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Crafting the Vernacular: Steampunk

This post is part of a series to help you craft an authentic sounding vernacular, or language for your story.

Lets focus on Steampunk. As you may or may not know, steampunk can be, perhaps, over simplified by explaining it as pre-industrial, Victorian science fiction.

There are several sources to be found on the web. One of the best is The Art of Manliness Dictionary of Manly 19th Century Vernacular. The following are some of the gems found therein.


  1. Admiral of the Red - A person whose very red face evinces a fondness for strong potations. ( Translation: he drinks a lot of strong alcohol.)

  2. All-overish - Neither sick nor well; the premonitory symptoms of illness. The feeling which comes over a man at a critical moment, say, just as he is about to "pop the question." Sometimes this is called "feeling all-over alike and touching nowhere."

  3. Anointing - A good beating. A case for the application of a salve.

  4. Barking Iron - A pistol. Term used by footpads and thieves generally.

  5. Bellows - The lungs. Bellowser, a blow in the "wind" or pit of the stomach, taking one's breath away.

  6. Bellows to Mend - A person out of breath; especially a pugilist is said to be "bellows to mend" when winded.

  7. Blind Monkeys - An imaginary collection at the Zoological Gardens, which are supposed to receive care and attention from persons fitted by nature for such office (a job) and little else. An Idle and useless person is often told that he is only fit to lead the Blind Monkeys to evacuate. (A sample of such a conversation might go like this: "How much a week and what to do?" are natural question, and then comes the scathing and sarcastic reply: "Five bob a week at the doctor's -- you're to stand behind the door and make the patients sick. They won't want no physic (doctor) when they sees your mug (face.)

  8. Bone Box - The mouth. "Shut your bone box." (shut your mouth.)

  9. Bunch of Fives - The fist. Pugilistic.

  10. Cat-heads - A woman's breasts. (Old sea phrase)

  11. Cold Coffee - Misfortune. Sometimes varied to "Cold Gruel." (Gruel is thin, watery oatmeal, usually plain). An unpleasant return for a proffered kindness is sometimes called Cold Coffee. (Old Sea phrase)

  12. Colt's tooth - An Elderly person of juvenile tastes are said to have a Colt's tooth. I.E. a desire to shed their baby teeth once more and live life over again.

  13. Crab - To prevent the perfection or execution of any intended matter of business, by saying anything offensive or unpleasant, is called crabbing it, or throwing a crab; to crab a person, is to use such offensive language or behavior as will highly displease, or put him in an ill humour.

  14. Cupboard Love - Pretended to love the cook or any other person, for the sake of a meal. "My guts cry cupboard" I.e. I am hungry.

  15. Cut - To renounce acquaintance with anyone is to cut him.There are several species of "cut." Such as the cut direct, the cut indirect, the cut sublime, the cut infernal, etc. The cut direct is to start across the street, at the approach of the obnoxious person, in order to avoid him. The cut indirect is to look another way and pass without appearing to observe him. The cut sublime is to admire the top of King's College Chapel (or a tall building) or the beauty of the passing clouds, until he is cut out of sight. The Cut infernal is to analyze the arrangement of your shoe strings for the same purpose.

  16. Dash-fire - vigor, manliness.

  17. Draw the Long Bow - To tell extravagant stories, to exaggerate overmuch; the same as "Throw the hatchet." From the extremely wonderful stories which used to be told of the Norman Archers, and more subsequently of Indians skill with the tomahawk.

  18. Drumsticks - Legs. "Drumstick cases-pants"

  19. Earth Bath - A Grave

  20. Eternity Box - A Coffin.

  21. Fart Catcher - A valet or footman, from walking behind his master or mistress.

  22. Firing a gun - Introducing a story by head and shoulders. A man, wanting to tell a particular story, said to the company, "Hark, did you not hear a gun? -But now we are talking of a gun, I will tell you a story of one."

  23. Fimble-famble - A lame, prevaricating excuse.

  24. Flag of Distress - Any overt sign of poverty; the end of a persons shirt when it protrudes through his trousers.

  25. Floorer - A blow sufficiently strong enough to knock a man down or bring him to the floor. Often used in reference to sudden and unpleasant news.

  26. Flying Mess - To be in "Flying Mess" is a soldiers phrase for being hungry and having to mess (eat a meal) where he can.

  27. Follow-me-lads - Curls hanging over a lady's shoulder.

  28. Gentleman of Four Outs - When a vulgar, blustering fellow asserts that he is a gentleman, the retort generally is, "Yes, a Gentleman of Four Outs!" - that is without wit, without money, without credit and without manners.

