Language Dossier

Queen Victoria and The Victorian Period

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was the British queen from 1837 until her death, and she also had the title 'Empress of India'. She was queen for 64 years, longer than any other British king or queen, during a period of great change.

While Victoria was queen, the UK became one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world, as a result of the growth of industry and the development of the British empire. Victoria was marrried to a German prince, Prince Albert, and his sudden death in 1861 caused her great and lasting unhappiness.

When people think now of the 'Victorian' period, it is often seen as a time of strict moral standards, when people were very serious, marriages were always permanent, and sex was never mentioned. Victoria herself is supposed to have said "We are not amused" when someone told her something funny.

Victorian buildings are typically made of red brick and often decorated on the outside. Inside, they usually had furniture made of dark-coloured wood, and a lot of ornaments and photographs in frames. The fireplaces were usually highly decorated and surrounded by attractive tiles.

The term Victoriana refers to attractive objects made in the Victorian period, such as toys, pictures, lamps, plates, etc, that people like to collect.

Queen Victoria's English

During the Victorian period, the English language was greatly modified due to the social changes Britain underwent at that time (most of them caused by the Industrial Revolution).

The Industrial Revolution, which began early in the eighteenth century when British society began to move away from a cottage industry towards an industrial society had a major impact on language displaying a new vocabulary. For example, in 1851 at the Great Exhibition the English language showed the world what it made of the machine age and how trade terms denigrated in the past now powered the language. These are some of the words that appeared at the Great Exhibition, some plain English and others coinages from other languages: 'self-acting mill'; 'power looms'; 'steampress' and 'cylindrical steampress' to name a few. The standardisation of spelling was just one aspect of a more general attempt to regulate the language, an attempt especially prominent in the second half of the eighteenth century when there was a growing feeling that English needed to be 'ruled' or 'regulated', as classical Greek and Latin were believed to have been.

In the Victorian era, the Industrial Revolution had a great impact on the English language. Standard English, the language used today, derives from the language standardised during the Industrial Revolution, and it can be organized around six word fields, each of which representing social changes created by the Industrial Revolution:

Each of these word fields contains words that the Industrial Revolution adapted, changed, customised and invented and that became common currency in Victorian England.


The word crinoline was first recorded in 1830. Crinoline was primarily described a stiff fabric with a weft of horse-hair and a warp of cotton or linen thread. However, by 1850 the meaning of the word had changed and had come to mean a stiffened petticoat or rigid skirt-shaped structure of steel designed to support the skirts of a woman's dress into the required shape.

The word aniline (1850) describes a chemical used in the making of colourful dyes.

The word magenta (1860) describes the brilliant purplish-red aniline dye that was entitled magenta in allusion to the Battle of Magenta in Italy where it was first discovered. Magenta was adopted to describe the bright purplish red, blood red, colour that covered the battlegrounds. In 1859 the French and Sardinians defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Magenta, supposedly liberating Italy and helping to advance its cause of independence.

The word mackintosh (1836) was coined as a tribute to Charles Macintosh (1766-1843), who invented a waterproofing process. The discovery of waterproofing led to the invention of raincoats, which became hugely popular. To honour the man who made them possible, they were given the name mackintosh as a tribute to his hard work and dedication.

The word leotard (1886) alludes to the French acrobatic performer Jules Léotard (1830-1870), who performed in such a garment and made it famous (589). It was actually many years after Léotard's death that the first known use of the name leotard was used. Léotard himself actually called the garment a maillot, which in French has now come to be the word for a swimsuit.

The term raglan (1863), alludes to Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, Lord Raglan (1788-1855) who gave his name to a loose-fitting overcoat with sleeves extending to the collar.

The word lingerie (1835) comes from lin for 'washable linen', the fabric from which European garments were initially made before the general introduction of cotton from Egypt and then from India.


The word toffee was first recorded in 1825. Before then it was known as tuffy or toughy, which was a Southern British English variant of the word taffy. The modern spelling of the word toffee was first recorded in 1862, in one of Charles Dickens' letters.

The word pasteurize (1881) honoured Louis Pasteur (1822-95), the French chemist and bacteriologist, who discovered of the germ-theory of illness and invented the process of heating food, milk and wine in order to kill most of the micro-organisms in them.

The word cereal (1832) means 'grass yielding edible grain'. The word cereal comes from Ceres, the Roman Goddess of agriculture.

The word pasta (1874) and comes from the Italian word pasta, first used in a book about Rome.

The word vermouth (1806) was an adaptation of the German wermut, which means 'wormwood'.

The word salami (1852) borrowed from Italian salami. Originally salami meant was all kinds of salted meats, but over time the word salame specialised to indicate only the most popular kind of salted and spiced meat.

The word kosher, 'right or fit according to Jewish law', was first recorded in 1851. Food that is not in accordance with Jewish law 'kosher' is called 'treif' meaning 'torn' and refers to meat which either comes from an animal killed by another animal, or killed with a dull knife which means the animal felt pain at the point of death or having a defect such as a disease that renders it unfit for slaughter.


