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.
Laugh Out of Court: meaning to ridicule and scorn, it meant that a person's arguments were too simple or poor to be considered, as in a court of law, and dates back to the early 1800's.
Law is an Ass: while Charles Dickens can be created with making this phrase popular by using it in "Oliver Twist" in 1838, it is by no means original and can be traced back to the early to mid 1600's.
Lay an Egg: meaning to fail or muck up something embarrassingly, this saying relates to the sport of cricket. If you failed to score, you achieved a duck's egg. By the 1880's the sport of baseball had picked up on the "lay an egg" theme, with the New York Times of 1886 referring to the NY teams as laying goose eggs.
Left to Our Own Devices: now an obsolete saying, this was popular in the mid to late 1800's, and meant to put one or leave one on his own.
Let her Rip: American in origin, the thought is this saying came into being by describing the way wagons started out their travels to the West. Popular in verbiage by the mid 1800's.
Let the Chips Fall Where They May: this popular 19th century saying actually came from an old 14th century proverb: "Hew not too high lest the chips fall in thine eye." Meant to speak your mind, do what you must and never mind the consequences.
Letter Perfect: in the 19th century theatre, an actor/actress that perfectly learned their part was said to have gotten it down to the letter. Hence, the shortened saying letter perfect.
Life of Reilly: comes from vaudevillian Pat Rooney in the 1880's, when the Reilly was originally O'Reilly in a song called "Are you the O'Reilly?" wherein said O'Reilly was spoken very highly of.
Lo and Behold: while both these words have definitions of their own, the two used together wasn't really popular until the mid 1800's.
Lock, Stock and Barrel: popular beginning in the early 1800's and referring to gun parts, it was often Stock, Lock and Barrel when used in the U.S. Used to mean the entire thing.
Mad as a Hatter: most will assume this comes from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. However, it actually was in use much earlier in the 1800's and was thought to refer to the workers making felt hats using mercury, and the twitching the mercury induced.
Mad as a Wet Hen: another saying attributed to the early 19th century, although there's no proof that hens get mad when wet!
Make Tracks: used to describe a hasty departure, this American saying came into prominence in the early 1800's and probably was related to hunting.
Man Bites Dog: synonymous with news, this saying came from American John B. Bogart, the editor of The Sun in NY in the later 1800's.
Meet Your Waterloo: of course, this refers to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and since has meant anyone's defeat or failure.
Month of Sundays: this originally started as a week of Sundays, but by 1832 the saying had changed to months. Used to define a long length of time.
More Power to You: popular by the mid 1800's, it is meant to confer wishes of good luck on an individual.
Muddy the Water: meaning to cause trouble or stir things up, this popular saying has been around as early as 1837, when one of its first appearances in print was in "Blackwell's Magazine".
Neck of the Woods: definitely American in origin, the neck word referred to narrow stretches of land or water and originally meant a specific area or plot.
Neck and Neck: again thought to be of 19th century American origin, this term for a dead heat or tie is still used today.
No Flies on Me: while popular in the U.S. by the 1880's, the British version of saying I'm on the go, which is "don't let flies stick to your heels" and from which the American version was perhaps derived, appeared in print as early as 1836.
No Great Shakes: thought to be related to the turn of the dice, and meant to describe that which is ordinary, this term can be traced in print back to 1819.
Not What It's Cracked Up to Be: originally this saying was used in a positive way, when crack was used as a verb which meant "to praise". Once again, thank the Americans for twisting it to this negative version by the 1880's.
Off his Rocker: popular saying to denote someone who's not quite mentally all there, it is thought to refer to the elderly and rocking chairs. The exact origin is unknown.
Old Coot: a coot is a type of waterfowl, and was meant to refer to an elderly person, or one who is rather stupid. Popular by mid 1850's.
Old Fuddy-Duddy: possibly originated in the Cumberland Mountains, where it was first noticed using the term "duddy fuddiel" which meant "a ragged fellow".
Old Guard: refers to the Old Guard that mounted the final French charge at Waterloo. To be Old Guard was to be considered the defender of old traditions.
On the Fly: originally was "on the wing", but by 1850 it became "on the fly". Meant to imply someone was hastily in motion.
On the Go: this term has had many different phrasings over time, but was used to define someone who is moving speedily or without stopping, and began somewhere in the 1840's, it is believed.
On the Lam: originally known as "do a lam" which was documented in 1897 as meaning to flee.
On the Level: this term, used when someone is being honest and forthright, was in wide use by the end of the 19th century.
On the Make: another American slang term which was used to describe someone who was going after social, sexual or financial gains.
On the Rocks: as it sounds, it originally came from the nautical sense of ships being wrecked upon the rocks. Used in a personal sense, it appears common in the late 19th century.
On the Up-and-Up: thought to come into play in the early 1800's, this phrase was used to denote someone who was fair and honest.
Open Question: originating in the mid 19th century from a practice common in the British Parliament, when ministers could take opposite sides on an issue without resigning. Simply an undecided issue.
Pass the Buck: another Americanism, thought to come from the passing of an object from player to player during a card game, thus transferring the responsibility from one person to another.
Peter Out: a term attributed to the American miners of the mid 19th century, although it's not certain where or what the word Peter relates to.
Play Possum: thought to have originated in Florida in the 19th century, and means someone who plays at innocence such as a possum plays dead.
Pull it Off: while it is not known the exact origins of this phrase, it was definitely being used widely by the late 1880's.
Pull the Wool Over His Eyes: thought to be 19th Century American and referred to wool wigs worn in the early 1800's. To pull the wig over one's eyes was to deceive them.
Put on the Dog: college slang from the 1860's, to mean putting on a flashy or outlandish display.
Put Up Your Dukes: a slang term originating in 1870's England. The duke is possibly the Latin word dux, which means leader, thus one leading with his fists.
Put Up or Shut Up: this late 19th century phrase was originally thought to come from gambling, and began appearing with frequency in the late 1800's.
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