  29. Go By the Ground - A little, short person, man or woman.

  30. Gullyfluff - The waste - coagulated dust, crumbs, and hair - which accumulates imperceptibly in the pockets of school boys.

  31. Gunpowder - An old woman.

  32. Half- mourning - To have a black eye from a blow. As distinguished from "whole mourning" which is two black eyes.

  33. Heavy Wet - Malt liquor - because the more a man drinks of it, the heavier and more stupid he becomes.

  34. Hobbadehoy - A youth who has ceased to regard himself as a boy, and is not yet regarded as a man.

  35. Hogamundy - The process by which the population is increased.

  36. Holy Water - "He loves him like the Devil likes holy water" I.e. hates him mortally.

  37. Honor Bright - An asseveration which means literally "by my honour, which is bright and unsullied." It is often still further curtailed to "Honor!" only.

  38. Hugger - Mugger - Underhanded, sneaking. Also, "in a state of Hugger Mugger" means to be muddled.

  39. Job's Turkey - "As poor as Jobs Turkey" - as thin and badly fed as that ill-conditioned and imaginary bird.

  40. Keep a Pig - An Oxford University phrase, which means to have a lodger. A man whose rooms contain 2 bedchambers has sometimes, when his college is full, to allow the use of one of them to a freshman, who is called, under these circumstances, a PIG. The original occupier is then said to keep a pig.

  41. Ladder - "Can't see a hole in a ladder." said of anyone who is intoxicated. It was once said that a man was never properly drunk until he could not lie down without holding, could not see a hole through a ladder or went to the pump to light his pipe.

  42. Lay down the knife and fork - to die. Compare to "pegging out", "hopping the twig" and similar flippancies.

  43. Monkey with a long tail - A Mortgage.

  44. A Month of Sundays - An indefinite period, a long time.

  45. Muckender - A pocket handkerchief, snottinger.

  46. Nose-ender - 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 to work.

  47. O'Clock - "Like One O'Clock," a favorite comparison with the lower orders, implying briskness' otherwise 'like winkin'" "To know what's O'clock" is to be wide awake, sharp and experienced.

  48. Off One's Chump - to be crazy is to be Off One's Chump. This is varied by the word Chumpy. A mild lunatic is also said to be "off his head" which means the exact same thing as the first phrase.

  49. Off the Horn -A term used in reference to very tough steak, which is fancifully said to be "Off the horn.'

  50. Perpendicular - A lunch taken standing up at a tavern bar. It is usual to call it lunch often as the Perpendicular may take the place of dinner.

  51. Pocket - To put up with. A man who does not resent an affront is said to Pocket it.

  52. Pot- hunter - A man who gives his time to rowing or punting, or any sort of match in order to win the "pewters" which are given as prizes. The term is now much used in aquatic and athletic circles, and is applied, in a derogatory sense, to men of good quality who enter themselves in small races where they are almost sure to win. Thus depriving the juniors of small trophies which should be above the attention of champions, though valuable to beginners. Also an unwelcome guest who manages to be just in time for dinner.

  53. Rain napper - Umbrella

  54. Rib - Wife.

  55. Rumbumptious - Haughty, pugilistic.

  56. Rusty guts - A blunt, rough old fellow.

  57. Saucebox - A pert young person, in low life, also signifies the mouth.

  58. Saw Your Timber - "Be off!" equivalent to "cut your stick." Occasionally varied with mock refinement, to "amputate your mahogany."

  59. Scandal Water - Tea. From old maids tea parties being generally a focus for scandal.

  60. Shake the Elbow - To shake the elbow, a round about expression for dice playing. to "Crook the Elbow" is an Americanism for "to drink"

  61. Sit upons - Trousers

  62. Smeller - The nose. " a blow to the smeller" is often to be found in pugilistic records.

  63. Sneeze Lurker - A thief who throws snuff in a persons face and then robs him.

  64. Sneezer - A pocket handkerchief.

  65. Snooze-case - A pillow case.

  66. Snotter (or whipe hauler) - A pickpocket whose chief fancy is for gentlemens pocket hand kerchiefs.

  67. Sober-water - A Jocular allusion to the uses of soda-water.

  68. Tail Down - "To get the Tail Down," generally means to lose courage. When a professional at any game loses heart in a match he is said to get his Tail down. "His tail was quite down and it was all over." The origin of the phrase is obvious.

  69. Tune the Old Cow died of - An epithet for any ill-played or discordant piece of music.

Sources: Groses Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1823

The Slang Dictionary, 1874

Slang and its Analogues Past and Present

Dictionary of Americanisms, 1877

More information available from

www.artofmanliness.com/2010/03/10/manly-slang-from-the-19th-century






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