akimbo - having the hand on the hip and the elbow turned outward.
aldermen - local government official
ale - alcoholic beverage made from hops and malt, similar to beer,
but heavier and stronger than beer.
almshouse - privately funded lodgings for the poor, as opposed to
the workhouse, which was publicly funded.
apoplexy - a crippling stroke, sometimes fatal, usually associated
with sudden loss of muscle control or paralysis.
apothecary - one who prepares drugs and medicines, sometimes made
house calls, and gave advice concerning medical conditions; lowest order
of medical man.
apprentice - one who is bound by agreement to work for another for
a specific amount of time (usually seven years) in return for instruction
in a trade, art or business. Since their hours were so long, apprentices
usually lived in makeshift lodgings provided by their employers. The master
was paid a fee. When one finished, they were a journeyman and able to hire
themselves out to others for wages. Pip was apprenticed to Joe Gargary in
articled clerks - young men who were apprenticed to lawyers for 5
assizes - sessions held twice a year in areas outside London where
law cases, too serious to be tried by local justice, were presided over
by circuit-riding London judges. The assizes usually commenced with great
Astley's - theatre operated by Philip Astley from 1774 located on
the Surrey side of the Thames. Featuring several rings of action and horse
riding displays, Astley's is considered the forerunner of the modern circus.
Austin Friars - monastery of Hermits of Saint Augustine in
the heart of the City of London; founded, 1253, by Bohun, Earl of Hereford.
automaton - one mechanically going through the motions
but without feeling or emotion
bag wig - a black hair wig carried in a small silk bag.
bank notes - promissory notes of a bank; promise of a bank to pay
upon presentation of such a note. The only form of paper currency in England.
banns - an announcement or notice of an intended marriage in a parish
church. The banns were published on three consecutive Sundays. If no one
"forbid the banns" the couple could get married.
Bar - the barristers of England; to be "called to the bar" meant
that one had become eligible to practice as a barrister.
Bartholomew's Fair - huge fair held annually in Smithfield from the
1600's until an increase in crime and debauchery forced its closing in 1855.
bathing machine - a horse-drawn covered wagon used to haul swimmers
into the sea. The swimmer would undress inside the wagon, be hauled into
the sea, and exit the wagon through a whole in the bottom. Men and woman
swam far apart due to the fact that men swam naked until the 1870s.
beadle - a minor parish official whose duties include ushering and
preserving order at services and sometimes civil functions. Some parishes
hired them to run the workhouse after the 1834 New Poor Law was passed as
was the case with Bumble, the beadle in Oliver Twist.
Bedlam - contraction of the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, a
London hospital for the insane. Used to describe a place or situation of
noisy uproar and confusion.
beerhouse - a place where one could sell beer for payment of an annual
fee of two guineas, promoted by the government in the 1830s to divert the
poor from gin.
bender - sixpence
biffins - baked apples flattened into a cake.
bishop - high-ranking official in the Church of England.
blacks - flakes of soot
blacking - shoe or boot polish. As a child Dickens was employed at
Warren's Blacking factory.
blind man's buff - popular parlor game in which the contestant is
blindfolded and then must catch another player and then guess who he had
caught. The game dates from ancient times. Blind man's buff is played by
Samuel Pickwick and friends at the Christmas party at Dingley Dell in The
Pickwick Papers, and at Christmas parties in A Christmas Carol.
bloodletting - act of reducing the amount of blood in the body accomplished
either by opening a vein or by the application of leeches. Thought to restore
health from ancient times through the nineteenth century.
bluchers - strong leather half-boots, named after Gebhard Leberecht
von Blucher (1742-1819) Prussian field marshall at Waterloo.
bob - Cockney slang for shilling.
body-snatching - The act of digging up corpses to sell to medical men for research.
boned - stolen
boot - place in a coach where luggage was kept.
bootjack - device used to remove boots.
boots - a person who cleans shoes. Sam Weller is 'boots' at the White
Hart Inn in Pickwick Papers.
borough - a town that had been granted certain rights of self government
by the Crown. In London, Southwark was referred to as "the borough."
Bow Bells - The bells of the church of St. Mary Le Bow,
Cheapside, in the City of London. A true Cockney was said to be born within
hearing of the Bow bells.
Bow Street Runners - detective force organized by novelist Henry
Fielding and his brother John in 1750. The Runners worked for fees and rewards.
They went out of existence in 1829 when Robert Peel organized London's first
box - the driver's seat on a coach
Boz - Dickens' pseudonym used early in his career. Boz came from
Dickens' younger brother Augustus's through-the-nose pronunciation of his
own nickname, Moses.
Bradshaw - Bradshaw's Railway Guide was published monthly from 1839-1961,
founded by George Bradshaw
Bramah - key to a lock invented by Joseph Bramah (1749-1814) famed for their resistance to lock picking and tampering.
brazier - large flat pan filled with coals, used as a heater.
bridewell - contraction of St. Bridget's Well in London, site of
a prison until 1869. Bridewell came to mean any house of correction.
brimstone and treacle - sulfur and molasses. Mrs Squeers administers
this nasty cure-all to the boys at Dotheboys Hall from a common wooden spoon
"which widened each young gentleman's mouth considerably, they being all
obliged, under heavy corporal penalties, to take in the whole of the bowl
at a gasp" (Nicholas Nickleby).
bull's-eye - a large round peppermint sweet.
bull's-eye lantern - lantern with a round "bulls-eye" lens on one
side which enabled light to be concentrated in that direction, to use like
bumper - a generous glass of an alcoholic drink.
burgess - a town magistrate or government official.
burked - to murder, as by suffocation, so as to leave no or few marks of violence. (2)To suppress or get rid of by some indirect maneuver.
