In my web series and subsequent novel The Watchmage of Old New York, the characters often use the colloquialisms of the time. I did extensive research in order to make things as authentic as possible. Below are some of my favorite terms from the mid 19th century.
Some of these terms come from books at the time (especially Whitman and Melville), and reference books like Gotham, Dictionary of Americanisms, Low Life, and Gangs of New York helped, but most come from The Rogue’s Lexicon, by George W. Matsell. Matsell was the first police commissioner of New York City. After being forced out of office after the New York City Police Riot (look for a future article on that), he wrote a comprehensive book on common colloquialisms of the time.
Many of these terms appear in Watchmage…, usually spoken by Jonas Hood (a Municipal Policeman and son of Nathaniel, the city’s Watchmage) and his associates. If you read it and didn’t know what some of the characters were saying, you’ll probably find it here.
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All-overish: Neither sick nor well. What we might call “So so,” or “meh”
Ankle: The mother of a child born out of wedlock. A “Broken Leg” is a woman with a bastard child.To “get ankled” is to get pregnant out of wedlock.
Anointing: A beating. Either from needing to be “anointed” with a salve, or “anointed in blood.”
Barking-Iron, or Barker: A pistol.
Bellows: The lungs or diaphragm. Bellowser, a blow in the ” wind,” or pit of the stomach, taking one’s breath away.
Bellows to Mend: A person out of breath. A boxer is said to be “bellows to mend” when winded.
Bingo: Liquor. (puts a new spin on the old kid’s song, doesn’t it?)
Blinker: A blackened eye, or just an eye.
Blue: gin. Sometimes “Sky Blue.” “Blue Ruin” is bad gin.
Bone Box. The mouth. “Shut your bone box;” shut your mouth.
Bread bag: the stomach
Bully Trap. A strong fighter that looks weak.
Bunch Of Fives. The fist.
Bunkum: Nonsense, or humbug.
Cat: A prostitute. A Cathouse is a brothel
Cat-heads. A woman’s breasts. This is a nautical term, referring to the twin figureheads near the prow of a ship. They support beams that help raise the anchor. Because there are two and near the front, sailors naturally associated them with breasts.
Cold Coffee. Misfortune ; sometimes varied to Cold Gruel. An unpleasant return for a kindness, or simply tough luck.
Crab. To throw a wrench into something (as we might say), by saying any thing offensive or unpleasant, is called crabbing it, or throwing a crab; to crab a person, is to use such offensive language or behavior to annoy him.
Croak: to kill or die
Cupboard Love. Feigned love for the cook to get the cooking.
Cupid’s Curse: A venereal disease. Also “Venus’ Curse.”
Cut. To renounce acquaintance with any one is to cut him. To insult.
Dash-fire. Vigor, manliness.
DAUNCY: Looking unwell.
Devil’s Books: Playing Cards
Dry up: shut up
Fimble-Famble. A poor excuse.
Fizzing. First-rate, very good, excellent.
Flay: to vomit
Floorer. A strike strong enough to knock someone down. Often used in reference to sudden and unpleasant news.
Goo Goo: a rookie cop
Goosecap: a fool. A pudding head.
Gullyfluff. Junk. Literally, the waste that imperceptibly in pockets, like lint.
Half-mourning. To have a black eye from a blow. As distinguished from ” whole-mourning,” two black eyes.
Heavy Wet. Malt liquor
Hobbadehoy. Not a boy, but not yet a man.
Honor Bright. I swear. Literally, “by my honour, which is bright and unsullied.” It is often still further curtailed to “honor!” only.
Hooker: A prostitute. While a well-known term today, this originally comes from Corlear’s Hook in Manhattan, an area known for prostitution.
Horizontal Refreshment: Sex, usually with a prostitute.
How’s Your Poor Feet! An idiotic street cry with no meaning. Like “What’s up” or “how’s it going,” but with less sense and more obnoxiousness.
Hugger-mugger. Underhand, sneaking. Also, “in a state of Hugger- Mugger” means to be muddled.
Limpsey: Limp and flaccid, often used in reference to someone just before they faint.
Month of Sundays. a long time.
Muckender. A pocket handkerchief,
Nose-ender. A straight blow delivered to the nose.
Nose in the Manger. To put one’s nose in the manger, to sit down to eat. To “put on the nose-bag” is to eat hurriedly, or to eat while continuing at work.
Off One’s Chump. To be crazy. ; this is varied by the word CHUMPY.
O.K.: Even more common today, it comes from “Oll Kerect,” or possibly from the Choctaw word “okeh,” a general affirmative.
Prat. Literally, a butt. Figuratively, a jackass.
Rag water: booze
Rain Napper. Umbrella.
Rib. A wife.
Rumbumptious. Haughty or aggravated.
Rusty Guts. A blunt, rough, old man
Saucebox. A pert young person, or the mouth (like bone box).
Saw Your Timber. “Get out!” Occasionally varied, with mock refinement, to “amputate your mahogany.”
Scandal-water. Tea; from old maids’ tea-parties being full or rumor and scandal. Also “Scandal Soup.”
Shake the Elbow. To shake the elbow, a roundabout expression for dice-playing. To “crook the Elbow” means ” to drink.”
Sliving: A thin slice of bread or meat, or a splinter of wood.
Smeller. The nose. Also Sniffer, Conk, Boke, Gigg, Handle, and probably dozens others.
Sneeze-lurker. A thief who throws snuff (or powder, pepper, etc) in a person’s face, and then robs him. This was actually pretty common.
Sneezer. A handkerchief.
Snotter, or Wipe-hauler. A pickpocket who steals gentlemen’s pocket-handkerchiefs.
Squeaker: a child.
Swadder, used to mean “to grow weary with drinking.”
Tail Down. “To get the Tail Down,” generally means to lose courage. Comes from a dog putting his tail between his legs.
To Break a Leg: To seduce a girl. See “ankled,” and “broken leg,” above.
Wattles: The ears.
Zwodder: “a drowsy state of body or mind.” It’s probably related to another word, swadder, used to mean “to grow weary with drinking.
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