‘Downton Abbey’ Takes the Biscuit: Our Favorite Words of Season 6


We don’t want to believe it but it’s true: Downton Abbey is coming to a close. We’ve been there since (almost) the beginning, collecting British idioms, cultural references, and plenty of anachronisms.

This final season doesn’t disappoint. Check out our favorite words and expressions from Downton Abbey, season 6.


Mary: “You don’t really mind, do you?”
Lord Grantham: “No, but I think it’s crackers.”

Episode 6, February 7, 2016

Crackers, British English slang for insane or crazy, has been around since 1925, the year this episode takes place. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term began as soldier and sailor slang — “To get the crackers, to go off one’s head” — and comes from cracked, “mentally unsound.”

But would Lord Grantham be using such a new slang term? Perhaps: he did serve in the military (although he wasn’t active in the trenches of World War I) and the word was widely used in print beginning in 1928, which means it might have been used in everyday speech shortly before then.


Lord Grantham [to Mary]: “I suppose you were a widow after all and not a deb in her first season.”

Episode 1, January 3, 2016

Deb is short for debutante, a young woman formally introduced into society. While debutante entered English from French in the early 19th century, deb began as U.S. slang around 1920, says the OED. F. Scott Fitzgerald used debbie in his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise: “Tom and Amory had outgrown the passion for dancing with mid-Western or New Jersey debbies at the Club-de-Vingt.” In 1922, James Joyce used deb in Ulysses: “Josie Powell that was, prettiest deb in Dublin.”

hold onto your hat

Mr. Finch: “If you could just tell me who’s replaced him.”
Mary: “Hold onto your hat, Mr. Finch, but I’m afraid I have.”

Episode 2, January 10, 2016

Hold onto your hat or hang onto your hat means “get ready for something big.” The idiom has been in use since the early 1900s with the OED’s earliest citation from American journalist Damon Runyon: “Hang onter yer hat—th’ cavalry’s comin’ through!”


Mary: “I thought all the fatstock shares took place before Christmas.”

Episode 2, January 10, 2016

Fatstock is a British term referring to marketable livestock and comes from the idea that farm animals such as pigs or cattle have been fattened for market. The term has been in use since either 1880 or 1812, depending on if you’re referring to the OED or Merriam-Webster, respectively.

golly gumdrops

Lord Grantham: “Golly gumdrops, what a turn-up!”

Episode 8, February 21, 2016

While we couldn’t find an exact origin of golly gumdrops, we assume it’s an alteration of golly, a euphemism for God or by God used to express wonder or surprise. Golly originated in the U.S. around 1743, says the OED. Another phrase involving gumdrops, goody gumdrops, is also a U.S. expression and came about in 1930.

I’ll say

Lady Rosamund: “This must be a strange and unsettling time for you.”
Bertie: “I’ll say.”

Episode 8, February 21, 2016

Used to express emphatic agreement, I’ll say originated around 1919.

Madame Defarge

Daisy: “’Not possible’? Don’t give me ‘not possible.’
Mrs. Patmore: “All right, Madame Defarge, calm down and finish that mash.”

Episode 4, January 24, 2016

Madame Defarge is a character from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and a “tireless worker for the French Revolution.” In this episode Daisy is angered about the ill treatment she thinks her ex-father-in-law has received at the hands of the upper class, namely her employer Cora Grantham.

make a pass

Mary [to Henry]: “I hope this means you’re boiling up to make a pass before we’re done.”

Episode 4, January 24, 2016

The term to make a pass, to make a sexual or amorous advances upon, originated in the mid-1920s as U.S. slang, says the OED, and possibly by Dorothy Parker: “Men seldom make passes At girls who wear glasses.” Confusingly, the expression also means to make a threat of violence against.

medium smart

Mary [to Anna]: “Pack something for the evening. Medium smart.”

Episode 6, February 7, 2016

Smart here means “attractively neat and stylish,” as the OED puts it, or “relatively formal.” We couldn’t find any references for medium smart, beyond those for the show itself, but we’re guessing it means something like a little less formal.


Carson: “Before we take our seats, I believe, as the groom, that I have the right to a few words. I will not be prolix, but it must be right that I mark that I am the happiest and luckiest of men.”