Origin of burke: after W. Burke, hanged in 1829 in Edinburgh for murders of this kind. (Thanks to Devony)
cab - short for cabriolet, a light two-wheeled carriage.
calico - a plain white cotton cloth, heavier than muslin.
Candlemas - church festival, observed February 2, celebrating the
purification of the Blessed Virgin and the feast of the presentation of
Christ in the Temple.
carrier - a person for hire in the conveyance of goods. A porter. John Peerybingle is a carrier in Cricket on the Hearth.
carter - driver of a cart or wagon.
case bottles - bottles, square in shape, to fit neatly
in a case.
castor - small bottle or jar with a perforated top used for sprinkling
pepper, sugar, etc. on food.
caul - membrane that surrounds a fetus, believed to protect against
drowning. David Copperfield was born with a caul, which was then advertised
chairmen - men who carried a sedan chair.
chaise - any light horse-driven vehicle.
Chancery - English court of equity law, merged with common law courts
in 1873. Dickens pointed out the absurdity of chancery cases in Bleak
House. He had gained first hand experience when he won chancery cases
against those who pirated editions of A Christmas Carol, and then
lost more money in court costs than he was realizing from the book's sales.
chandler - originally a maker or seller of candles, later a small
charity boy - a student in a private charitable school for the very
poor. Noah Claypool is a charity boy in Oliver Twist.
Chartism - working class movement that advocated reforms that went
beyond the Reform act of 1832 including universal suffrage for men and eliminating
property qualification for Parliament.
charwoman - a cleaning woman, from the root for "chore."
chemist - a pharmacist.
cholera - disease marked by symptoms of thirst, cramps, diarrhea,
and death. Brought about by drinking water tainted with human waste. Beginning
in the 1830s several epidemics of cholera hit London before sanitary conditions
improved in the second half of the century.
choleric - irritable, hot tempered.
choused - cheated
cistern - an artificial reservoir for storing liquids and especially
water (as rainwater).
City - term referring to the old portion of London within the medieval
city walls. Later became the financial district as Londoners moved to the
suburbs and commuted.
Claret - a dry red wine from Bordeaux France.
close - alleyway, also the area surrounding a cathedral.
coach and four - coach drawn by four horses.
coal scuttle - a metal pail for carrying coal.
cockade - a ribbon worn in the hat.
Cockney - resident of east London; more specifically, to be a true
Cockney you had to be born within hearing distance of the bells of St. Mary
Le Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London. Style of speech used by a Cockney.
The best known Cockney in Dickens is Samuel Pickwick's servant Sam Weller
in The Pickwick Papers.
Coketown - fictionalized name of the town of Preston in Lancashire.
collier - ship carrying coal.
constable - a British policeman appointed by the parish to keep the
peace. Later incorporated into London's paid police force.
consumption - tuberculosis
cooper - a barrel maker
copper - large boiler, used to wash clothes in. Mrs. Cratchit uses
the copper to boil her Christmas pudding in A Christmas Carol.
corn-chandler - a retail grain dealer
corn laws - laws enacted to raise the import tax on corn in order
to protect domestic farmers. Corn, in England, referred to any cereal grain
like oats, wheat, or barley in addition to corn. Hotly debated because of
subsequent hikes in food prices and manufacturing costs. Finally repealed
costermonger - a street peddler, usually selling fruits or vegetables.
An estimated 12,000 costermongers vied for patrons on London streets in
cotillion - a ballroom dance for couples that resembles the quadrille.
counting house - a businessman's office. Bob Cratchit works at Scrooge's
counting house in A Christmas Carol.
coupe - a carriage for 2 passengers
courier - a traveler's paid attendant, traveling ahead to make arrangements.
Dickens employs a French courier for his travels in Pictures from Italy.
cove - A fellow; a chap
cramp-bone - the kneecap of a sheep, formerly thought to
be a charm against cramps
crape or crepe - black silk worn as mourning garb
cravat - a fine scarf worn around the neck and tied in a bow
crinoline - stiff fabric of horsehair or cotton used to stiffen the
lining of petticoats or hoop skirts.
crossing sweeper - one who swept manure from the streets at pedestrian's
crossings. Jo is a crossing sweeper in Bleak House.
crown - monetary unit equal to 5 shillings or 60 pence.(
* see note)
crumpet - a light muffin, usually served with tea.
cudgel - a thick stick used as a weapon.
curl papers - paper used to curl hair, old newspaper could be used
in a pinch.
cuff - an open-handed or close-fisted blow.
daffy - a medicine for children, named for a seventeenth-century
clergyman. It consisted of senna (a laxative prepared from the roots of
the cassia tree) and was commonly mixed with gin, thus daffy became slang
for gin itself. Mrs. Mann gives the children daffy in Oliver Twist.
daguerreotype - early photographic process with the image made on
a light-sensitive silver-coated metallic plate. Invented by Louis Daguerre
damme - damn me. An oath.
daresay - venture to say : think probable, as in "I daresay you'll
have a great time." Never used in conjunction with "that" as in "I daresay
dauphin - eldest son of the King of France
day boarder - one who spends the day at school but lives at home.
deal - wood planks used to make furniture, as in "deal table"; usually
denoted cheap furniture.
dear - expensive; the wine was excellent, but very dear.
Dickensian - relating or similar to something described in the books
of the 19th century British writer, Charles Dickens, especially living or
working conditions that are below an acceptable standard.
dickey - a folding outside seat at the back of a carriage.
diligence - a public stagecoach
dip - cheap candle made by dipping a wick into tallow.
docks - large docks located just east of London Bridge where large
ships loaded and unloaded cargo.
