Arts & Culture

Your Guide to ‘Jewish Slang’ in Victorian England

Hey Mannies and Bexandebs! Take a peek into what Victorians thought of Jews through the slang they used. Spoiler: it’s not flattering, but at least it’s funny. Read More

By / March 15, 2016

Looking to bring a dash of authenticity to your next Jewish Steampunk party? Want to know if you’re being insulted for your heritage if you travel back in time to Victorian England?

You’re in luck! An authentic 1909 slang dictionary is available for free online, and its many delights include words and phrases about and of the Jewish community of London’s East End. These Jews, many of them immigrants from other European countries and their descendants, were largely working class, often operating in trade when intersecting with mainstream society, but also having a world unto themselves. With this combination of insularity and mingling with a racist culture in cursory ways, what could possibly go wrong?

Routledge books published Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English Slang and Phrase in 1909 (a few years after the era formally ended). James Redding Ware, the pseudonym of English writer Andrew Forrester, is the author. You can read the whole book online, and it’s quite a work. The dictionary is full of gems you should absolutely incorporate into your vocabulary ASAP: A “mutton shunter” is a police officer, and “batty-fang” is “to thrash thoroughly.” You can use enough of these words to make yourself completely incomprehensible, if you like. Instead of going for a walk to look at the sky, “Do a stamp” to “cast an optic” at the “blue blanket.”

The introduction to the book mentions that it contains several entries for “Anglo-Yiddish,” part of a specifically East London vernacular rich in language “outgrown from the Hebrew stem.” Jews were a growing minority, so they’re well-represented in this work.

In contemporary America, especially cities like New York, words like “schlep” and “chutzpah” have made it to the mainstream, so how did Jews factor into the common language in the epicenter of one of the world’s most powerful empires? Let’s go through a Magical Mystery Tour.

To get it over with, the first category isn’t words borrowed from Jews so much as… slurs. But get excited— you’ve never seen anti-Semitic slurs as nuanced and colorful as this! There are variations for any occasion:

Piebald Mucker Sheeny

Piebald mucker sheeny (E. Lond.). Low old Jew.

Porky

Porky (Low. Class). Name for a pork-butcher, and sometimes satirically for a Jew.

Wedge

Wedge (Thieves’). Jew. A wedge fixes objects or breaks them up. So a Jew-fence, in relation with thieves, or a Jew ordinary, in his everyday business, is supposed to ‘wedge’ the other.

Snide and shine and snide-sparkler

Snide and shine (E. London). General description of the common Jews of the East of London by their Christian brethren. Both words bear the same meaning, but taken together are most emphatic.
Snide-sparkler (Trade — Jewish Jewellers’). False diamond.

Killers

Christ-killers (Peoples’, 19 cent.). Jews. Passing away-chiefly used by old army men. ‘What can you expect?—he’s a Christ-killer. Pay up your sixty per cent, and try and look pleasant!’

I do wonder why did army veterans in particular tended to use that slur, but other slurs are so bizarre they’re almost delightful:

Bexandebs

Bexandebs (E. London, 18th cent. on). A young easy-go Jewess in the Wentworth Street district. A combination of Becks (Rebeccas) and Debs (Deborahs), used satirically, e.g., ‘The bexandebs are in full feather— it’s Pentecost Shobboth!’

Wow, the more things change, the more they stay the same! I too get in full feather when it’s Pentecost Shobboth! But what about my male counterparts? This only applies to Jewesses, like me!

As someone who bristles at the term “J.A.P,” it’s nice to know that Jewish women have always been shamed for attempting to make themselves look nice as though it were a sign of unearned entitlement.

Superbacy

Judaic superbacy (C. Garden and vicinity, 1897). Jew in all the glory of his best clothes—generally a young Joseph, or a young old David.

Ah, thank you. I have no idea what the difference is between a “young Joseph” and “young old David.”

Next, we have words as advertised, lifted out of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Jewish culture. It seems something might have been lost in translation, and at times, transliteration:

Trifa

Trifa (Jewish). Unclean—clean things may become trifa; others, such as pork and shell-fish, are always trifa. Applied widely in E. London.
Tripha, ritually unclean.—I. Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto.
The slaughterer must be a man of high moral character. In opening the animal, he must make a thorough inspection of it, and if he finds it in any way diseased, he pronounces ‘trefa’— that it is unfit for the food of Jews.
(See Kosher.)

Kollah

Kollah (Hebr. Yiddish). A bride. Often spelled calloh (q.v.).

Picture 25

Collah Carriage

Collah Carriage (Street Negro Minstrels). A railway carriage filled with women—Collah being Yiddish for young girls. ‘Git into a collah carriage.’ Said while waiting on a railway platform by one negro minstrel to another, both with their musical instruments of torture, their banjos, ready.
Until stopped by the police these tiresome persons found it pay to take shilling third-class return tickets some way down a line, and change their carriage at every station—making a collection before every change. The victims fixed, and many of them nervous, it was a poor collection that did not produce threepence. Granted twenty stations there and back, five shillings was the result—a profit of three shillings—while they had their ride to some fair or festive occasion and back for nothing. Probably derived from Hebrew negro minstrels in the first place—practically all Jews singing from birth, while most acquire some aptitude on some musical instrument.

