Christopher Howse

‘Ware’s Victorian Dictionary of Slang and Phrase’, by J. Redding Ware - review

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Ware’s Victorian Dictionary of Slang and Phrase

J. Redding Ware

Bodleian Library, pp. 382, £

James Redding Ware, with his idiosyncratic treatment of slang, plunges the reader straight into the late 19th-century Bartholomew Fair of undeserving paupers, loafers, Ally Slopers, theatrical types and demi-mondaines.

He drew on his own Grub Street life for this discursive lexicon, from A.D. (‘a drink’) to Zulu Express (the nickname for a Great Western service), published, days before his death in 1909, as Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase. The Bodder has faked it up nicely in smudgy facsimile, with burgundy end-papers, a new title and an introduction by John Simpson of the OED, who devours dictionaries with his morning porridge.

Ware, born in 1832, served time for threatening his father, a Southwark cheesemonger, with a bacon-knife. Sinking into magazine journalism, he also wrote pseudonymous fiction, notably The Female Detective in 1864. The story in his pamphlet, The Road Murder, was retold with élan by Kate Summerscale in 2008 as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

In Ware’s London a toff was in trouble if he took the wrong turning. ‘Who did you say?’ is one of the phrases he records, to be used out of the blue by one loafer to another in the hearing of any passing personage looking at all self-important.

Perhaps the most surprising insult recorded by Ware is Silly moo!, ‘said generally of a stupid woman’, as Alf Garnett would agree. But then, Johnny Speight was born, across the river, only 11 years after Ware’s death.