Doctors Commons - area south of St. Paul's Cathedral where the ecclesiastical
and admiralty courts were located. Dickens, in Sketches by Boz called
Doctors' Commons "the place where they grant marriage-licenses to love-sick
couples, and divorces to unfaithful ones; register the wills of people who
have any property to leave, and punish hasty gentlemen who call ladies by
double-knock - a double-knock was applied to the door by a more confident
visitor, one who was comfortable with the purpose of his visit. A single-knock
signified a more timid caller.
dowager - widow with a title or property derived from her late husband.
A dignified elderly woman.
draught - a check or bill of exchange; an amount of liquid one could
toss off in one swallow.
draughts - The game of checkers
dray - low, heavy cart without sides for hauling kegs and barrels
dreadnought - closely-woven thick woolen material.
dree - dreary
dustman - man who drove a cart used in emptying household trash and
ashes. Also the owner of a dust yard, where the dust was stored in great
mounds was called a dustman. Mr. Boffin is known as the "Golden Dustman"
in Our Mutual Friend.
Dutch Clock - cheap wooden clock with brass wheels featuring a pendulum,
invented by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens in 1656.
Dutch Oven - a thick-walled (usually cast iron) cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid. During the late 17th century, the Dutch system of producing these cast metal cooking vessels was more advanced than the English system. The Dutch used dry sand to make their molds, giving their pots a smoother surface. Consequently, metal cooking vessels produced in the Netherlands were imported into Britain.
East India Company - private company chartered by the British government
to exploit trade with India. The Company also had political power in India
until the Indians revolted against British rule in 1857.
ecod - a mild oath on par with, and probably derived from, "My God".
This was a favorite expression of Jonas Chuzzlewit (Martin
egg-hot - A warm drink made of eggs, brandy, sugar, and ale.
elbow-chair - a chair with arms to support the elbows; an arm-chair.
ell - a former measure of length. Normally 45 inches in England and 37 inches in Scotland. Originally linked to the length of the human arm or forearm.
equipage - equipment used in relation to horse and carriage.
eight day clock - clock which required winding only once a week.
expectations - likelihood of coming into a large amount of money.
Pip's 'great expectations' come secretly from the convict Magwitch.
faggot - bundle of twigs or branches used as firewood.
farthing - monetary unit worth 1/4 pence. Sometimes used to denote
anything worth practically nothing.( * see note)
fen - marsh
fender - a low metal frame before an open fireplace. In Dickens people
are always putting their feet upon the fender.
fingerpost - road sign in the shape of a hand with fingers pointing
flat candle - candle designed to be easy to carry, with a short stem
and a broad base which fits into a flat holder.
flip - mixture of beer and spirits, sweetened with sugar, and heated
with a hot iron.
florin - silver coin introduced in 1849 and worth two shillings.(
* see note)
Foot Guards - infantry regiments that stood guard over the sovereign.
footman - a servant in livery who attends his master's carriage:
a servant who serves at table, tends the door, and runs errands.
forenoon - period of sunlight before noon, morning.
forfeits - popular parlor games in which play goes round the room
with each player needing to supply an answer and is penalized if an answer
is not supplied.
fortnight - a period of 14 days : two weeks.
Fortunatus' purse - endless supply of money
frank - practice where members of Parliament were allowed to send
letters for free (until 1840) by signing the bottom left corner of the envelope.
Furies - The Furies, in Greek Mythology, were spirits of punishment,
so the phrase "as if he came attended by the Furies" would signify coming
on at great speed and/or violence.
furlong - English unit of measurement equaling 660 feet, which was
the length of the traditional furrow on English farms; from furrow long.
furze - thick, prickly shrub that bears yellow flowers in winter.
Fypunnote - contraction of 'five pound note'
gaiters - a leather or cloth covering extending from the waist to
the knee or ankle and buttons up the side.
gammon - a misleading or deceptive comment: nonsense.
gaol - jail
gas - gas, made from coal, lit the streets and shops of London from
the 1830s. Gas lighting for homes came later, around 1860.
The Gazette - the London Gazette, founded in 1665,
where formal announcements, including bankruptcies, are listed. Dickens
uses appearance in the Gazette as synonymous with bankruptcy.
general post - mail that went out from the London Post office bound
for other parts of England. Mail within London was sent penny or two-penny
post, organized separately.
gibbet - an upright post with a projecting arm for hanging the bodies
of executed criminals, clad in chains, as a warning to passersby.
gig - two-wheeled, one horse carriage.
gill - liquid measure equaling a quarter of a pint.
ginger and sal volatile - ammonium carbonate scented with ginger
and sold as 'smelling salts' to revive ladies who had fainted.
ginger-beer - non-alcoholic beverage flavored with ginger.
gingham - a clothing fabric usually of yarn-dyed cotton.
Gog and Magog - Traditional guardians of the City of London
gout- disease occurring mainly in men causing the inflammation of
the hands and feet, arthritic attack, and deformity. Dickens suffered from
gout late in his life.
governess - a female teacher employed in a private household.
greatcoat - overcoat worn outdoors, often accompanied by a short
cape worn over the shoulders.
Great Exhibition - 1851 celebration of technology housed at the Crystal
Palace built in Hyde Park by Joseph Paxton. The exhibition was the idea
of Prince Albert, who conceived it to celebrate the Industrial Revolution.
Dickens visited the Exhibition in 1851. The Crystal Palace was moved to
Sydenham, in south London, in 1854 and accidentally burned down in 1936.