The word badminton (1874) refers to an estate in Gloucestershire, the country seat of the Duke of Beaufort, where it is thought the game was first played. There was also a drink named badminton after the game made from claret and soda. Unlike the game, it has long been forgotten.

The word bridge (1843) supplanted the earlier name for the game — biritch. Although women were initially excluded from the game, by the turn of the nineteenth century they played the game. In fact, the popularity of bridge made women's clubs even more popular and widespread than men's clubs.

The word marathon (1896) alludes to Marathon, a plain in Greece about 25 miles west of Athens, where an army of 10,000 Athenians defeated 100,000 Persians, at the Battle of Marathon.

The word polo (1872) describes the game referred to as somewhat like hockey only played on horseback with a ball and mallet.

The word rugby (1864) describes an 'English game somewhat like football'. The word rugby was used to name the game played at Rugby, the famous English pubic school for boys situated in a city in Warwickshire, central England which is unsurprisingly called Rugby.

The word croquet (1858) describes a game played with wooden balls and mallets  originated in Brittany, popularised in Ireland in 1830 and then in England in 1850, where it was very popular and played often in the summer months.


The word acne (1835) is a medical term that describes a specific skin condition.

The word streptococcus (1877) refers to a kind of 'spherical bacterium that causes serious infections'. The word was coined and named by the Austrian surgeon and bacteriologist Dr. A. C. Theodor Billroth (1829-1894), a friend of the great composer Brahams (1833-1897).

Stethoscope (1820) describes 'an instrument used for listening to sounds in the lungs and heart'. The word was first coined in 1819 by René Théophile Hyacinthe Lannec (1781-1862), a French physician generally considered the father of pulmonology.

The word ambulance (1809) refers to a 'mobile or field hospital'. The word comes from the French ambulance, from hôpital ambulant — literally 'walking (hospital) — derived from Latin ambulantem meaning 'to walk.' The word ambulance was not commonly used until the meaning transferred from 'hospital' to 'vehicle such as a wagon or cart used to carry the wounded from the field'. This switch happened during the Crimean War when ambulances as vehicles came into general use.

The word diphtheria (1857), which describes a 'contagious disease of the throat', was first coined in France by the French physician Pierre Bretonneau (1778-1862), who also identified typhoid fever and distinguished scarlet fever from diphtheria. In England however the disease was formally known as the Boulogne sore throat, because it initially spread from France.

The word aspirin (1899) was coined as a trademark name in Germany.

The word leukemia (1855) was coined by the renowned German pathologist Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) in 1856.

The word gynecology (1847) was borrowed from French gynécologie, from the Greek gynaiko-, which combined the form gyne meaning 'women' + French -logie 'study of'. Unlike today when there is no shame in being a gynecologist or going to see one, the historic shamefulness associated with the examination of female genitalia in the nineteenth century long inhibited the science of gynecology.


The word agoraphobia (1873), which refers to the morbid fear of open spaces, public places, and unfamiliar situations, was coined by German psychiatrist Carl Westphal (1833-1890) in 1871. The American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86), who only had about a dozen of her own poems published in her lifetime, may have suffered from some form of agoraphobia or anxiety disorder. She was known as an eccentric recluse and after 1860 she never left the bounds of the family property.

The word hysteria (1801), used to describe 'fit of emotional outburst, imaginary illness and even real disability', originates from Greek hysterikós and hystéra meaning 'womb'. The term hysteria was thought to be more specific to women and referred to a medical condition which was believed to be caused by disturbances of the uterus and lack of sexual intercourse which caused suffocation and madness. The term hysteria was coined by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. The novelist Charlotte Gilman (1857-1935), famous for "The Yellow wallpaper" suffered from ongoing hysteria and in 1887 was treated with 'rest cure'.

The word psychiatry (1846), which is used to describe 'the study and treatment of mental disorders', was coined in 1808 by Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813), a German physician, physiologist, anatomist, and psychiatrist. It refers to a field of medicine that focuses specifically on the mind, and aims to study, prevent and treat mental disorders in human beings.

The word claustrophobia (1879) is used to describe 'an abnormal fear of enclosed spaces', and is typically classified in medical terms as an anxiety disorder, which can often result in panic attacks. The word is formed from Latin claustrum meaning 'closed spaces' + New Latin phobia meaning 'fear'.

It is interesting to notice that although those who coined new words used classical languages as a means of both communicating effectively and guaranteeing rapid acceptance of their neologisms, most of them might also have been aware that new words with obvious Latin and Greek roots distinguished their users from the poorer and less educated. Although Oxford undergraduates famously used slang themselves — ain't was particularly common — slang was by and large considered 'the language of crime, poverty and ignorance, useful only as comic relief in the less distinguished dramas on the London stage'. Words such as agoraphobia and gynaecology can thus be considered examples of the jargon or slang of the educated classes.