Episode 3, January 17, 2016

Prolix is a rather stuffy term well-suited for Carson: it means overly long or wordy, and comes from the Latin prōlixus, “poured forth, extended.”

sex appeal

Lord Grantham: “What’s he got that fascinates Mary when poor old Tony’s rolling acres and glistening coronet didn’t? You’ll say sex appeal, but isn’t Mary too sensible?”

Episode 7, February 14, 2016

In addition to making us uncomfortable coming out of Robert’s mouth, the term sex appeal originated around 1904. Twenty years later, a verb form of the phrase arose: “She’d sex appeal me all right!”


Mary: “A table of singletons at our age. Well done.”

Episode 6, February 7, 2016

Anachronism alert! While the word singleton has been in use since the late 1800s, says the OED, it began as a bridge or whist term referring to the only card of a suit left in a player’s hand. About 20 years later it came to mean “a single thing” and “a single entry in a competition,” and 10 years after that, a child born from a single birth as opposed to twins, triplets, etc.

It wasn’t until the late 1930s, more than a decade after this episode takes place, that singleton came to mean an unaccompanied or unmarried person.

take the biscuit

Gladys Denker [to Septimus Spratt]: “Well, if that doesn’t just take the biscuit.”

Episode 7, February 14, 2016

The British idiom take the biscuit might be used to express surprise. In this scene, Denker’s having the opportunity to accompany Lady Grantham on her trip to the South of France is what takes the biscuit. The American expression take the cake could mean being ranked first, but is also an expression of surprise, either good or bad.

To make matters even more complicated, in Canadian English, to take or have the biscuit means to be of no further use or to be near death. The biscuit, says World Wide Words, refers to the Communion wafer taken during extreme unction, a Roman Catholic sacrament, and implies that if you take the biscuit slash wafer, you’re nearing the end of your life.

Not enough Downton Abbey for you? Check out our favorite words from more seasons past.

Like billy-o! Our Favorite Words of Downton Abbey, Season 5


Another season of Downton Abbey is ending, which means another batch of our favorite Downton Abbey words.

The fifth season (or series, the British way) takes place in 1924. Vladimir Lenin has died, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was performed for the first time, and Calvin Coolidge was elected President of the U.S.

Meanwhile, over in Yorkshire, meaningful glances were exchanged, acerbic quips quipped, and anachronisms dropped (we noticed three and a half). Pour yourself a cuppa and enjoy.


Edith: “Apparently, there’s a trial going on in Munich of the leader of a group of thugs there.”
Lord Grantham: “I read about this. They wear brown shirts and go around bullying people. They even tried to start a revolution last year.”

Episode 4, January 25, 2015

The brownshirts refer to members of the Nazi SA, or Sturmabteilung, who wore brown uniforms.

The Sturmabteilung, also known as Storm Detachment or Assault Division, was the “original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party,” and “played a key role in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s.”

cocktail party

Mary: “It’s very daring of the Lord Lieutenant to give a cocktail party. What do you think, Carson?”

Episode 5, February 1, 2015

Anachronism alert! While this episode takes place in 1924, the term cocktail party, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), originated in 1928. The earliest recorded citation from is D.H. Lawrence: “She almost wished she had..made her life one long cocktail party and jazz evening.”

However, it’s possible that the term was in use a few years before Lawrence used it in Lady Chatterley’s Lover since the word cocktail referring to a mixed alcoholic drink was coined in the early 1800s.


Mary: “What is your main objection to Mr. MacDonald? That the Prime Minister is the son of a crofter?”

Episode 1, January 4, 2015

A crofter is a tenant farmer, and a croft, as you might have guessed, a tenant farm. According to the OED, the word crofter is from the 18th century while croft is much older, originating in the 10th century. They both come from the Dutch kroft, “prominent rocky height, high and dry land, field on the downs.”

The “Mr. MacDonald” Mary refers to is James Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s first ever Labour Party Prime Minister. His working class background — MacDonald “studied and worked his way from a village to London and from manual labor to a political career” — was at the time unusual for a politician.


Thomas: “I went to London for what they call electrotherapy, and the pills and injections were supposed to continue the process.”

Episode 6, February 8, 2015

Electrotherapy is medical treatment using “electric currents.” The practice, used for everything from neurological disease to wound healing, was first developed in 1855 by French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne.