…What?

Er… points for sort of including Jews of Color, I suppose. And yes, it’s true. Most Jews can proficiently sing before we can hold our heads up on our own.

Shofel

Shofel (E. London). Hansom cab. Said to be derived from the peaked bonnets in use about 1850-1853, which Jewesses dubbed by the name. Shofel, it seems, is a common word for hood, peak, or eave— even a hook nose.
Shool (E. London). Church or chapel—from this Hebrew word representing synagogue.
The beadle’s eye was all over the shool at once.—Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto.

The thought of English Christians calling their church “shool” is somehow hilarious. As for “shofel,” thanks for tying it into hooked noses at the last second there. That was almost a missed opportunity!

This dictionary seems to have used Israel Zangwill’s novel Children of the Ghetto as the ultimate source for Judaism. Zangwill was an authentic source, but it’s also clear that Ware didn’t bother to find a real Jewish person with whom to talk, as becomes increasingly clear:

Kosal Kasa and Kosher

Kosal Kasa (Hebrew—Trade). 1s. 6d.—the Hebrew words for ‘1’ and ‘6’.
Kosher (E. Lond., Judaic). Pure—undefiled. Word used by Jews in reference to eatables, and especially alcoholic drinks at certain feasts of the year, especially Passover and Pentecost. The word is here written phonetically, but in actuality the vowels are omitted K SH R, or rather R SH K, to be very precise. The antithesis of this word is Trifer—unclean, unholy, written T R F R.

Oh, honey. You tried.

First of all, the words for 1 and 6 in Hebrew, transliterated respectively, are Echad and Shesh.

Next, the explanation for how Hebrew works (backwards with no vowels) doesn’t make sense in the Latin alphabet. Let’s have a secret message writing the same way:

THSLLB S SHT.

Ashkenazic

Ashkenazic. German and Polish Jews.

So close again! But did you know Jews immigrated to the U.K. from more than two European countries?

Finally, there is actually some slang in the book that seems to be used within the Jewish community (though I somehow doubt it’s comprehensive, or even fully accurate):

Manny

Manny (Jewish E. London). Term of endearment or admiration prefixed to Jewish name, as ‘Manny Lyons’. Apparently a muscular Hebrewism.

OurWord4A

Think and Thank

Think and thank (English-Jewish). Translated from the first words of the ordinary Hebrew morning prayer. Implies gratitude.

Fun fact- this was the motto of Moses Montefiore. Really.

Judy-slayer

Judy-slayer (London, Jewish). Lady-killer.

File that one under “Ideas for Names for Jewish Punk Bands.”

Pound to an olive

Pound to an olive (Jewish). This is a phrase resulting out of the Hebrews’ love of olives, and is equivalent to the sporting term, ‘It’s a million pounds to a bit o’ dirt.’

OK, Jews do like olives. You get that one.

OurWord6A

stuffedmonkey

Stuffed monkey (Jewish Lond.). A very pleasant close almond biscuit.
Now the confectioner exchanges his stuffed monkeys, and his bolas… for unleavened palavas, etc.—Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto.

OK, I admit that I was so excited to learn about a Jewish pastry I had never heard of that I tracked down the recipe and made it. But that is a story for another day.

Reading through these can be a bit exhausting if you don’t have a sense of humor. Ultimately, Ware was adorably misguided. He was trying to depict authentic London street language and culture, but was still looking through the lens of good-old-fashioned Victorian racism and imperialism. These are the Jews that Dickens and du Maurier caricatured, where gross stereotype is taken as sociological study.

At least it’s also a peek into a great chapter in Jewish history, and some great ideas for the names of the lineup at a neo-klezmer festival.

To part, here are a few other selections from the dictionary, ranging from the innocuous to the nigh incomprehensible:

Synagogue

Synagogue (Covent Garden, 1890 on). Shed in the north-east corner of ‘the Garden’. So called from this place (erected 1890) being wholly ‘run’ by Jews.

Clobber

Clobber (Jewish, E. London). Superior, or rather startling clothing. In Hebrew ‘KLBR’.
‘My high—look at Beck.’

Or, you can spell it with a “K”:
Picture 28

Klobber

Klobber (E. London). Jewish for best or state clothes generally.
Kate Vaughn was perhaps a trifle too dainty, and I fancy any Kitty so circumstanced, on the sudden return of master in the midst of unlawful revelry, would have taken some pains to cover up the resplendent and unaccustomed ‘klobber’—I believe that is the aristocratic term, Kate ought to know, now,—donned for the occasion.—Ref. 17th May 1885.
And belted knight
Isn’t such a sight
As Becky Moss in her klobr.’
‘So I klobbered myself up as well as circs would permit.’

Link and froom


Link and froom (Street, Hebrew). ‘Dolly’, who was a Jewess, but one who was link rather than froom, was about forty years old at the time of her death.—Ref., 3rd February 1889.

Saveloy Square

Saveloy Square (E. London). Duke Place, Aldgate—so named satirically on the lucus a non lucendo principle— because, being wholly inhabited by Jews, no ordinary sausages are ever found there.

It’s been real.  BEXANDEB OUT!