Language Dossier

Victorian Slang

  • The Language of Flowers

Victorian prudery sometimes went so far as to consider it improper to say "leg" in mixed company; instead, the preferred euphemism “limb” was used. There is a myth that furniture such as tables were covered with embroidery and tablecloths so that table legs were hidden from view, but no historical evidence suggests that this was actually practised. Words such as "devil" and "damned" were blanked out in books.

Verbal or written communication of emotion or sexual feelings was often proscribed so people instead used the language of flowers. The language of flowers, sometimes called floriography, was a Victorian-era means of communication in which various flowers and floral arrangements were used to send coded messages, allowing individuals to express feelings which otherwise could not be spoken. This language was most commonly communicated through Tussie-Mussies, an art which has a following today. “Tussie-mussie” is a term from the early 1400s for small, round bouquets of herbs and flowers with ­symbolic meanings.

The nuances of the language are now mostly forgotten, but red roses still imply passionate, romantic love and pink roses a lesser affection; white roses suggest virtue and chastity and yellow roses still stand for friendship or devotion. Also commonly known meanings are sunflowers, which can indicate either haughtiness or respect – they were the favourite flower of St. Julie Billiart for this reason. Gerbera (daisy) means innocence or purity. The iris, being named for the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology, still represents the sending of a message. An anemone signifies unfading love. A pansy signifies thought, a daffodil respect, and a strand of ivy fidelity and friendship.  

  • Taboo Language

It is assumed that the Victorians were quite a prudish lot. Frank discussions about anything, least of all sex, were strictly taboo. Many euphemisms were products of the Victorian Era. For instance, a leg of poultry became a "drumstick", thighs became "dark meat", and breasts became "white meat". A person's arms and legs became "limbs". The term FRUITFUL VINE was used to refer to a woman's private parts, i.e. that has FLOWERS every month, and bears fruit in nine months.

Victorian women only thought of sex as a means to producing children and caged themselves from neck to foot in stiff crinoline and whalebone. The neo-Puritanical Victorian era lasted as long as the reign of Queen Victoria did, 1837-1901; it was a time when a woman had to wear bathing garments for convention's sake -- even in the privacy of her own bath. The hems of Victorian skirts touched the floor because the sight of a woman's limb would be shocking beyond belief. Victorians even pulled stockings over the legs of their pianos.

Victorian slang is full of colourful terms for all sexual matters. Vulgar slang was the daily staple of a commoner's vocabulary. Polite gentlemen would also have been pretty familiar with sexual Victorian slang. Mistresses (known as one's 'Convenient') were not uncommon - a mistress being a lover you had alongside your wife, who you bought with presents and money and even housing. While a man's legal wife was called a LAWFUL BLANKET, a WIFE IN WATER COLOURS was a mistress, or concubine; water colours being, like their engagements, easily effaced, or dissolved. A LEFT-HANDED WIFE was also a concubine; an allusion to an ancient German custom, according to which, when a man married his concubine, or a woman greatly his inferior, he gave her his left hand. A mistress could range from a woman well-versed in arts and educated conversation to a street girl, but a mistress was - at least as her fancy-man was concerned - a prostitute who only had one client.

Prostitution was big business in Victorian cities and it was called The Great Evil. It began in 1840 and writers such as Charles Dickens and William Blake included references to it in their works. There were brothels in Covent Garden and Whitechapel. Prostitutes and procuring love for money were rife in the Victorian era. There were toffers (posh prostitutes) and bawd-houses ranging from grimy cheapside affairs to select brothels that catered to exotic, expensive or even simply clean tastes. Prostitution was a common outlet for a man frustrated with the inhibition of polite Victorian ladies. It wasn't spoken of much, but a far greater percentage of men resorted to prostitution back in the day. Prostitutes were called UNFORTUNATE WOMEN by the virtuous and compassionate members of their own sex. Sexual slang offered Victorians a form of protection. A gentleman could use Victorian slang as a kind of code - a polite woman would not understand his request but a naughty lady would nod understandingly and take his hand. Using real words would have led to potential embarrassment, but the intricacies of Victorian sexual slang would mean there was no embarrassment and no harm done either way.

Poor living conditions, lack of education and rife prostitution led to a host of Victorian slang words dedicated entirely to the catching and treatment of venereal diseases. THE FRENCH DISEASE, THE MALADY OF FRANCE or THE FRENCH GOUT were the names given to syphilis, said to have been imported from France. The euphemism PISSING PINS AND NEEDLES meant to have a gonorrhea. A diseased prostitute was called a FIRESHIP and an infected young man was called a FIREPLUG. A WASP was an infected prostitute, who like a wasp, carries a sting in her tail.

There was also a medical condition known as GREEN SICKNESS, which was the disease of maids occasioned by celibacy. Green sickness was also called "the disease of virgins" or "lover's fever" and was seen as a common disorder affecting young unmarried girls. Its symptoms included weakness, dietary disturbance, lack of menstruation and most significantly, a change in skin colour. Understanding of the condition turned puberty and virginity into medical problems, and proposed to cure the girls suffering from it by bloodletting, diet, exercise, and marriage. Another name for green sickness was chlorosis, a form of chronic anemia, primarily of young women, characterized by a greenish-yellow discoloration of the skin and usually associated with deficiency in iron and protein.
The word PREGNANCY was best avoided since it was the direct consequence of having sex. Euphemisms were used instead: "to be expecting", "to be with child" and the funniest one, "to have a bun in the oven". Women were supposed to have many babies and to endure the burden of having sex with their husbands. “Close your eyes and think of England” supposedly originated from a piece of wedding night advice Queen Victoria gave to her daughter!