While electric shocks were used starting in the 1960s in homosexual conversion therapy, we couldn’t find, in at least a cursory search, the use of electrotherapy in the kind of conversion therapy Thomas is attempting in 1924.

In 1920, Sigmund Freud wrote in a paper that “changing homosexuality” would be difficult as it “was not an illness or neurotic conflict.” In 1935, Freud called homosexuality merely a “variation of the sexual function.”

Ellen_Terry_as_Lady_Macbeth (1)

Ellen Terry

Lady Grantham [to Isobel]: “Ellen Terry has nothing on you when it comes to stringing out a moment.”

Episode 5, February 1, 2015

Ellen Terry was an English stage actress known for her Shakespearean roles. Above is a painting by John Singer Sargent of Terry in perhaps her most famous role, Lady Macbeth.

fit as a flea

Rosamunde: “She’s just very tired. She’ll be fit as a flea tomorrow.”

Episode 5, February 1, 2015

Fit as a flea is an idiom meaning “in good health,” and originated around the 1880s, says the OED.

While the phrase probably plays off as fit as a fiddle, which came about in the 17th century, we don’t know why fleas would be considered hale, except perhaps because of their energetic jumping abilities.

So what does a fiddle have to do with being fit? Fit hasn’t always just meant healthy. In the 16th century, the word meant “possessing the necessary qualifications” and “in suitable condition,” according to the OED. So, presumably, a fiddle that was fit meant that it was fit for playing. It was around 1869 that fit came to mean being in good physical condition.

like billy-o

Lord Grantham: “But darling, you don’t want to rush into anything.”
Rose: “But I do. I want to rush in like billy-o.”

Episode 7, February 15, 2015

Like billy-o is an intensive phrase similar to like the devil, says the OED, and originated around 1885.

But where it comes from is less clear. While the town of Maldon in Essex attributes the saying to Joseph Billio, a minister who arrived in 1696 to build a chapel there, World Wide Words says the phrase billy-o arrived too long after the minister Billio, and that a connection is unlikely.

Other possible origins include “Lieutenant Nino Bixio, an Italian soldier at the time of Garibaldi (whose name was said a little like billy-o)”; Puffy Billy, industrial engineer William Hedley’s early steam engine; or Good King Billy, William III of England.

Marie Stopes

Mary [to Anna]: “I have a copy of Marie Stopes’s book. Tells you everything.”

Episode 2, January 11, 2015

Marie Stopes was a campaigner for women’s rights and “pioneer in the field of birth control.” While her most well-known publication is Married Love: Or, Love in Marriage, the book Mary is referring to is probably Wise Parenthood: A Book for Married People, which describes the diaphragm Mary asks poor Anna to purchase for her:

The best appliance at present available for [closing the minute entrance of the womb] is a small rubber cap, made on a firm rubber ring, which is accurately fixed round the dome-like end of the womb…and should be procurable from any first class chemist.


Rose [modeling a dress]: “You don’t think it’s a bit mumsy?”

Episode 8, February 22, 2015

Another anachronism! While mumsy has been in use since the 1870s as a childish imitation of mum or mummy, says the OED, the word meaning motherly, homely, or conventional didn’t originate until 1961.

(one’s) thing

Edith: “I thought you’d gone with them.”
Tom: “No, I have a lot to do. And to be honest, it’s not really my thing.”

Episode 6, February 8, 2015

While it may seem quite modern to use a possessive pronoun with thing to mean something one is interested in, the construction has been around since at least the 1930s, according to the OED: “If pottery’s your thing. Mountains are not my thing. The sea is my thing.”

But of course since this episode takes place in 1924, the phrase is still an anachronism.

shell shock

Mrs. Hughes: “Mr. Carson, surely by now we know enough about shell shock to be more understanding than we were at the start of the war.”

Episode 3, January 18, 2015

Shell shock is also known as combat fatigue, or “posttraumatic stress disorder resulting from wartime combat or similar experiences.” According to the OED, the term combat fatigue originated in the early 1940s.

