6 handy Victorian words & phrases you’ll need this summer


6 handy words & phrases every Long Victorian needs this summer

No.6 “Bow wow mutton”

Definition = ‘A naval term referring to meat so bad it might be dog flesh’.

McBow-wow-mutton burger, chips and a diet coke, please – can you supersize that?

No.5 “Ark ruffians”

Definition = ‘Rogues who robbed, and sometimes murdered, on the water, by picking a quarrel with the passengers in a boat, boarding it, plundering, stripping, and throwing them overboard.’

I shall use Ark ruffians as an insult next time I see bad behaviour at the local park’s boating lake – “Begone, vile ark ruffians!” – I wonder how well that will go down?

No.4 “Wolf in the Breast”

Definition = ‘A monstrous or cannine appetite.

I’m sure that a Wolf in the Breast is a feeling that we can all identify with. Even if we can’t, it’s handy excuse:

I had such a wolf in the breast I had to have a double McBow-wow-mutton burger!

No.3 “Ace of Spades”

Definition = ‘A widow’.

Interestingly, in tarot reading a Queen of Spades is often a malicious, dark woman, generally a widow – and a King of Spades is a widower, generally untrustworthy.

No. 2 “Resurrection Men”

Definition = ‘Persons employed by the students in anatomy to steal dead bodies out of church-yards’.


This is one of only two entries on the list that I had heard of before perusing definitions. On 3rd June 1862 – 3000 people “rioted” in Wardsend Cemetery, Sheffield, England, following rumours of bodysnatching [thank you, Richard Shepherd for this information]. It was a big concern for many people.

As a child I was mildly obsessed with the most famous resurrectionists of them all – Burke and Hare (1820s – Edinburgh, Scotland). What made them different from other ‘Resurrection Men’, ‘Resurrectionists’ or ‘Body Snatchers’ is that they committed multiple murders and then sold the corpses to the medical profession for use in anatomy classes. Supposedly aided by their accomplices, Burke’s mistress, Helen McDougal and Hare’s wife, Margaret Laird. I also had healthier interests – tree climbing, astronomy and dinosaurs – you’ll be relieved to know.

No. 1 “Hoydon”

Definition = ‘A romping girl’.

When I first read the word ‘Hoydon’ it made such an impression on me I’ve been using it teasingly ever since, whenever the opportunity occurs. It appears in an early scene in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy):

They leant over the gate by the highway, and inquired as to the meaning of the dance and the white-frocked maids. The two elder of the brothers were plainly not intending to linger more than a moment, but the spectacle of a bevy of girls dancing without male partners seemed to amuse the third, and make him in no hurry to move on. He unstrapped his knapsack, put it, with his stick, on the hedge-bank, and opened the gate.

“What are you going to do, Angel?” asked the eldest.

“I am inclined to go and have a fling with them. Why not all of us – just for a minute or two – it will not detain us long?”

“No – no; nonsense!” said the first. “Dancing in public with a troop of country hoydens – suppose we should be seen!”

Today you might like to stick your head into the hallway and bellow up the stairs in an impressive bass-baritone or mellifluous mezzo-soprano:

Shut your row, you sound like a herd of country hoydens up there!

Can you imagine slipping any of these handy Victorian words and phrases into your conversation? I shall be looking out for more – if you have any to share yourself, please let us know below.

[Definitions mostly taken from The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue – originally by the soldier, Francis Grose.]


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