List of 19th century English language idioms

List of 19th century English language idioms

This is a list of idioms that were recognizable to literate people in the late 19th century, and have become unfamiliar since.

As the article list of idioms in the English language notes, a list of idioms can be useful, since the meaning of an idiom cannot be deduced by knowing the meaning of its constituent words. See that article for a fuller discussion of what an idiom is, and what it is not. In addition, the often obscure references or shared values that lie behind an idiom will themselves lose applicability over time, although the surviving literature of the period relies on their currency for full understanding.

Contents: Top · 0–9 A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z



  • Bidding Prayer – an exhortation to prayer in some special reference, followed by the Lord's Prayer, in which the congregation joins.
  • Blue-gown – in Scotland a beggar, a bedesman of the king, who wore a blue gown, the gift of the king, and had his license to beg.
  • Bonnet-piece – a gold coin of James V of Scotland, so called from the king being represented on it as wearing a bonnet instead of a crown.
  • Brown, Jones, and Robinson – three middle-class Englishmen on their travels abroad, as figured in the pages of Punch.


  • Chicard – (French loanword) the harlequin of the French carnival, grotesquely dressed up.

  • Circumlocution Office – a name employed by Dickens in Little Dorrit to designate wearisome Government bureaucracy.
  • Cockney School – An epithet, originally abusive, for the second generation of Romantic writers, centered about Leigh Hunt, of whom John Keats is the most famous, as centered in London, and by implication lower-middle-class. (Revived by a school of London working-class writers in the 1890s).
  • Comity of Nations – the name given for the effect given in one country to the laws and institutions of another in dealing with a native of it (see extraterritoriality).
  • Corn-cracker – the nickname of a Kentucky man (pejorative).
  • Corpuscular Philosophy – the philosophy which accounts for physical phenomena by the position and the motions of corpuscles.
  • Cincinnatus of the AmericansGeorge Washington after the original Roman Cincinnatus.
  • Conscript Fathers – Translates Latin Patres Conscripti; this is a term for members of the Roman Senate.



  • Fagot vote – a vote created by the partitioning of a property into as many apartments as will entitle the holders to vote.
  • First Gentleman of EuropeGeorge IV of the United Kingdom, from his fine style and manners.
  • Federal Union – generally any union of states in which each State has jurisdiction in local matters, such as the United States.


  • Gehenna Bailiffs – ministers of hell's justice, whose function is to see to and enforce the rights of hell.
  • Gens Braccata – the Gauls, from braccæ or breeches.
  • Gens Togata – the Romans, from wearing the toga.
  • German Voltaire – name given sometimes to Wieland and sometimes to Goethe.
  • Gothamite – a native of New York City (still in use in some contexts).


  • Hectic fever – a fever connected with tuberculosis, and showing itself by a bright pink flush on the cheeks.
  • Horn Gate – the gate of dreams which come true, as distinct from the Ivory Gate, through which the visions seen are shadowy and unreal.



  • Jack Brag – a pretender who ingratiates himself with people above him.


  • The Open Secret – the secret that lies open to all, but is seen into and understood by only few, applied especially to the mystery of the life, the spiritual life, which is the possession of all (Carlyle).


  • Passing-bell – a bell tolled at the moment of the death of a person to invite his neighbours to pray for the safe passing of his soul. See Death knell.
  • Penny wedding – a wedding at which the guests pay part of the charges of the festival.
  • Persiflage – a light, quizzing mockery, or scoffing, especially on serious subjects, out of a cool, callous contempt for them.
  • Peter Bell – a simple rustic (Wordsworth).
  • Petite Nature – a French loanword applied to pictures containing figures less than life-size, but with the effect of life-size.
  • Pot-wallopers – a class of electors in a borough who claimed the right to vote on the ground of boiling a pot within its limits for six months.
  • Pourparler – a diplomatic conference towards the framing of a treaty.
  • Punic faith – a promise that one can put no trust in. From Latin punica fides, alluding to Roman mistrust of Carthage.


  • Revival of Letters – a term for literary aspects of the Renaissance, specifically the revival of the study of Greek literature.


  • sacred cow – a term for something untouchable, used in a sarcastic manner.


  • The Temple of Immensity – the universe as felt to be in every corner of it a temple consecrated to worship in.
  • Tom & Jerry – a pair of young men about town from the play Tom and Jerry, or Life in London which was very successful in England and the USA in the 1820s, based on the newspaper column by Pierce Egan.

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1907 edition of The Nuttall Encyclopædia.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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