The OED describes shell shock as a disorder identified specifically in soldiers from World War I, with the earliest recorded citation from 1915:

Only one case of shell shock has come under my observation. A Belgian officer was the victim. A shell burst near him without inflicting any physical injury. He presented practically complete loss of sensation in the lower extremities and much loss of sensation.

While the usage of shell shock spiked in 1920, both shell shock and combat fatigue leveled off after World War II, and the term PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, rose sharply after the early 1980s.

small beer

Carson: “This is very small beer.”
Mrs. Patmore: “Mr. Carson, it’s my kind of beer and I know how to drink it.”

Episode 5, February 1, 2015

The phrase small beer originated in the 15th century, says the OED, and referred to beer that was weak or of inferior quality. About two hundred years later, the phrase came to mean something unimportant or trivial, as first used by Shakespeare in Othello: “To suckle fooles, and chronicle small Beere.”

To think small beer of means “ to have a poor or low opinion of (oneself or others),” while a small-beer chronicle is “a narrative of trivial, usually domestic, events.”

sympathy butters no parsnips

Mr. Carson: “I don’t want you think I’m unsympathetic.”
Mrs. Patmore: “Yes, well, sympathy butters no parsnips.”

Episode 3, January 18, 2015

Sympathy butters no parsnips is a variation on the saying, fine words butter no parsnips, which means fine words achieve nothing.

The phrase comes from the historically British practice of generously applying butter to most foods, including parsnips, apparently “much to the disgust of the French” as well as to the Japanese, who referred to Westerners as bata kusai, or butter-stinkers.


Lord Grantham: “So every time we entertain, we must invite this tin-pot Rosa Luxemburg?”

Episode 2, January 11, 2015

Something or someone tin-pot is unimportant, inferior, or shoddy, the way tin is considered an inferior or shoddy metal. Rosa Luxemburg was a revolutionary socialist who co-founded the Communist Party of Germany.


Mary: “He looks after the pigs.” [Focuses on a dress.] “Oh, yummy.”

Episode 4, January 25, 2015

Yummy meaning delicious or delectable might be a bit of an anachronism. While in 1899 Rudyard Kipling uses the word — “Kissy! come, come!.. Yummy-yum-yum!” — it might just be a play on the word yum meaning “an exclamation of pleasurable anticipation,” as per the OED.

The OED’s first post-1899 citation of yummy is in 1934 as a listing in Webster’s New International Dictionary of English Language, and then in 1950: “Lora’s attractive face or Dorothea’s yummy figure.”

[Image via PBS]

Downton Soup: The Words of Downton Abbey, Season 3

If you’re like us, you’ve been closely following the trials and tribulations of the Granthams and those who serve them. Like last season, Ben Zimmer and Ben Schmidt have been busy catching the anachronisms. Zimmer recently noticed a doozy – steep learning curve – while Schmidt found such out-of-place terms as ritual humiliation and shenanigans.

We’ve also been collecting words and phrases from the show, some perfectly ordinary, others more unusual, and all with interesting stories about how they came to be.

Spoilers may follow.

UPDATE: Two terms from the season finale have been included. See cock-a-hoop and chippy gippy tummy. Thanks to everyone who let us know it was gippy and not chippy!


Sybil: “Mary, you know what I said about the baby being Catholic. I’ve just realized the christening will have to be here, at Downton.”
Mary: “Blimey.”

Episode 4, January 27, 2013

Blimey is a British expression many of us are familiar with. It’s used to express anger, surprise, excitement, etc., and originated around 1889 as a corruption of “(God) blind me,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary. Gorblimey is another variant.

Chu Chin Chow

Mrs. Hughes: “Then your dinners would be grand enough for Chu Chin Chow.”

Episode 6, February 3, 2013

Chu Chin Chow is a musical comedy based on Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves in which “the wealthy merchant Kasim Baba (brother of Ali Baba) [gives] a lavish banquet for a wealthy Chinese merchant, Chu Chin Chow, who is on his way from China.” The show premiered in London in 1916 and ran for five years.


Hugh: “Nield is cock-a-hoop.”

Episode 8, February 17, 2013

Cock-a-hoop means “exultant; jubilant; triumphant; on the high horse,” as well as “tipsy; slightly intoxicated.” The term comes from the phrase “to set cock on hoop,” which literally means “to turn on the tap and let the liquor flow,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and figuratively, “to drink festively.”

