Victorian slang - a guide to sexual Victorian terms
by Magda Knight
Victorian slang is littered with weird and wonderful references to hanky-panky, and our charmingly filthy how-to guide for sexual victorian slang is guaranteed to make your boyfriend/girlfriend blush. Are your twiddle-diddles boiling over at the thought? Then it's time to dust off your Victorian lingo and visit the Abbess for directions to Cock Lane...
Sex and the Victorians
We in the highly sexed early 21st century often assume that the Victorians were quite a prudish lot. We tend to think of quiet tea parties where frank discussions about anything, least of all sex, were strictly taboo. The Victorians, it is assumed, said "white meat" instead of "breast"; Victorian women only thought of sex as a means to producing children and caged themselves from neck to foot in stiff crinoline and whalebone. Was this true? Were the Victorians scandalized by even the very mention of sex or of sexual desire? How "Victorian" were their ideas about love and sex before and after marriage? How was sexual desire thought to be divided along gender lines? What were Victorian assumptions about female or male sexuality? What were Victorian attitudes about gay or lesbian desire?
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.
Famously, Victorian art critic John Ruskin had been to Venice and Paris but had no idea that women possessed a triangle of fur above their genitals. Thus on his wedding night he went into apoplectic spasms when presented with his naked wife Effie's tuft of pubic hair.
Writer Peter Gay discovered a different crop of Victorians, however - bourgeois folk who were sexually aware, sexually active, just discreet about it. Gay's revisionist vision of the Victorians is confirmed by an art show that originated at the Tate Museum in London. "Exposed: The Victorian Nude" is not an exhibit of a few daguerreotypes of naked piano legs. Rather, a viewer wanders among more than a hundred paintings and sculptures and photographs of naked women, men and children. We can see proof that the Victorians were at least as sexually knowing as the average modern subscribers to HBO.
Victorian slang and Victorian sex
One thing that Victorian slang reveals is that, for all our talk of Victorian prudery, you could strip a Victorian man and woman naked and find they had the same attitude to sex as us. If they were poor and impolite, that is.
If you look at our quick guide to Victorian slang for rude bits below, you'll see how cute and endearing all the words to describe a man's bollocks are. You'll worry at the connotations of referring to the muffs of little girls as their 'money'. You'll laugh at the pomposity of a man's willy being his Nebuchadnezzar! And you'll groan at the dubious humour of a grown woman's quim being called her 'old hat' (because it's frequently felt).
There's plenty of history and home-made social comment to be found in words, and some of this slang is simply dying to re-enter modern society - so find a favourite Victorian word and pass it on!
Victorian slang - quick sex dictionary
Victorian slang - doing sexy
Victorian slang - Was sex ever talked of?
The Victorians, with their supposedly prudish ways, had a treasure-trove of slang. Victorian slang was commonly used to allude to all things sexy, since making the beast with two backs was not spoken of in polite Victorian drawing rooms... But was, nevertheless, a prime topic of discussion in bawd-houses (brothels) and lusheries (cheap drinking dens) all over town.
Victorian slang is full of colourful terms for all sexual matters. Male / female private parts and sexual positions were alluded to by sly, saucy, filthy-sounding and occasionally endearing Victorian slang words (Just imagine: Victorian gentlemen would turn to jelly over a flash of ankle or knee, so they'd probably have a 3-second Vesuvius eruption over actual breasts and bottoms!).
Slang is a wonderful way of broaching a taboo subject without really speaking of it - if a Victorian was to spice their conversation with vulgar slang, then those in know would understand, and if they didn't know what you meant it was probably safer all round.
But who used sexy Victorian slang?
If you look through our guide to Victorian sexual slang below, you'll see there were plenty of semi-polite terms of endearment that could be used by a loving man and wife, or by a couple that had romantic feelings for each other, even if their night-time fumblings were a bit beyond the social pale.
Vulgar slang would also have been used by polite gentlemen looking for a quick tumble, a bit of dirty sex that they could keep nice and separate from their respectable, mundane marriage life. It was a regular custom for married Victorian couples to have their own bedrooms, so a gentleman parched for sex would not be averse to consorting with prostitutes or procuring a mistress.
Slang was the daily staple of a commoner's vocabulary - their bread, butter, treacle pudding and foie gras. And sex was even better than slang! Sex was breakfast, elevenses, dinner and tea all rolled into one. Most poverty-stricken Victorians couldn't afford to have the same hoity-toity values as rich toffs. Poor Victorians were less likely to wait until marriage to have sex, and more likely to have a series of sexual partners in their lives. If you're poor, and can't afford many pleasures, what else is there to do? Other than drink at a lusher, flash house (drinking den for criminals) or flash house - which leads to dropped inhibitions and the likelihood of more sex anyway.
Slang and Victorian prostitution
Polite gentlemen would also have been pretty familiar with sexual victorian slang. Prostitution was big business in Victorian cities. 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. 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. You had toffers (posh prostitutes) and bawd-houses ranging from grimy cheapside affairs to select brothels that catered to exotic, expensive or even simply clean tastes.
Prostitutes and procuring love for money were rife in the Victorian era. 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. 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.
Sexual slang offered Victorians a form of protection. If a gentleman fancied dabbing it up with a naughty bobtail in a quiet cheapside brothel, he could use victorian slang as a kind of code - a polite woman would not understand his request and a naughty lady (a filthy, rampant biter, f'rinstance) 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.
Full dictionary of sexy Victorian slang
Further reading on sexy Victorians
More How to guides, Interesting Hobbies and Arts & Crafts
@MagdaKnight is an author and the Co-Founder / Editor of Mookychick. Her YA and cross-genre fiction has been published in anthologies and in 2000AD. She likes you already, you know. It must be the jaunty angle of your hat. You can email her and visit her blog.