Great Fire - fire which destroyed much of central London in September
contemporary account in the London Gazette)
greengrocer - seller of fruits and vegetables
griffin - fabled monster with the head and wings of an eagle, and
the hind quarters of a lion.
grog - mixture of rum and water. Named for Edward Vernon, called
"Old Grog", an English admiral responsible for diluting the sailors' rum.
gruel - cheap food made by boiling a small amount of oatmeal in a
large amount of water. Dietary staple in the workhouse, this is what Oliver
Twist asks for more of.
guinea - monetary unit equal to 1 pound 1 shilling.(
* see note)
haberdasher - seller of small personal items.
hackney coach - a coach for hire
half-a-crown - a British coin equal to 2-1/2 shillings, or 30 pence.(
* see note)
half and half - alcoholic beverage: half ale and half porter.
hansom cab - two-wheeled carriage invented in the 1830s where the
driver sat in back, giving the passengers a clear view of the road.
ha'penny - slang for halfpenny, worth ½ pence.(
* see note)
hedgerow - a row of shrubs or trees enclosing or separating fields.
Hilary - a term or session of the High Court beginning in January.
hob - metal insert in a fireplace where the kettle could be kept
hogshead - a large cask or barrel, equal to 52 ½ imperial gallons.
Horse chaunter - a dealer who takes worthless horses to country fairs and disposes of them by artifice. He is generally an unprincipled fellow, and will put in a glass eye, fill a beast with shot, plug him with ginger, or in fact do anything so that he sells to advantage. Also a seller of street balads or other broadsides. (Thanks Devony)
Horse Guards - cavalry who protected the monarch.
hosier - maker of socks and stockings.
hostler - one who tends horses at an inn; sometimes ostler. Hugh
is hostler at the Maypole in Barnaby Rudge, Mark Tapley is hostler
at the Blue Dragon in Martin Chuzzlewit.
hulks - old ships, many relics of the Napoleonic Wars, their masts removed, anchored in the Thames and the Medway and used
as prisons from 1776-1857. The practice started in 1776 when the American war prevented the transporting of convicts to America and conventional prisons were full. Abel Magwitch escapes from a prison ship in Great Expectations.
In Great Expectations
Pip describes the hulks: "By the light of
the torches, we saw the black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of
the shore, like a wicked Noah's ark. Cribbed and barred and moored by massive
rusty chains, the prison-ship seemed in my young eyes to be ironed like
humbug - nonsense, rubbish; used to express disbelief or disgust;
something intended to deceive; a hoax or fraud. This was Ebenezer Scrooge's
favorite word in A Christmas Carol.
Inimitable - nickname given to Dickens by his early schoolmaster,
Mr. Giles. The term means 'impossible to imitate, unique'. Dickens later
referred to himself as 'The Inimitable'.
Insolvent Debtors Act - Act passed in 1816 which allowed imprisoned
debtors to apply for release providing they surrendered all their property
and made provision to satisfy their debts. Mr. Micawber (David Copperfield),
as well as Dickens' father, invoked this Act to gain release from debtor's
Iron Bridge - Popular name for Southwark Bridge, its three arches
were made of cast iron.
ironmonger - seller of metal goods, hardware
Japan candle - candle made from plant wax such as Japanese wax tree, rapeseed, rice bran and palm oil. The wicks are made of Japanese paper and soft rush that make a strong flame that is not easily blown out.
journeyman - one who has finished an apprenticeship and is now able
to hire himself out by the day. Joe Gargary hired the journeyman Orlick
to work in the blacksmith shop in Great Expectations.
kennel - gutter in the street
kith - friends, neighbors, or relatives
knaves - the jacks in a deck of cards. Pip calls the knaves "jacks"
in Great Expectations and is scoffed at by Estella.
knee-breeches - trousers extending to, or just below, the knee.
knight - lowest of the titled ranks in England. A knight has Sir
before his name and his wife is addressed as Lady.
knock up - to bang on someone's door in order to wake them up.
larder - food storage area
lath and plaster - thin strips of wood with plaster covering to form
laudanum - mixture of opium and alcohol used as a tranquilizer, pain-killer,
or to induce sleep.
let - rented or hired
Liberties of the City of London - Liberties are an area
controlled by the city though outside its boundaries.
Limehouse - waterside section of east London. Rogue Riderhood is
a waterman in Limehouse in Our Mutual Friend.
limekiln - kiln used to heat limestone to produce quicklime.
link - torch used to light the streets.
link-boy - a boy for hire carrying a torch to light a traveler's
way in the dark streets.
livery -uniform worn by servant; knee breeches and powdered wig worn
L.L. - Literary Ladies
London Season - In London society, the Season traditionally began after Easter and ended with the "Glorious Twelfth" (August 12), the start of the shooting season for red grouse.
long vacation - summer, between Trinity and Michaelmas term
loom - device for weaving thread into fabric. Stephen Blackpool operates
a steam-driven power loom in Hard Times.
