Victorian Slang in Tipping the Velvet.

May 29, 2011 § 8 Comments

I’ve fallen down a definitional rabbit-hole – I’m not certain, but that could be a euphemism. I’ve somehow managed to set aside Sarah Water’s wonderful Tipping the Velvet and become completely engrossed in its Victorian-era sexual slang. It happens.

Mash

verb, noun 

“Nancy’s mashed out on that Kitty Butler, at the Palace,” said Davy. “Imagine that Uncle Joe – being mashed on a masher!” 

A man who is aggressive in making amorous advances towards women.

The word masher was most popular from the 1880s to the early 20th century, says the Oxford Etymologist Anatoly Liberman. The word had more of an edge than other terms for dashing womanisers like swell, dandy and beau.  

“A masher is usually a ‘swell’, but every swell is not a masher.  To be ‘awfully mashed on’ a young woman is equivalent… to being ‘terrible spoons’ or ‘very hard hit’.  The masher proper is a young gentleman… who, having become a devout adorer of some fair actress, nightly frequents the house where she is engaged, that he may feast his eyes upon her beauty.”

To be mashed means to be madly in love with a girl. This is the passive use. In the active voice, to mash is to make a girl crazy about oneself. From Walford’s Antiqurian (vol. 12, 1887, p. 93).

“Mash, to.  To impress women.  From mash as mixture, thus: 1) ‘Let’s go and have a mash’, that is, a drink.  2) ‘Who serves you mash?’  3) ‘Who’s your mash? (favorite barmaid)?’  Soon any girl who officiated in public, as dancer, singer, or actress, was called a mash, and admirers (young fellows that, at this time, always ‘got up’ in white vest, high white collar, white satin tie, box hat, and bangle on wrist) were termed mashers….”

Some suggest that masher is an alteration of the French ma chère but Liberman rejects this as well as any gypsy origins. Being a masher was a mostly male occupation though a woman could occasionally be calleded a mash. Liberman largely attributes the word to the American crush – a romantic term for being emotionally overwhelmed: crushed, smashed or mashed. The crush idiom had stronger staying-power and to mash was soon abandoned and forgotten.

Tom

noun

The man gave a sneer, then he hawked and spat. “Girls?” he cried. “You call them girls? Why, they’re nothing but a couple of – a couple of toms.”

Toms!

At the sound of it, the audience gave a great collective flinch. There was a sudden hush; the shouts became mumbles, the shrieks all tailed away. Through the shaft of limelight I saw their faces – a thousand faces, self-conscious and appalled. 

The meaning “bold or immodest woman” is attested from 1570s; that of “girl who acts like a spirited boy” is first recorded 1590s.

Perhaps, it means ‘prostitute’ and derives from London Cockney rhyming-slang: Trouble and Strife = Wife. Thomas More = Whore.

Later, in Victorian era: a Tomboyish Lesbian.

Though masher is more objectionable than dandy or swell, the word Tom has considerably nastier and more negative connotations in this period. Nancy’s family gently tease her by calling her a masher but being labelled a tom has socially disastrous consequences.

Tipping the Velvet

idiom, verb?

“I said, tipped the velvet: what does that mean? It sounds like something you might do in a theatre…”

Florence blushed. “You might try it,” she said; “but I think the chairman would chuck you out.” Then, while I still frowned, she parted her lips and showed me the tip of her tongue; and glanced, very quickly, at my lap. 

The tongue is the velvet, British slang from the late 1600s. But I guess a picture paints a thousand more words than a dictionary can.

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§ 8 Responses to Victorian Slang in Tipping the Velvet.

  • […] I knew the final fate of Nan King, the small-town oyster-girl who falls in love with music-hall masher Kitty Butler and follows her to London and a life previously […]

  • james says:

    Hi Deborah. I caught the bug even more than you. I got really interested in the whole Victorian era after reading Sarah Waters. I must have read about 20 books on it since, mostly history and memoirs but some fiction. Have you read the Forsyte saga? That starts off in late Vic times and lots of interesting slang there too.

  • Adele B. says:

    Very educational, even in New Orleans.

  • Annie says:

    A tom is and was a prostitute.

  • […] at the same time all-knowing yet experiencing everything for the first time, with us in tow. The new vocabulary and the acts and costumes and the seeming freedom of women on the stage left me quite splendidly […]

  • Ken Gage says:

    I noticed the term seems to be going strongly mainstream as evidenced in the 1942 film Fingers at the Window. Also from pop culture of the 1960s, you find a number of musicians with names like Lee “The Big Masher” Lilly.

  • Bob Amsel says:

    From Sarah Water’s first novel, I gather a “tom” is a butch lesbian.

  • From Victorian Erotica like The Pearl magazine (ca 1880) or The Romance of Lust, or Flossie or My Secret Life, the term “Tipping the Velvet” meant French kissing, kissing passionately with the tongue. In my youth I read all the Victorian erotica I could thanks to Grove Press because it was so much better written than the contemporary kind and much more inventive. In none of those books was the term ever used as a code word for cunnilingus.
    I was surprised to see it used as a phrase meaning cunnilingus in Sarah Waters’ book, particularly as she has a PhD in 19th Century Literature. In my opinion Ms Waters has adapted the word rather than using it in its original sense. In fact it was most commonly used about kissing between men and women.
    In re Tom, I think is is merely a term for lesbians, women who are viewed as taking the male role, or as Tom-boys. It’s use in Tipping the Velvet is inconsistent with its use in the Butch, i.e. highly masculinised, role. Neither Nan King nor Kitty Butler can be characterised as masculinised “Butches” King in particular is described as petite and slim and when she is not dressing up as a soldier for what might be considered heterosexual sex work, as a very femme lesbian. And Kitty Butler eventually marries, though not happily.

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