Cock in this context refers to “a faucet or valve by which the flow of a liquid or gas can be regulated,” while a hoop is “a certain quantity of drink, up to the first hoop on a quart pot.”


Cora: “Not everyone chooses their religion to satisfy Debrett’s.”

Episode 5, February 3, 2013

Debrett’s is a British publisher of etiquette guides and Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage, a “genealogical guide to the British aristocracy,” or as Patsy Stone of the TV show Absolutely Fabulous calls it, the “Who’s Who in what’s left of the British aristocracy.”

gippy tummy

O’Brien: “Something different. I could fancy that.”
Wilkins: “Not me. All sweat and gippy tummy.”

Episode 8, February 17, 2013

A gippy tummy is, according to the OED, “diarrhœa suffered by visitors to hot countries,” where gippy is slang for Egyptian. Gippy tummy may also be an anachronism: the OED lists the earliest use of the term as 1943, 23 years after this episode takes place.


Carson: “Miss O’Brien, we are about to host a society wedding. I have no time for training young hobbledehoys.”

Episode 1, January 6, 2013

A hobbledehoy is “a raw, awkward youth.” The word is very old, originating in the 16th century. The first syllable hob probably refers to “a hobgoblin, sprite, or elf,” while dehoy may come from the Middle French de haye, “worthless, untamed, wild.”

in someone’s bad books

Daisy [to Mosely about O’Brien]: “I wouldn’t be in her bad books for a gold clock.”

Episode 2, January 13, 2013

To be in someone’s bad books means to be in disgrace or out of favor. The phrase originated around 1861, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

An earlier phrase (1771) is to be in someone’s black book. A black book was “a book kept for the purpose of registering the names of persons liable to censure or punishment, as in the English universities, or the English armies.” So to be in someone’s black book meant to be in bad favor with that person (or on their shitlist, as we Yanks say).

As you may have guessed, to be in someone’s good books means to be in favor. That phrase originated around 1839, says the OED, in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby: “If you want to keep in the good books in that quarter, you had better not call her the old lady.”

in the soup

Daisy [to Mosely]: “You’re in the soup.”

Episode 2, January 13, 2013

To in the soup means to be in in a difficult, according to the OED. The phrase was originally American slang, originating around 1889.

Johnny Foreigner

Robert: “But there always seems to be something of Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics.”

Episode 3, January 20, 2013

Johnny Foreigner is a derogatory term for “a person from a country other than those which make up the United Kingdom.” We couldn’t find an originating date or first use of the phrase. If anyone has information, let us know!


Robert: “Did you hear Tom’s announcement at breakfast? He wants the child to be a left-footer.”

Episode 6, February 3, 2013

Anachronism alert! Left-footer, which is slang for a Roman Catholic, didn’t come about until 1944, according to the OED, 24 years after this episode takes place.

The term seems to come from the belief that “in the North of Ireland that Catholic farm workers use their left foot to push the spade when digging, and Protestants the right.” Kicks with the left foot is another slang term for Catholic, while kicking with the wrong foot “is used especially by Protestants of Catholics and vice versa.”

plain cook

Mrs. Bird: “She says there’s plenty of work for a plain cook these days.”

Episode 4, January 27, 2013

A plain cook, says the OED, is “a cook who specializes in, or most frequently prepares, plain dishes.” Plain dishes are “not rich or highly seasoned,” and have a few basic ingredients.

rich as Croesus

Mary: “He’s as rich as Croesus as it is.”

Episode 1, January 6, 2013

Croesus was, in ancient Greece, the last king of Lydia “whose kingdom, which had prospered during his reign, fell to the Persians under Cyrus.” Croesus came to refer to any rich man by the late 14th century.


Robert: “I’m very much afraid to say he was a bit squiffy, weren’t you, Alfred?”

Episode 6, February 3, 2013

Squiffy means tipsy or drunk, and is of “fanciful formation,” according to the OED. Other ways to say drunk.

stick it up your jumper

Anna: “They’ll have to give Thomas his notice.”
Bates: “Mr. Barrow.”
Anna: “Mr. Stick It Up Your Jumper.”

