Do You Know These Words and Phrases?

I was reading a period piece recently and came across the words and phrases below. How many of these do you use?

Verge – British: A grass edging such as that by the side of a road or path

Embarazo – Spanish: an embarrassment, an impediment, or obstacle

Plain as a Pikestaff – British: Very obvious; Ordinary or unattractive in appearance.
[a Late 16th Century word: Alterative of as plain as a packstaff, the staff being that of a peddler, on which he rested his pack of wares]

Doing It Too Brown – [thought to be a creation of Georgette Heyer]

DO UP BROWN – 1. To swindle, victimize, trounce, or defeat (someone) thoroughly. 1824 in Partridge. He is said to be “cooked,” or “done brown” and “dished.” 2. To do (something) thoroughly, excellently, or perfectly. 1843 in G. W. Harris “High Times” 29: Those are places where things are done up brown! From “Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume 1, A-G” by J.E. Lighter, Random House, New York, 1994.

DO IT UP BROWN“Do something well; do it to one’s satisfaction. In England the phrase has had the meaning of deceive or take in. Either way, it carries the implication of doing something thoroughly and probably comes from the roasting of meat, yielding a brown color that is the result of thorough cooking. One can see the term in the making in ‘Liber Cure Cocorum’ (1430)” ‘Lay hur (the goose) to frye and rost hyr browne.'” From the “Dictionary of Cliches” by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985).

James Belcher - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

James Belcher – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A Belcher Handkerchief[from Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: A Dictionary Historical and Comparative of the Heterodox Speech of All Classes of Society for More Than Three Hundred Years With Synonyms in English, French, German, Italian, Etc. ~ Anonymous] – A neckerchief named after Jim Belcher, a noted pugilist. The ground is blue, with large white spots having a dark-blue spot or eye in the centre of each. Hence any handkerchief of a parti-colour round the neck. 

1812. Examiner, 21 Sept., 607, 1. The traverser…tied a belcher handkerchief round his neck. 

1825. Lister, Granby, xxxix. 261. Instead of the Belcher he has a loose black handkerchief round his neck. 

Truckle Bed [also known as a Trunkle Bed] – a low bed on casters, usu. pushed under another bed when not in use. Also called truckle bed. [1535–45]; (Furniture) a low bed on wheels, stored under a larger bed, used esp formerly by a servant

Measured for a Cerecloth – a “cerecloth” is a cloth coated with wax, formerly used for wrapping the dead. – (Textiles) waxed waterproof cloth of a kind formerly used as a shroud (1400-1450)

[from the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Volume 58] “15. Antiseptic Cere-cloth for covering Wounds. – Mr. Edward Lund brought to the notice of the Surgical Section of the British Medical Association, at its late meeting, a material which he says he has ‘lately used with great advantage for covering wounds, and which I have called antiseptic cerecloth. It is, as the name implies, cloth or thin calico saturated with waxy matter in the form of solid paraffin, to which are added a little oil and was, with carbolic acid in certain proportions. It possesses this double property, that, when placed over a wound, ulcer, or the opening of an abscess, it not only serves to exclude the air as an impervious dressing to the part, but it constantly emits from its surface the vapor of carbolic acid, as it is disengaged by the heat of the body, and so forms an antiseptic atmosphere around the wound.”

Done to a Cow’s Thumb – done exactly. [Definition taken from The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, originally by Francis Grose.]

Fig Him Out – [not “figure him out” as we women often bemoan] search for or deck one out in proper clothes 

Look Blue by a Mouth – a “mouth” was a term to denote the acting/ speaking “lord” or high society master of title. Its connotation is that he could only talk or command in words and could not physically or personally “do” much of anything; being a doer, not a thinker

As Queer as Dick’s Hatband – [The following entry comes from World Wide Words.]

