Old Jargon, Slang, and Cant


last update: 17 May 2020


Afternoon farmer - old expression for someone who wastes their best opportunity

All there - old expression for someone who is 'up to the mark' or perfectly dressed

Bash - as a kid it meant to beat someone

Big-wig - a person of authority or office

Bird-cage - old expression for a cab, but could be used for cheap or second-hand cars

Block - head

Bob - a shilling

Bog-oranges - I love this old expression for potatoes

Brass - money

Chalk up - to credit

Cheesy - now means cheap and of low quality, but it once meant fine or showy

Chinwag - now means to chat, but once it meant officious impertinence

Conk - nose

Copper - policeman

Fad - a short-lived enthusiasm for something, but it once meant a hobby or favourite pursuit

File - we all know several definitions of this word, but it once meant a cunning person and earlier still a pickpocket

Flash - still has the same meaning, showy but without taste

Fluff it - now means to fail to perform, but it once meant something that you did not want

Gone to grass - means to retire, but once it meant to be dead

Innings - can mean a good long life, but once meant a good run of luck with plenty of money coming in

Ivories - would mean today a piano, but once meant a set of teeth 'cage of ivories' or to drink 'wash your ivories'

Kiddy - means a child, but once meant a low thief

Mate - colloquialism meaning 'friend', but once was reserved for a "costermonger or low person"

Mild - once meant second-rate feeble, or inefficient

Mob - once was short for Mobility, which was the populace or 'great unwashed'

Muck - just means dirt or rubbish, but once meant to beat or excel

Mug - informal expression for a person's face (e.g.
mug shot), but once meant mouth or face but often in the context of drink, e.g. to mug oneself was to get drunk

Mug-up - I remember using it to mean preparing for exams

Mugging - once meant simply a thrashing in the boxing ring

Nob - short for nobleman, or a person of high position, a 'swell' (check out snob as well, you will be surprised)

Nut - head

Palm oil - once meant money or a bribe

Pensioner - once meant someone of 'degraded morals' who lived off the earnings of a prostitute

Pot - as in 'go to pot', means today to deteriorate through neglect, but once meant to die

Potato-trap - love this, it once meant the mouth

Rag - once meant bank note, so naturally a 'rag-shop' meant a bank

Rig - still means to 'pull a trick', but in the past 'well rigged' meant well dressed

Screw loose - once meant when friends became cold and distant, or when a persons reputation or credit sank

Shoddy - today means badly made, but originally it meant when yarn from old soldier's and policemen's coats was unravelled and prepared into a fine cloth fabric used for ladies mantles, etc.

Sky-Blue - this is a tricky one because it once referred to London milk, either much diluted with water, or where the cream had been skimmed three times. I remember when milk was delivered daily to our doorstep, that the milk with less cream (not totally skimmed) had a blue colour foil sealer (red for full cream). I wonder if the colour came from the original "
three times-skimm'd - sky-blue".

Snob - once meant a low, vulgar person. Nob was often appended to names of people of 'gentle birth', and was short for nobiles. This was also used by sons of Lords, who would add fil nob., and hence nob. Those who were not of 'gentle birth' had appended to their name sin nobilitate, shortened to s.nob. Those who imitated nobs were often called quasi-nobs, shortened to si-nob, and later snob. One satirist noted that there were three great estates of the realm, nob, snob, and mob.

Swell - once meant a man of importance, showy

Toad-in-the-hole - I love this expression for someone carrying a sandwich board

Togs - once meant clothes, and natural Sunday togs were your best clothes

Tom and Jerry - we all know what that means today, but once it meant a 'low drinking shop'

Translator - once meant someone who dealt in old shoes or clothes, and refit them for cheap wear. Translators were second-hand boots, repaired and sold at a low price.

Trolling - has acquired a completely
new definition with the Internet, but it also means the "careful and systematic search for something", e.g. trolling the seabed for fish or trolling a flea market for bargains. But it once meant sauntering or idling, and a troll was an idle prostitute.

Trotters - once meant feet, and 'trotters cases' were shoes

Trump - this might appear odd given todays political climate in the US, but trump once meant a jolly or good-natured person

Tub-thumping - once meant someone preaching or speech-making from a tub or beer barrel, showing their contempt for decorated pulpits


If you have got this far, here is a little test. What is a 'seven-sided animal'? It's a one eyed man. He has an inside, outside, left side, right side, frontside, backside, and …. a blindside.