Lowestoft - seaside town in Suffolk. David Copperfield goes to Lowestoft
with Mr. Murdstone to meet Mr. Quinion.
lucifer - a match made of a sliver of wood tipped with a combustible
substance, and ignited by friction. First manufactured in the 1830's.
lumber room - a room for storing old furniture and other unused odds
and ends ready for the Victorian garage sale. It would probably be a musty,
moldy, spider-webbery kind of place.
magic lantern - optical device for projecting magnified images painted
on glass onto a screen, like a modern slide projector.
magistrate - civil officer who enforces the law.
make love - to court or woo, a proposition for marriage.
maid-of-all-work - maid, usually a young girl, hired as the only
servant in the house. Charlotte is maid-of-all-work for Sowerberry, the
undertaker, in Oliver Twist.
mail coach - reliable carrier of the mail and a limited number of
passengers, replaced mid-nineteenth century by the railroad.
mangle - a machine consisting of a crank attached to two rollers,
used to wring water out of clothes.
marchioness - wife or widow of a marquis; Dick Swiveller gives the
under-stairs maid in The Old Curiosity Shop the honorary title of
market day - the day when country folks would bring their livestock
and produce to town to sell, always a bustle of activity.
market town - a town that regularly held a market.
marquis - a member of the British peerage ranking below a duke and
above an earl.
marrow-bones and cleavers - the shin-bone of an ox striking a butcher's
cleaver was used to make music at weddings and other humble gatherings.
mead - a fermented beverage made of water and honey, malt, and yeast.
Medway - Kentish river near Rochester and Chatham. Dickens lived
in this area as a child and late in life when he resided at Gad's Hill Place.
miasma - noxious, air-carried germs. In the first half of the nineteenth
century it was widely held that diseases like cholera were transferred miasmically.
It was only when proved that these diseases were water-born, and proper
elimination of sewage was constructed, that these diseases were conquered
(see Dickens' London - Bazalgette).
Michaelmas - festival honoring the archangel Michael celebrated on
September 29. It is one of the four quarters of the English business year.
milliner - maker of women's hats
minor canon - one who helped with the choir at a cathedral. Canon
Crisparkle was minor canon at Cloisterham Cathedral in The Mystery of
Monmouth Street - location of many second-hand clothing shops in
mother-in-law - your spouse's mother, in Dickens sometimes used to
indicate your father's new wife (stepmother)
mourning clothes - black garments worn after a relative died, to
which strict rules of etiquette applied. The length of mourning depended
on your relationship to the deceased. Widows generally wore mourning clothes
for two years. Queen Victoria, after the death of her husband Prince Albert
in 1861, wore mourning until she died in 1901. In A Christmas Carol,
when the death of Tiny Tim is shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas
Future, Mrs Cratchit and the girls are sewing their mourning clothes.
Mudie's Circulating Library - largest circulating library in the
nineteenth century. Started by Charles Mudie in 1842 , Mudie favored the
triple-decker method of publishing, publishing novels in three volumes so
that three subscribers could read a book at one time. Dickens published
his works serially, which did not conform to Mudie's method, therefore readership
of Dickens' works did not significantly increase despite Mudie's popularity.
Mudie's continued in business until 1937.
mutton - lamb meat
Nankeen - A pale yellowish cotton cloth, also trousers
made from this cloth.
N.B. - nota bene - note well, take notice
negus - liquor made from wine, water, sugar, nutmeg, and lemon-juice.
Newgate Calendar - stories about sensational crimes committed by
inmates of Newgate Prison. The first edition came out in 1773 and the last
in 1826. Dickens used the term "Newgate Calendar" to refer to crimes of
nib - point of a pen
nose-bag - feeding bag for horses
nosegay - small bouquet of flowers
notions - small personal items
oakum - loosely twisted hemp fibers, impregnated with tar, used in
rope. Picking oakum apart was common busywork in the prison or workhouse.
The separated oakum was then used to caulk ships. Oliver picked oakum at
the workhouse in Oliver Twist.
octavo - the size of a piece of paper cut eight from a sheet; also
: a book, a page, or paper of this size.
Old Clem - St. Clement, one of the earliest Popes, regarded as the
patron saint of blacksmiths. Pip and Joe sing Old Clem in the forge, later
Pip sings it with Miss Havisham (Great Expectations).
old-fashioned - As Dickens uses it to describe Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son: unusually mature, precocious, intelligent, knowing.
omnibus - large four-wheeled carriage capable of carrying many people;
opium - addictive narcotic drug made from the dried juice of the
opium poppy. John Jasper was an opium addict in The Mystery of Edwin
outdoor relief - charity given to the poor which did not require
them to become inmates of the workhouse. The New Poor Law of 1834 eliminated
outdoor relief in an effort to stem the abuse of the system.
palsy - a medical condition producing uncontrollable shaking.
parliamentary train - by an Act of Parliament (1844) every railway
company was required to run at least one train each week day with at a fare
of a penny a mile. These became known as parliamentary trains.
parlor - a room used primarily for conversation or the reception
pattens - device attached to the bottom of lady's shoes to keep them
elevated out of the mud and muck in the streets. Sometimes consisting of
circular metal rings which caused a distinctive sound on the pavement.
peach - Inform on or give accusatory information against an accomplice or associate.
pea-coat - short double-breasted navy blue or black overcoat worn
peelers - nickname given members of the new London police force organized
by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, also known as bobbies (also after Peel).
pence - penny; 1 pound equaled 240 pence.( * see
penn'orth - a pennies worth
petticoat - full skirt worn by women as an undergarment.
pew-opener - one who opens the door of a pew in church and was usually
phaeton - open four-wheeled carriage
phosphorus-box - box containing matches tipped with chlorate of potash,
with phosphorus on which to ignite them.
physic - drug prescribed by a physician
pianoforte - a piano. Learning to play piano was considered an acceptable
pastime for young ladies.
pickled brown paper - brown paper soaked in vinegar, used as an antiseptic.
pic-nic - before it was an outdoor meal, a pic-nic was any social
gathering for which each guest provided a share of the food. The Peerybingles,
Plummers, Tackleton, May and her mother gather for a pic-nic in Cricket
on the Hearth.
pint pot - vessel for drinking beer or ale, holding one pint.
plate - valuable tableware of gold or silver.
pleurisy - inflammation of the lungs producing a hacking cough and
sharp chest pain.
