1:30 pm EDT, October 13, 2016

Bryan Kozlowski describes 5 befuddling drinking words from Charles Dickens

Ever wanted a uniquely specific word to describe how drunk someone was? Bryan Kozlowski, Dickensian scholar and author of What the Dickens?!, has you covered.

About ‘What the Dickens?!’


What larks! Dive into the world of literature’s ultimate wordsmith, Charles Dickens, in this literary romp through his finest quips, barbs, and turns of phrase.

Featuring 200 of Dickens’ best-loved words, drawn from his 15 novels and hundreds of short stories, What the Dickens?! is full of period-appropriate definitions, pithy commentary, and charming illustrations. Perfect for word nerds and book lovers of all ages, this volume will have you dragging your friends to the hippo-comedietta and bonneting your anti-Pickwickian adversaries like a proper Victorian in no time!

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5 Befuddling drinking words from Charles Dickens

For a man who considered himself a temperate drinker, Charles Dickens certainly poured out quite a few potations in his novels. His characters are constantly awash (and many a-wobbling) with rum, beer, and gin. And cozy drinking scenes in dim Victorian pubs are among the most memorable in his fiction.

But after nearly two centuries of being in print, many of Dickens’ delightful descriptions of alcohol (and its effects) are lost on the modern reader. And what good is a bar joke if you’re 150 years ahead of the punch line? There’s some delightful drinking terms in the Dickensian universe and here are a few that should definitely be revived:


“He’s enough to break his mother’s heart, is this boy…
A muddling and a swipey old child,” said Miss Wren.
Our Mutual Friend

Need a word that describes inebriation in the mildest extreme? We’re talking about a one-glass bunny-hill buzz that barely deserves the title of “tipsy.” Need a word for that? Then you need to learn about swipey — the Victorian slang for just an itsy bitsy wee bit drunk.

It comes from the word swipes, another 19th-century drinking slang. Swipes referred to any beer that was so weak (in alcohol content) it stopped being considered actual beer by any self-respecting imbiber. No one could get very excited off of swipes in Dickens’ day, which is why one character in Oliver Twist understandably describes a boring evening as being “as dull as swipes.” Those who could swipe their way to silliness, though, naturally earned the pathetic branding of swipey.

No Heeltaps!

“Beg your pardon, sir,” said the stranger, “bottle stands—pass it round
—way of the sun—through the button-hole—no heeltaps,” and he
emptied his glass… with the air of a man who was used to it.
The Pickwick Papers

“No heeltaps!” is the quick Victorian way of saying drink up and don’t you dare leave a drop of alcohol in that glass! The expression derived from a cobbler’s term, with “heeltaps” originally denoting small pieces of leather fastened onto the bottom (heel) of a shoe. Thus, all subsequent ties between drinking and heeltaps were simply variations on “bottoms up!” (though the idea of a prim Victorian gent chugging back a dizzying drink only to fall back with his heels skyward is a nice visual, too).


“Will you mix it, Mr. Wegg?” that gentleman pleasantly
rejoined, “I think not, sir. On so auspicious an occasion,
I prefer to take it in the form of a Gum-Tickler.”
Our Mutual Friend

A gum-tickler is an undiluted spirited drink, something strong enough to, you guessed it, tickle the gums in your mouth (though it’s proposed that “gum” here is actually referencing a Germanic word for “palate”). Straight-up rum was most often associated with gum-tickling in Dickens’ day, though the word was much more popular in America at the time. Indeed, gum-tickler was first mentioned in an American travelogue, back in 1810, along with other delightfully generic names for hard liquor, such as “phlegm-cutter,” “gall-breaker,” and “antifogmatic.”

Timber Doodle

“The bar is a large room with a stone floor, and there… the stranger
is initiated into the mysteries of gin-sling, cocktail, sangaree,
mint-julep, sherry cobler, timber-doodle, and other rare drinks.”
American Notes

Dickens never tells us what a “Timber Doodle” was, though it’s been theorized it was a loosely generic term for any mixed drink, an early 19th-century synonym for what we’d now call a cocktail (“cocktails” hadn’t yet been cemented into the English lexicon as the definitive name for mixed drinks). In addition, “timberdoodle” was another name for the American woodcock, a game bird, whose suggestive tail may very well have played a part in the naming of original cocktails. But whatever Timber Doodle was, its name was obviously too cute to forget. In 1843, Dickens named his first and most beloved dog — what else? — Timber Doodle.


“Perhaps we had better retire,” whispered Mr. Pickwick.
“Never, sir,” rejoined Pott, pot-valiant in a double sense, “never.”
–The Pickwick Papers

No doubt you’ve come across pot-valiance before: it’s the Victorian version of what we would now call “liquid courage” — the sort of stupid bravado only alcohol can impart. But if the pot part of pot-valiant is confusing to you, here’s a historic reminder: For Victorians, “pot” was an old, though still generic, term for any drinking vessel (we still consider a potion as something to be drank). Case in point: 19th-century pubs were ubiquitously known as “pot-houses,” bar servers as “pot-boys,” and drinking buddies as good old “pot companions.”

About the author

Bryan Kozlowski author photo

Bryan Kozlowski is the author of What the Dickens?! — Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them. A member of the Dickens Fellowship, he’s written on Charles Dickens’ life and legacy for Slate, Country Life magazine, and Anglotopia.

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