Did They Really Say That?

One of the joys of leafing through the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a marvelous compendium of  early 19th century British slang, is running across expressions and figures of speech still in use today that you would never guess were particularly old…but as it turns out, are. Here are a few I’ve run across, along with their definitions as listed in the DVT, that made me laugh…and marvel at their longevity. Enjoy!

Sea Lawyer: A shark (Yes, really! This reminds me of an anecdote that I posted here recently. Who knew lawyer jokes had such a long and distinguished history? )

Coming! So is Christmas: Said of a person who has long been called, and at length answers, Coming! (We use this all the time in my family, so it totally tickled me to find it here.)

Birth-day Suit: He was in his birth-day suit, that is, stark naked. (Okay, this one totally surprised me—it just doesn’t sound old, does it?)

Black and White: In writing. I have it in black and white; I have written evidence. (Another very modern-sounding expression—maybe because we have a picture in our 21st century heads of 19th century paper being brownish rather than white?)

Kick the bucket: To die. He kicked the bucket one day; he died one day. (I did a little research on the origin of this phrase; the Oxford English Dictionary favors the one which involves pigs to be slaughtered being hung from a beam to allow the blood to drain from the carcass, the beam in question being a trébuchet or buque in French (so presumably a Norman borrowing?)

Bears and Bulls: A bear is one who contracts to deliver a certain quantity or sum of stock in the publics funds, on a future day, and at stated price; or, in other words, sells what he has not got, like the huntsman in the fable, who sold the bear’s skin before the bear was killed. As the bear sells the stock he is not possessed of, so the bull purchases what he has not money to pay for; but in case of any alteration in the price agreed on, either party pays or receives the difference. (Wow, who knew? It looks like the terms date from as much as a century before, tied up with the South Sea Bubble incident of ca. 1717.)

All right!: A favourite expression among thieves, to signify that all is as they wish, or proper for their purpose.

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Did They Really Say That? — 6 Comments

  1. I love the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (or, as it is referred to around here, Grose, which is kind of appropriate). The mere mention of it here made me call up my digital copy and start paging through it. Aside from its usefulness for research, which is considerable, it is enormous fun (an Upper Benjamin is a greatcoat–what we call an overcoat. I have the urge to this immediately in conversation, but it’s June, and who wears an Upper Benjamin in June?). Who knew (before Grose) that the word “cur”, commonly applied to all dogs, is actually meant to specify a dog with a bobbed, or cut, tail. Not I.

    Must exercise extreme discipline now and close the file and return to work. Thank you for the excuse for a break!

  2. Marissa, more fun with words, thanks! Lawyers must have been given many colorful epithets since the dawn of, well… lawyering. (As well as being the object of dire proposals, well before Shakespeare.)

  3. My favorite surprisingly old bit of slang is “booze.” It appears in Chaucer. I -think- the Miller’s Tale but could be wrong.