Pope Joan - a popular Victorian card game for three to eight players. Name derived from Pope John VIII who, legend has it, was actually a woman.
pork pie - A pork pie is a traditional British meat pie. It consists of roughly chopped pork and pork jelly sealed in a hot water crust pastry. It is normally eaten cold as a snack or as part of a meal.
port - sweet red wine from Portugal
porter - see ticket-porter. Also the dark beer favored by porters
and named for them.
portmanteau - large leather suitcase that opened into two compartments.
Dickens reported in American Notes that his cabin aboard ship was
so small that his portmanteau could "no more be got in at the door, not
to say stowed away, than a giraffe could be forced into a flowerpot."
post chaise - a closed, four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage, used
to transport mail and passengers.
postern - back entrance
postilion - one who guides a horse-driven coach by riding on the
left-hand lead horse.
pot-boy - employee at a tavern who serves beer to customers.
poulterer - butcher who deals in fowl, mainly chicken or turkey.
After his conversion Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol, asks the boy
in the street if he "knew the poulterer on the next street but one?"
pound - English monetary unit, equaling 240 pence or 20 shillings.
Using this system the pound could be exactly divided into halves, thirds,
quarters, fifths, sixths, eighths, tenths, twelfths, fifteenths, sixteenths,
twentieths, twenty-fourths, thirtieths, fortieths, forty-eightieths, sixtieths,
eightieths, and one-hundred-and-twentieths.
The decimal system, instituted by Britain in 1971, allows only halves, quarters,
fifths, tenths, twentieths, twenty-fifths, and fiftieths. (
* see note
Dickens, while visiting America in 1842, noted in a letter home to his friend
John Forster that the salary paid to his traveling secretary, George Washington
Putnam, was ten dollars a month, worth about two pounds five shillings in
Privy Council - advisors to the sovereign
proctor - an officer of the court, paid a contracted salary to manage
the affairs of others, answers to an attorney at common law, or to a solicitor.
pub - a tavern or inn
publican - owner or keeper of a pub
pudding - a sausage like preparation made with minced meat or various
other ingredients stuffed into a skin or bag and boiled.
Punch and Judy - popular puppet show for children. Codlin and Short,
in The Old Curiosity Shop, operate a Punch and Judy show.
purl - hot beer mixed with gin
quadrille - card game played by four people.
quarter days - four days of the year when quarterly payments like
rents were due. The four days were Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer (June
24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas (December25).
quay - wharf or reinforced bank where ships are loaded or unloaded.
quick-lime - white, caustic alkaline substance consisting of calcium
oxide, obtained by heating limestone.
quid - slang for pound
quizzing-glass - Also called a quizzer, this was a round, oval, or oblong lens, mounted in a frame, sometimes ornately. Quizzing-glasses were popular from the 18th-century onwards and were usually hung from a chain worn round the users neck. They were used for close examination.
rag-and-bone shop - shop that bought and sold rags to be made into
paper and bones that were ground into manure. Krook, in Bleak House,
was the proprietor of a rag and bone shop.
recusant - one who refused to attend Church of England services.
reel - Scottish dance requiring at least two couples and usually
a figure eight.
Reform Act of 1832 - hard fought Act which sought to end under representation
of the middle class in Parliament. Also to more evenly distribute parliamentary
seats among the boroughs. Because of property qualifications included in
the Act (voting in the boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes
with an annual value of at least £10) the bill still only gave the vote
to one in seven.
Regency - period from 1810-1820. George III went insane in 1810 and
his son ruled as prince regent in his stead. George III died in 1820 and
his son became George IV.
repeater - a pocket watch which was capable of chiming on the hour
or quarter hour, this made it easier to tell the time in the dark. Scrooge
has one in A Christmas Carol which he checks when the first spirit
is due. Ralph Nickleby, another reknowned miser, also possesses a repeater.
resurrectionist - a body snatcher. Legally, only the bodies of criminals
could be used for teaching anatomy but this did not meet demand, so resurrectionists
took up the slack. Jerry Cruncher, in A Tale of Two Cities, was a
ribald - characterized by or indulging in vulgar, lewd humor.
riband - ribbon
Riot Act - enacted in 1714, it forced crowds, riotously assembled,
to disperse within one hour after the Act was read, or risk being shot.
During the Gordon Riots, in Barnaby Rudge, the mob is read the Riot
Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe's most famous novel, published in
1719, was one of Dickens' favorite books. It is mentioned in 9 of Dickens'
15 major novels as well as in 2 of his Christmas books, A Christmas Carol
and Cricket on the Hearth, and in his 2 travel books, American
Notes and Pictures From Italy.
rookery - nesting place for rooks, birds that were related to the
crow. David Copperfield's childhood home in Blunderstone was called the
Rookery. Rookery was also used to denote an urban slum.
Rotten Row - horse path in Hyde Park where the rich would go riding
and show off their finery. Peter Cratchit, proudly wearing his father's
shirt in honor of Christmas, wishes to show it off in the fashionable parks.
rubber - A contest consisting of a series of matches.
rushlight - The light from a rush-candle, a candle made from the pith of a rush plant dipped in tallow.
