From the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: Soldiers

 I have to admit, all the research on the army, officers, militia and war has left me rather down, so I thought I would post something a little more light hearted on the subject today.

I am captivated by language and how it relates to a culture. With three teen aged sons living at home with me I get to hear a lot of the slang they encounter and I never cease to be fascinated by the terms that come up.  Since every era has its own unique slang, I thought it would be interesting to share some Regency era slang with you as it pertains to soldiers.

Terms for soldiers:

  • Bad bargain: a worthless soldier. Usage: One of his majesty’s bad bargains
  • Bloody Back: A jeering name for a soldier, for his scarlet coat.
  • Brothers of the blade: A soldier
  • Fogey or Old Fogey: A nickname for an invalid soldier.
  • British unforms circa 1812

    British red coat uniforms, circa 1812

    Foot wabbler: A contemptuous name for a foot soldier, commonly used by the cavalry.

  • Light bob: A soldier of the light infantry company.
  • Lobster: A nickname for a soldier, from the color of his clothes.
  • Parish soldier: A militiaman, from substitutes being frequently hired by the parish for those who do not wish to serve.
  • Skulker: A soldier who by feigned sickness evades his duty; a sailor who keeps below in time of danger
  • Swad or Swadkin: A soldier.

Interesting terms related to the military:

Act of parliament: A military term for five pints of beer. An act of parliament had formally obliged a landlord was formerly to give to each soldier this amount free.

 Black Guard: A shabby, mean fellow; derived from a number of dirty, tattered roguish boys, who attended at the Horse Guards and Parade in St. James’s Park, to black the boots and shoes of the soldiers, or to do any other dirty offices.

Blue plumb: A bullet.

Brown Bess: A soldier’s firelock.

Brown Bess musket

Brown Bess musket

Camp candlestick: A bottle, or soldier’s bayonet.

Halbert: A weapon carried by an infantry sergeant.

He carries the halbert in his face: a saying of one promoted from a sergeant to a commission officer.

Lumber: Live lumber; soldiers or passengers on board a ship are so called by the sailors.

Messmate: A soldier who eats at the same mess, companion or comrade.

Nightingale: A soldier who sings (cries) out at the halberts.

-It is a point of honour in some regiments never to cry out under the discipline of the cat of nine tails; to avoid which, they chew a bullet.

 Rag fair: An inspection of the linen and necessaries of a company of soldiers, commonly made by their officers on Mondays or Saturdays.

Sank, Sanky, Centipees: A tailor employed by clothiers in making soldier’s clothing.

A series of pole mounted weapons called halberts

Various Halberts

To be brought to the halberts: to be flogged. Soldiers of the infantry, when flogged,being commonly tied to three halberts, set up in a triangle, with a fourth fastened across them.

To boil one’s lobster— for a churchman to become a soldier: lobsters, which are of a bluish black, being made red by boiling.

To get a halbert: to be appointed a sergeant.

To hug brown Bess: to carry a firelock, or serve as a private soldier.

Smart money: Money allowed to soldiers or sailors for the loss of a limb, or other hurt received in the service.

Soldier’s mawnd: A pretended soldier, begging with a counterfeit wound, which he claims to have received at some famous siege or battle.

Surfeited with a blue plumb: wounded with a bullet.

Tattoo: A beat of the drum, of signal for soldiers to go to their quarters and for ale to stop being served.

Finally, in the category of not exactly slang but still pretty interesting:

Cold burning. A punishment inflicted by private soldiers on their comrades for trifling offences, or breach of their mess laws; it is administered in the following manner: The prisoner is set against the wall, with the arm that is to be burned tied as high above his head as possible. The executioner then ascends a stool, and having a bottle of cold water, pours it slowly down the sleeve of the delinquent, patting him, and leading the water gently down his body, till it runs out at his breeches knees: this is repeated to the other arm, if he is sentenced to be burned in both.

Quoted from:

Grose, Captain (Francis). (2004)  Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811 ed. Ikon Classics

by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved



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  1. Very interesting Maria. I can say that I do NOT want to experience ‘cold burning’. But maybe that was a Regency version of a ‘code red’ in the Marine Corp today (which is very controversial and has been included in various movies). Skulker and Nightingale had lives BEYOND the military of the days. I am always so intrigued to see where slang terms come from. Interesting article!


    1. There’s a lot I’ve been reading about that I wouldn’t want to experience! LOL. I think slang is fascinating though, a real window on the times.
      Thanks Barbra!

    • Sophia Rose on March 23, 2012 at 5:41 pm
    • Reply

    Very cool! I love learning historical cant and slang.


    1. so glad you enjoyed!

  2. Loved this site. Well done indeed!

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