Paul T. sent me a link to the Internet Archive page for Passing English of the Victorian era: A dictionary of heterodox English, slang and phrase by J. Redding Ware (1909). The preface makes delightful reading:

It may be hoped that there are errors on every page, and also that no entry is ‘quite too dull’. Thousands of words and phrases in existence in 1870 have drifted away, or changed their forms, or been absorbed, while as many have been added or are being added. ‘Passing English’ ripples from countless sources, forming a river of new language which has its tide and its ebb, while its current brings down new ideas and carries away those that have dribbled out of fashion. Not only is ‘Passing English’ general; it is local; often very seasonably local. Careless etymologists might hold that there are only four divisions of fugitive language in London—west, east, north and south. But the variations are countless. Holborn knows little of Petty Italia behind Hatton Garden, and both these ignore Clerkenwell, which is equally foreign to Islington proper; in the South, Lambeth generally ignores the New Cut, and both look upon Southwark as linguistically out of bounds; while in Central London, Clare Market (disappearing with the nineteenth century) had, if it no longer has, a distinct fashion in words from its great and partially surviving rival through the centuries—the world of Seven Dials, which is in St Giles’s—St James’s being practically in the next parish. In the East the confusion of languages is a world of ‘variants’—there must be half-a-dozen of Anglo-Yiddish alone—all, however, outgrown from the Hebrew stem. ‘Passing English’ belongs to all the classes, from the peerage class who have always adopted an imperfection in speech or frequency of phrase associated with the court, to the court of the lowest costermonger, who gives the fashion to his immediate entourage. Much passing English becomes obscure almost immediately upon its appearance—such as ‘Whoa, Emma!’ or ‘How’s your poor feet?’ the first from an inquest in a back street, the second from a question by Lord Palmerston addressed to the then Prince of Wales upon the return of the latter from India.

But you mustn’t take seriously the etymological speculations that follow (“‘Dead as a door nail’ is probably as O’Donnel…. the still common ‘Bloody Hell’ is ‘By our lady, hail’, the lady being the Virgin.”). Anyway, it’s great fun to leaf through and see what has survived (“afters” for dessert is, I think, no longer confined to Devon) and what has vanished with little trace (“affigraphy” meaning “To a T, exactly”).


  1. One 19C expression that’s disappeared is “grave and gay”. According to his Wiki article, Grave and Gay was a magazine in which James Redding Ware first published the adventures of a woman detective. He wrote mystery stories under the name of Forrester.
    I have never heard of Petty Italia before. I wonder if it was an official name or just an early version of “Little Italy”. Petty France is a small but well-known central London street that used to be the home of the Passport Office.

  2. I happen to have walked across Seven Dials a few times recently. Sadly, it isn’t at all sinister any more. The only disconcerting thing is that in contrast to the rest of Britain there is some motor traffic, but not very much.

  3. What a pleasure, Hat! Thank you. I do love the humour of eccentric British intellectuals.
    Since it’s not Absolutely True (q.v.) and it’s not All my eye and my elbow (q.v.) and it has almost 200 pages, I’ve saved it for further reading.
    It seems to me that Someone Who Knows Internet Searching well could confirm or deny the etymological speculations you refer to. For example Adams Ale, an expression not unknown to me.

  4. The OED and Farmer & Henley do indeed trace Adam’s Ale to Prynne’s day.

  5. The etymologies are a mixture of sound and unsound, as with all works on etymology, even the professional ones. Here there are perhaps more sound than unsound ones, but I doubt if anyone has actually counted them.

  6. The etymologies are a mixture of sound and unsound, as with all works on etymology
    In the first place, this is hardly a work on etymology. And in the second place, that’s kind of like saying the water in your tap is a mixture of good and bad, like the water in the lake at the point where the factory dumps its waste. Technically true, but…

  7. Picky, picky, picky. But water is miscible, etymologies are discrete.

  8. You called, John?
    Afters for dessert is, you are right, LH, certainly no longer confined to Devon, if it ever was. Afters is what I call it when I don’t call it pudding, and my English is London, Devon being a good three generations back in my blood.

  9. Picky! Glad to see you.

  10. Me too! And I’m glad to get the confirmation re afters.

  11. I read this as a teenager: “Actuality precedes potentiality in being, time and dignity”. It seems to be a paraphrase of certain tenets of Aristotle. It’s a versatile formula, which might be applied here in the form: “Starters precede afters in being, time and dignity”. I’m not sure about the dignity, but everything else fits.

  12. In my youth major dining occasions, like Sunday dinner – that is those with more than one course – consisted of firsts and afters. We didn’t know about starters until we children emerged into the lower middle class and came face to face with the prawn cocktail. I still say “firsts” occasionally, and “seconds” when I’m allowed. In my youth it was seconds of afters I wanted, but now my tastes have changed and I’m more keen on having seconds of firsts.

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