Saint Dunstan - former Archbishop of Canterbury (10th century). Legend has it that he tweaked the Devil's nose with red-hot tongs.
saveloy - a highly seasoned dried and smoked pork sausage, sold ready
sawyer - one who saws timber
scrivener - professional scribe or copier
scullery - dish washing area
sea-coal - mineral coal as distinguished from charcoal
sealing wax - wax used to seal letters, red for business letters,
other colors for correspondence, and black for mourning.
sedan chair - means of transportation consisting of a covered chair
to which two long poles were attached, carried by chairmen.
sepulchral - relating to the grave
serjeant - an English barrister of the highest rank.
shaver - small boy
Shepherd, Jack - (1702-1724) notorious London thief who escaped from
confinement six times, including daring escapes from Newgate prison. Hanged
at Tyburn in 1724.
shilling - monetary unit equal to 12 pence; 20 shillings equaled
1 pound.( * see note)
short-sixes - bundles of six short candles.
single stick - fencing practice with a stick instead of a sword. Also a method of self defence using a walking stick.
Sir Roger de Coverley - popular country dance named for a fictional
character created by Joseph Addison (The Spectator-1711). The dance
is known in the United States as the Virginia Reel. Sir Roger de Coverley
is performed at Fezziwig's ball in A Christmas Carol.
skittles - Game played with nine wooden pins to be bowled down with a wooden ball or disc in as few attempts as possible.
slopseller - dealer in cheap or second-hand clothing.
sluice-gate - dam or water-gate used to control waterflow in a sluiceway.
sluiceway - artificial waterway used to carry off surplus water.
small beer - weak, low quality beer.
small clothes - knee breeches
smoking bishop - Christmas punch made from heated red wine flavored
with oranges, sugar, and spices. So named because of its deep purple color.
snapdragon - popular Victorian parlour game, usually played on Christmas Eve, where raisins are placed in a bowl of flaming brandy. The object being to pluck the raisins out and eat them at the risk of being burned.
Snow Hill - busy route from Holborn to Farringdon Street in London.
snuff - fine powdered tobacco that is inhaled through the nose. Gentlemen
carried theirs in elegant snuff boxes, poorer users, like Frederick Dorrit,
may carry a small amount twisted into a piece of whitey-brown paper. Inexperienced
users always sneeze when taking snuff.
snuffer - device used to extinguish a candle.
solicitor - lawyer who handled wills and estate problems and hired
barristers to represent their clients in Chancery Court. Mr. Tulkinghorn
was solicitor for the Dedlocks in Bleak House. Mr. Wickfield is solicitor
for David's aunt, Betsy Trotwood, in David Copperfield.
sovereign - gold coin worth a pound, first issued in 1817.
spencer - a short, close-fitting coat worn by woman and children
in the early 19th century.
sperm-oil - oil from the Sperm whale, used in lamps.
sponging-house - temporary debtor's prison. Dickens' father, John
Dickens, was taken to a sponging-house before becoming an inmate at the
Marshalsea prison. Harold Skimpole is taken to Coavinses sponging-house in Bleak House
spontaneous combustion - a phenomenon where the human body catches
fire as a result of heat generated by internal chemical action. Scientist
deny the existence of spontaneous combustion despite many supposed cases.
Dickens has Krook, in Bleak House, die of spontaneous combustion.
squire - an English country gentleman, especially the chief landowner
in a district.
srub (shrub) - drink made from orange or lemon juice, sugar, and
rum or brandy.
Standard in Cornhill - water standard at the junction of Cornhill
with Gracechurch Street, Bishopsgate, and Leadenhall Street. Although not
used as a water standard since 1603, the standard remained for many years
and was used as a point of measurement of distances from the city. In Barnaby
Rudge, Dickens states that the Maypole Inn was twelve miles from London
measuring from the Standard in Cornhill.
steward - head of all servants in a wealthy household. Barnaby Rudge
Sr. was steward of the Warren, household of Reuben Haredale in Barnaby
stile - steps in a fence over which people could pass but livestock
stone - measure of weight equaling 14 pounds
strait-waistcoat - a strait jacket, used for restraining persons
who may do harm to themselves or others.
street-door-scraper - mounted iron bar for scraping mud or manure
from boots before entering a house.
surgeon - medical man who treated broken bones and other types of
external injuries although sometimes pressed into the service of bloodletting
or delivering children. Of lower social status than a physician.
surtout - double-breasted, full-skirted, close-bodied suit.
sweep - chimney sweep, ubiquitous in nineteenth century London. Sweeps
often hired small boys that could fit in the chimneys, a very dangerous
business. An 1842 law made it a crime to force anyone under 21 to enter
a chimney, or to apprentice sweeps under 16. In Oliver Twist, which
takes place before this law was passed, Gamfield, the sweep, tries unsuccessfully
to apprentice Oliver from the workhouse.
sweetmeat - a sweet delicacy, such as a piece of candy or candied
tallow - the fat of sheep or oxen, used for making candles or soap.
taper - small wax candle
taproom - room in an inn or tavern where working class people ate
and drank. The more well-to-do used the parlor.
tar-water - an infusion of tar in water, formerly thought to be a
cure-all. Mrs Joe steeps Pip in it in Great Expectations.
teetotaler - one who abstains from alcohol. The word originated with
a stammering Lancashire temperence advocate who said in a speech that nothing
would do but "t-t-total abstinence."
term - academic sessions at Cambridge and Oxford (i.e. Michaelmas
term began Sept 29). Tied to the ecclesiastical calendar of the Anglican
threepenn'orth - three pennies worth, as in "threepenn'orth rum."
thruppence - slang for three pence or 3 pennies; a three pence coin.
ticket-porter - porter wearing badges, or tickets, licensed by the
city of London to carry goods, as well as documents and messages. They could
be found in the streets and hired when needed. Trotty Veck was a ticket-porter
in The Chimes.
tights - breeches or knee-breeches
The Times - London's most influential newspaper with a circulation
of 60,000 in 1861. Founded by John Walter in 1785.
tinker - one who repairs pots and pans
toilet - to dress and groom oneself
Tory - conservative political party as opposed to the liberal Whigs.