0e7486e“In truth, nobody has quite got to the bottom of this one. It was once commonly encountered in phrases like as tight as Dick’s hatband or as queer as Dick’s hatband. It means that something is absurd, perverse, or peculiar.
“Its earliest appearance in print is in the 1796 edition of Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. From references in various dialect and local glossaries, it seems to have been widely known in the early nineteenth century. This, for example, turns up in The History and Antiquities of Boston (the original, in your grandmother’s home country of Lincolnshire) by the wonderfully named Pishey Thompson, published in 1856:
“’As queer as Dick’s hatband.’ Mr. Wilbraham, in his “Cheshire Glossary,” has, “as fine as Dick’s hatband,” and says, that the phrase is very local; but an allusion to Dick’s hatband seems to have reached across the island.
“It had by then long since been taken across the Atlantic, since it is referred to in 1848 in A Dictionary of Americanisms, by John Russell Bartlett:
DICK’S HATBAND. This very singular expression I have often heard in Rhode Island. Mr. Hartshorne calls it “one of those phrases which set philologists and antiquarians at defiance.” It is in general use throughout Shropshire, where it is applied as a comparison for what is obstinate and perverse. Ex. “As curst as Dick’s hatband, which will come nineteen times round and won’t tie at last;” “As contrary as Dick’s hatband;” “As false as Dick’s hatband;” “As cruikit as Dick’s hatband;” “As twisted as Dick’s hatband;” “All across, like Dick’s hatband;” “As queer as Dick’s hatband.”
I’ve also found as plain as Dick’s hatband and older than Dick’s hatband in later American works. Clearly an all-purpose expression — it adds emphasis to any occasion.
All well and good, you may agree, but none of this suggests where it comes from. There is a story that it refers to Richard Cromwell, the son of Oliver Cromwell, who briefly took over as Lord Protector of England in 1658 after his father’s death. Alas, he was not the man his father was. He was too amiable, thrust into a position of responsibility at a time of national crisis, and he was unable to reconcile the various factions in the military and Parliament. He was deposed after eight months. The hatband was supposed to be a reference to the crown of England, something he found too tight to wear with comfort.
“Nice story, but if true, we would expect to find an example of its use popping up well before Francis Grose mentioned it in 1796. Also, to be strictly correct about it (read pedantic if it makes you happier), Richard Cromwell never had the title of king, which was anathema to the Puritans of the time, and he certainly never wore a crown.
To judge from the evidence, it’s actually of lateish eighteenth-century origin. But where it comes from, and who Dick was, if he was ever a real person, we have no clear idea. An intriguing suggestion I’ve seen is that Dick here was originally Nick, a reference to the devil.”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Great Britain, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, Regency era, Victorian era, word play and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Do You Know These Words and Phrases?

  1. Fascinating. ‘Verge’ and ‘plain as a pikestaff’ are still in common usage in the UK but I’ve not come across the others.

  2. choirlady76 says:

    Reblogged this on Dutchess of Romance and commented:
    Love British English!

  3. I think it should be fit him out Regina not fig, I’ve never heard the expression fig but I recall always fit, I was fitted out for school, and when I first started out to work in London in 1950 I was again fit out luckily I was too young to have a bowler stuck on top of my noggin. LD

  4. please change the LD for a 😀 thanks Regina

  5. : D gives the big grin 😀

  6. ‘The grass verge’ is very familiar to me from my Irish childhood; it is also called ‘God’s Acre.’ It is a commons i.e belonging to nobody but God. I have often heard of a truckle bed, formerly used in cottages. I understood it to be a child’s bed.

    • oh would like to Edit – belonging to God which means everybody can use it; pick flowers, picnic etc. A few of these ‘grass verges’ can be big enough for a family to set out a table and chairs and eat a picnic lunch!

      • When I first heard the word, I assumed it meant what we in the States called a “median” … that strip of land with grass that divides a highway, but when I saw it in a Georgette Heyer book, I knew I erred.

    • I know the truckle bed as a child bed these days, but historically, I learned it was used for servants to sleep in the same room as their master or mistress.

      • Monica Perry says:

        I had always thought that was called a ‘trundle bed’. I only knew 1 person who had one – came in handy during sleepovers- and that’s what she called it.

      • In the U.S., we do say “trundle,” Monica. “Trundle” was what I always heard when growing up in Appalachia.

  7. Deborah Evans says:

    About Fig. I know I have read and heard the expression “he/she is in fine fig” meaning dressed to the hilt or overdressed depending on how it is said or within context of the sentence. I cannot remember where I read it, but I do remember hearing older people use this expression as a child in the ’50’s

    • Where I originate, it is common to say “I don’t give a fig.”
      Perhaps, Georgette Heyer, from whose book I took the phrase, changed it in the same way Monica and I were speaking on the word “truckle.”

  8. Deb says:

    We still have truckle beds and verges here (England).

    On ‘plain as a pikestaff’… It’s not an alteration of packstaff, it’s an alternative form. A pikestaff being the very plain wooden shaft that a pike head would be mounted on. (A pike is a sort of 16 – 18 foot spear used in the 15th – 17th centuries (roughly)).

Comments are closed.