My Old Dutch, and all that: a brief look at Victorian slang

You think of Victorian London, and you think of Cockney rhyming slang. Think of Victorian music-hall and you think of Cockney rhyming slang.  Come to that, think of the 1964 film Mary Poppins, and you think of Cockney rhyming slang suffering the indignity of being spoken very badly by actor Dick Van Dyke.  Yet the slang commonly spoken in 19th century London, and throughout England, was far more extensive and more colourful than just that spoken and heard within the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside.

Today we should like, for your edification and enjoyment, to share a few interesting words and phrases with you.

Do a Dutch
To remove one’s furnishings from a property and leave the premises without paying the due rent.

Dustman’s bell
Bed time.

Flirting, behaving in a coquettish manner towards the opposite sex.

Powdering hair
An 18th century tavern term that means “getting drunk”.

Jammiest bits of jam
“Absolutely perfect young females,” circa 1883.

A house where men of a certain disposition would finish their night of drunken debauchery.

Nose bagger
Someone who brings his own provisions on excursions (generally to a beach resort) and doesn’t contribute at all to the resort he’s visiting.

Alexandra Limp
An affected manner of walking seen in many women for several years and attributed to the then Princess of Wales who had had some trouble with a knee.

Getting rowdy in the streets.

Killing the Canary
Shirking work. Probably from miner’s safety canaries going uncared for whilst workers remained at home.

An 1875 term for a polished bald head.

And “my old Dutch”? from Wikipedia:

The song’s title refers to an 1880s colloquialism for a partner or friend. The phrase has a number of etymologies; two Cockney rhyming slang explanations identify the phrase as coming from “dutch plate” (“mate”) or “Duchess of Fife” (“wife”). Chevalier, however, claimed that his wife’s face reminded him of the clock face of a Dutch clock.

Whatever … just enjoy:

Primary sources

Badcock, J. (writing under the pseudonym of ‘Jon Bee’)  (1823).  Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the pit, of Bob-ton, and the Varieties of Life.  London: T. Hughes.

Leslie, James. (1806). Dictionary of the Synonymous Words and Technical Terms in the English Language. Edinburgh: John Moir.

Forrester, Andrew. (writing under the pseudonym of James Redding Ware) (1909).  Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase.  London: George Routledge & Sons Ltd.

Selected further reading

‘”Smothering a Parrot”, and 51 Other Fun Victorian Slang Terms’, Victoriana Magazine

’21 Victorian Slang Terms It’s High Time We Revived’

Erin McCarthy, ’56 Delightful Victorian Slang Terms You Should Be Using’, MentalFloss

Luke Lewis, ’14 Victorian Insults To Unleash In Casual Conversation’, BuzzFeed

Paul Anthony Jones, ’42 Old English Insults’, MentalFloss

… or you might like to try the Victorian Slang app for iPhone:

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2 thoughts on “My Old Dutch, and all that: a brief look at Victorian slang

  1. Your comment of “Whatever, enjoy” in respect of the etymologies of My Old Dutch, is probably the best approach.
    In relation to the song title, it seems fairly safe to discount Chevalier’s comment about his wife’s face. He wrote the words in 1893, and did not marry until the following year, and I imagine that his comment was simply a joke.
    The Cockney Rhyming Slang (CRS)of Duchess of Fife/Wife, does not seem to appear until the 20th century, even though the first Duchess of Fife was created in 1889.
    The CRS of Dutch Plate/Mate pre-dates the song, and Chevalier does refer to his wife, in the song, as a “Pal”, so this may be the intended meaning. ‘Dutch’ was also, at the time, simply a short form of ‘Duchess’, an affectionate term for wife or mother, so this seems the best bet for me. Whatever!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Peter. Yes, some of the etymologies are clearly post hoc attempts at accounting for what, at the time of the writing of the song, was less than transparently argot for ‘wife’. It is interesting that ‘Dutch’ with the meaning of ‘wife’ is conspicuously absent from dictionaries of slang of the 19th century.

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