The Tories supported the king and the Anglican Church.
transportation - the practice of sending British criminals to the
colonies as punishment. Criminals were sent to America until 1776, from
then on to Australia. It is estimated that 140,000 criminals were transported
to Australia between 1810 and 1852. Abel Magwitch, in Great Expectations,
had been transported to Australia and was under a death penalty for coming
back to Britain.
treadmill - kind of like today's StairMaster. Prisoners climbed steps
along a rotating cylinder designed to keep them mindlessly occupied and
wear them out physically. Outlawed in 1898.
Trinity - university or High Court term beginning after Easter.
triple decker - a novel published in three volumes; favored by Mudie's
Circulating Library because three subscribers could read a book at once.
truckle bed - low bed usually kept beneath another bed when not in
trundling a hoop - popular Victorian child's game where a wooden
hoop is pushed along with a stick.
tumbler - drinking glass with a pointed bottom so that they could
not be set down until emptied. Later referred to any drinking glass.
tumbril - open cart which tilts backwards to empty its load. Used
to carry prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
tuppence - slang for "two pence" or two pennies; also, a two pence
turf-circles - Those who frequent horse races.
turnkey - a jailor. John Chivery was turnkey at the Marshalsea prison
in Little Dorrit.
turnpike - toll road
twelfth cake - cakes made in celebration of Twelfth Night. They contained
a pea or a bean, the finders of which were king and queen of the celebration.
Twelfth Night - January 5th, the night before the twelfth day after
Christmas when Christmas festivities ended. The next day, January 6th, was
two pair back - room at the back of the house on the second floor.
Two pair refers to two flights of steps with a landing in between.
twopenn'orth - two pennies worth
twopenny post - the ordinary postage within the city of London from
1801-1839 was 2 pence.
Tyburn Tree - place where public executions were performed until
1783 when they were moved to Newgate prison.
union workhouse - after the 1834 New Poor Law parishes were required
to join together into unions for the purpose of providing a workhouse.
usquebaugh - whiskey
van - wagon for hauling goods or people which was covered.
vespers - evening prayers
Vesuvius - active volcano in southwest Italy near Naples. Dickens
describes his visit to the summit of Vesuvius in Pictures from Italy.
viands - choice foods
vicar - parish priest who receives a stipend or salary but does not
receive the tithes of a parish.
vintner - wine merchant
wafer - thin wax disc, melted with a candle and used to seal a letter.
wafer stamp - hand-held (or set in a ring) stamp used to put an impression
on the softened wafer, thereby identifying the sender of the sealed letter.
waistcoat - a vest
waits - member of a small body of wind instrumentalists maintained
by a city or town. Redlaw hears the Christmas Waits "playing somewhere in
the distance" in The Haunted Man.
Walker - an expression that expressed disbelief. In A Christmas
Carol, when the reformed Scrooge asks the boy in the street to go and
buy the prize turkey, the boy exclaims "Walk-er."
ward - minor under the control of a guardian
washhouse - building for washing clothes, sometimes shared by several
wassail - spiced ale served at Christmas
watch - men appointed by the parish to walk the streets at night,
periodically calling out the time and making sure the streets were safe.
They were generally ineffective and Dickens pokes fun at them in his novels.
water-butt - barrel placed under the eve of a house for the purpose
of catching rainwater.
water-plug - fireplug or hydrant
water-rate - tax on the supply of water.
waterman - operated boats on the Thames carrying passengers for a
wax-work - wax museum. Mrs. Jarley operates a wax-work in The
Old Curiosity Shop.
wedding breakfast - Until the late 1880s weddings were required by
law to be held in the morning. After the ceremony the wedding party would
celebrate with a wedding breakfast.
weeds - mourning clothes
welsh (or welch) wig - woolen or worsted cap, originally made in
Montgomery, Wales. Old Fezziwig, in A Christmas Carol, wears a welsh
wet nurse - woman "in milk" hired to breast-feed the children of
Whigs - liberal party in English politics as opposed to the conservative
Tories. The Tories generally supported things the way they were, the Whigs
without - outside the place mentioned or implied as in
'It was so dense without...'. Opposite of within.
wonderful - an event, not necessarily pleasant, that arouses
wonder or astonishment
workhouses - also known as the union, poorhouse, or simply "the house."
Publicly supported institutions to which the sick, destitute, aged, and
otherwise impoverished went for food and shelter. After the New Poor Law
was passed in 1834 the workhouse became little more than a prison for the
poor. Civil liberties were denied, families were separated, and human dignity
was destroyed. The meager diet instituted in the workhouse prompted Dickens
to quip that the poor were offered the choice of "being starved by a gradual
process in the house, or by a quick one out of it."
whist - popular 19th century card game, evolved into today's bridge.
whitey-brown paper - paper, not fully bleached, used for wrapping
and for toilet paper.
wicket-gate - small gate into a field
withal - in addition
worrit - worry
Yarmouth - seaside town in Norfolk. Mr. Peggoty lives in Yarmouth
in David Copperfield.
yeoman - small, independent farmer who cultivated his own land.
- Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
- What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew - Daniel Pool
- The Annotated Christmas Carol - Michael Patrick Hearn
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- Cambridge Advanced
- Penguin Dickens Classics
The Old Curiosity Shop
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Charles Dickens - Selected Journalism 1850-1870
The Christmas Books
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
A Tale of Two Cities