, "Wolfert's Roost, Creole Village".
The American Way: first noticeably in use in 1885. The Century magazine wrote at that time, "Dynamiting is not the American way."
Armed to the Teeth: first found in the printing of English statesman Richard Cobden, titled "Speeches on peace, financial reform, colonial reform and other subjects" in 1849.
As Every Schoolboy Knows: a term for basic knowledge, Thomas Babington, Lord Macauly, first used the term in his writings of 1840.
Barking up the Wrong Tree: became popular early in the 19th century, when hunting raccoons at night with dogs was a popular pastime. Usually the hunted raccoon would take to a tree, with the dogs lurking about the base and barking until the hunter arrived. If the dog barked at the wrong tree, the hunter was unable to catch his prey.
Barkis is Willin': a term used to mean "I'm ready", originating from the character, Barkis, in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens in 1850.
With Bated Breath: to bate one's breath is to quiet, soften or hold it in during tense situations. An example is found in the 1859 story by George Eliot, Adam Bede - "To his dying day he bated his breath a little when he told the story."
Beer and Skittles, Not All: used to mean not an unmixed pleasure. Skittles is an old game played by knocking down wooden pins, and beer was the usual accompaniment to playtime. Two variations of the saying are found in Pickwick Papers (1836) by Charles Dickens, and Trilby (1894) by George Du Maurier.
Better to be Safe than Sorry: used to mean, take it easy. Although it's common now and sounds like a proverb of old, it originates only back to the early 19th century.
Between You and Me and the Lampost: in other words, in a trio, remarks made by two individuals will not be overheard by the third . Again, thank Charles Dickens for its popularity, as one of the cliché's first appearances is in his novel, Nicholas Nickleby.
Betwixt and Between: again, another popular saying it the 1830's. Used to mean neither one thing or the other - unsettled.
Bite Off More Than You Can Chew: becoming popular in the Americas in the late part of the 1800s (circa 1878) it was thought to have its origins in watching children stuff their mouths too full, causing difficulty in swallowing. Used simply to designate a task taken on in earnest, but too great to complete.
Bite the Bullet: used now as basically meaning to brace yourself for a difficult situation, but just get on with it. Thought to have originated on the battlefields before the use of anesthesia.
Bite the Dust: no, this term doesn't originate in the Victorian Age. As a matter of fact, Homer quoted it in the Iliad way back when. However, it was a popular saying in the Old West used to describe the killing of Indians.
Blood is Thicker than Water: a close verbal saying was used in Germany in the 12th century, but it is believed it was first introduced into the printed English language in 1815, when Sir Walter Scott used it in Guy Mannering.
Bloody But Unbowed: meaning to be defeated in body but not in spirit, this term was first coined in the poem, Echoes by William Ernest Henley in 1888.
Blowing Off Steam: a term which literally referred to steam boilers and their ability to let off steam if their pressure got too high. By the 1830's it referred to letting off one's anger, or venting one's frustration.
Blown to Smithereens: Smithereens is a variant of smithers, which meant fragments or atoms. Appearing in the mid-1800s, it and its variations, which included split, knocked and broken, was meant to describe something destroyed.
Brass Hat: a term coined by the British during this era to describe not-so-nicely a person in authority.
Bright and Early: actually an American term which first appeared late in the 19th century.
Burning Question: a topic of heated discussion. Originates from the mid-19th century.
Calamity Howlers: an American expression that reached its peak in the mid-to-late 1800s, used to describe a pessimist.
Captain of Industry: we actually know the originator of this phrase. It was Thomas Carlyle, used in his work Past and Present in 1843, wherein it was used to describe an influential businessman.
Don't Care a Rap For: meaning to dislike something, a rap was originally a counterfeit halfpenny that made the rounds in 19th century Ireland, and the saying reflects the worthlessness of the coin.
Has the Cat Got Your Tongue?: meaning "can't you talk?" Yes, this, too, is of 19th century origin, though the reference to the cat is thought not to be of animal origin. Just what "cat" it does refer to is still a subject of debate. Possible references are the infamous "cat-o-nine-tails" whip, which the simple sight of could cause a person to become speechless. Another is a medicinal "cat" which could induce a loss of speech.
Chew the Rag: a term meaning to chat that started in the British Army in the late 1890's.
Not a Chinaman's Chance: coined in California during the Gold Rush days of the mid 1800's during which there was a great influx of Chinese workers to the west coast, it basically meant no chance, period.
Close Call: meaning a narrow escape, this is again an American term widely used in the late 1800s.
Cold Turkey: while Cold Turkey in itself is not of Victorian origination, it was derived from the term Talk Turkey, which was used in the 1800's to describe talking in a businesslike fashion.
Come Hell or High Water: while the origin of this saying is lost, it became most popular in the U.S. by the late 1800's. It means persevering in a task, no matter what obstacles one must overcome.
Come Off It: again, another whose origin is lost, but it was listed in the Century Dictionary of 1889 as "recent slang, U.S.". It means simply to stop, or get off your high horse.
Come to Grief: this saying began appearing frequently in the mid 1800s, and meant to encounter a deserved misfortune.
Conspiracy of Silence: palmed by the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, it meant an agreement between people to keep quite about a delicate situation or a person in disfavor.
Cooked His Goose: sounds of Medieval Age in terminology, doesn't it? Well, surprise again, it's not. It first appeared in print in the 1851 publication, London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew: "If they come here we'll cook their goose". It means to do him in, or to spoil one's plans.
Coon's Age: Of American origin in the 1840's, it was used to specify a length of time. Thought to refer to raccoons, but the age reference is unclear.
Have the Courage of His Convictions: to translate thoughts into a deed and stick with it. It is actually a French term which became popular in the mid 1800's, with the English equivalent soon following.
At the Crack of Dawn: of course we all know this means early. Another American term in origin, the crack was from the German word, Krach, which means a loud noise. Loud noises are usually sudden, and so the Crack of Dawn in the saying refers to the sudden appearance of the sun when its rays first reach out in the horizon of the east. It's first appearance in print is thought to be in Outing in 1887.
Cut No Ice: meaning fail to impress, another American terminology. Thought to derive from the practice of cutting ice blocks, or perhaps ice skating.
Cut the Mustard: An American slang term, mustard was a byword for something that was the best of its type. While it also may mean the actual cutting of the mustard plant, it is used to mean to do something well, regardless of one's abilities or talents.
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