Regency Glossary: Slang

This page is devoted to terms and phrases of cant and slang used during the Regency. The slightly ruder terms would only have been used by gentlemen, especially young gentlemen, and not by ladies of quality.


affair of honor: A duel.

ape-leader: An old maid or spinster. Their punishment after death for failing to procreate, it was said, would be to lead apes in hell.

at sixes and sevens: A state of confusion.

Banbury tale: a nonsensical story.

barking irons: Pistols.

barque of frailty: A prostitute.

bear leader: A travelling tutor.

blue ruin: gin.

blunt: Money; ready cash.

caper merchant: Dancing instructor.

cent-per-center: A usurer or loan shark.

chit: A young girl.

cicisbeo: A married woman’s gallant, usually a platonic admirer.

cit: A contemptuous term for a member of the merchant class, one who works in or lives in the City of London, ie the central business area and financial center of London.

cock up one’s toes: To die.

come up to scratch: Make an offer of marriage. Diligent mamas are often hoping their daughters can bring a certain gentleman up to scratch.

corinthian: Fashionable man about town, generally a sportsman.

cyprian: A high-class prostitute.

dandy: A gentleman who is fastidious about his appearance, especially his clothing. He is not, as is often believed, a flashy or even flamboyant dresser, as was his 18th century predecessor, the Macaroni. George “Beau” Brummell eptomized the Dandy. He was concerned with perfect tailoring and fabrics, cleanliness, and simplicity of dress. He believed that good fashion should be understated and elegant, not eye-catching.

darken his daylights: To give [him] a black eye.

diamond of the first water: A very beautiful young woman. The phrase comes from a technical term used to describe diamonds. The degree of brilliance in a diamond is called its “water”, so a “diamond of the first water” is an exceptionally fine diamond.

dished up: Financially ruined.

doxy: Prostitute.

dun territory: Lacking funds; in debt.

follow the drum: Follow the military, eg a wife who accompanies her husband in the army.

foxed: Drunk; inebriated.

gull: (v.) to trick someone, generally to trick them out of money; or (n.) a simpleton, easily cheated.

handle the ribbons: To drive a coach or carriage.

high in the instep: Arrogant; snobbish; overly proud; and very much aware of social rank .

hoyden: A girl who is boisterous, carefree, or tomboyish in her behavior.

in one’s black books: Out of favor.

ladybird: a lover or kept mistress.

A Mill at Fives Court

A Mill at Fives Court

leg-shackled: Married.

light skirt: Prostitute.

mill: A boxing match. The term can also be used to refer to a less formal bout, ie a barroom brawl or fist-fight.

missish: Squeamish, prim, prudish, ie behavior befitting a young miss.

mushroom: A person suddenly come into wealth; an upstart; an allusion to the fungus that starts up in the night.

nabob: An Englishmen who made his fortune in India.

on dit: French phrase meaning, “It is said” or “One says”. In Regency slang, it meant gossip, eg “the latest on dit.”

on the shelf: Beyond marriageable age; no longer wanted. Used in reference to a spinster, never a man who, one assumes was always wanted, regardless of age.

parson’s mousetrap: Marriage.

Pink of the Ton: Also Pink of Fashion. The term is generally applied only to males and refers to a man at the height of fashion. A dandy. Per the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “the top of the mode.”

plant a facer: To hit someone in the face.

Mail coach with guard in back blowing his yard of tin.

Mail coach with guard in back blowing his yard of tin.

Spanish coin: False flattery.

toad eater: Flatterer; toady.

under the hatches: Without funds; in debt.

vowels: An IOU.

yard of tin: The horn, generally a yard or so long, used by the guard of a mail coach or stage coach to warn of approach and departure.

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