Episode 6, February 10, 2013

The full phrase is oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper!, and is “an expression of contempt, defiance, rejection or dismissal.” It may have originally been “a meaningless jingle chanted jocularly or derisively” from the 1920s. The phrase makes a famous appearance in the Beatles’ song, I Am the Walrus.


Isabel: “She couldn’t give a tuppence about Ethel.”

Episode 6, February 10, 2013

Tuppence is an alternation of twopence, two pennies or a very small amount. One who doesn’t give a tuppence doesn’t care at all.

Can’t get enough Downton Abbey? Check out our favorite words from the first two seasons.

[Photo: Carnival Films via The Chicago Maroon]

Word Soup: Downton Abbey


Chances are you’re caught up on the anachronisms of Downton Abbey, between Ben Zimmer’s Visual Thesaurus post, his talk with NPR, his post for Language Log that goes beyond the nitpickery, and Fritnancy’s post on the 1918 anachronism, contact. But what about the words and phrases the show has gotten right?

From obsolete medical terms to nautical sayings to phrases which may be common to Brits but are novel to these American ears, we’ve gathered them here, including a couple of terms that no one on Downton Abbey should be saying unless they own a time machine.

Spoilers may follow.

UPDATE: We corrected aerosyphilis to be erysipelas. Thanks to our readers for the helpful comments.

any port in a storm

Cora: “Is [Edith] really serious about [Sir Anthony]?”
Violet: “Any port in a storm.”

Episode 7, Season 1, November 7, 2010

Any port in a storm is an idiom  that means “an unfavourable option which might well be avoided in good times but which nevertheless looks better than the alternatives at the current time.” The first record of the phrase is from 1749.

banns, the

Cora: “To live with him? Unmarried?”
Sybil: “I’ll live with his mother till the banns are read.”

Episode 6, Season 2, October 30, 2011

The banns, often referred to as the banns of marriage (attested from the 1540s) is “the proclamation of intended marriage in order that those who know of any impediment thereto may state it to the proper authorities.” The word comes from the Old English bannan, “to summon, command, proclaim,” and is no longer required for “a valid civil marriage in England, Scotland, or the United States.”


Anna: “He was Lord Grantham’s batman when he was fighting the Boers.”

Episode 1, Season 1, September 26, 2010

A batman is “a British military officer’s orderly,” whose “duty is to take charge of the cooking utensils, etc., of the company.” The word first appeared in 1755, and comes from the late 14th century word for “pack-saddle,” bat. Bat in this sense comes from the Latin bastum, “stout staff,” with the sense of lifting up or offering support.


O’Brien [to Thomas]: “What about your Blighty?”

Episode 1, Season 2, September 18, 2011

In this context, Blighty is short for blighty wound, “a minor wound. . .serious enough to take a soldier out of combat.” Blighty originally referred to “Great Britain, Britain, or England, especially as viewed from abroad,” and is a corruption of the Hindi vilāyatī, “foreign.” According to the Oxford Dictionary blog, Blighty was first recorded in print in 1915.


Mary [to Matthew]: “Blub all you like. And then when Lavinia’s here, you can make plans.”

Episode 4, Season 2, October 9, 2011

Blub means to “to cry, whine, or blubber,” and originated in 1894. Presumably blub is short for blubber, which comes from the Middle English bluberen, “to bubble.” Blubber meaning “to cry, to overflow with weeping” is from the 15th century.


Sybil: “I want to do some canvassing. The by-election’s not far off.”

Episode 6, Season 1, October 31, 2010

To canvass means “to solicit or go about soliciting votes, interest, orders, subscriptions, or the like,” and originated in the 16th century. The word comes from canvas, “a fabric woven in small square meshes” (which comes from the Latin cannabis, “hemp”), with the idea that  “to toss in a canvas sheet” can mean “to shake out, examine carefully,” which is perhaps connected with “shaking out” votes.


Isobel [to Cora]: “It was [cousin Violet] who drew my attention to the plight of the refugees. I feel very guilty since I chivvied you, and now I’m jumping ship, but I can’t run Downton as well.”

Episode 5, Season 2, October 16, 2011

To chivvy means “to coerce, as by persistent request,” and originated in 1918. The word is an alternative of chevy, “to chase about or hunt from place to place; throw or pitch about; worry.” Chevy comes from chevy chase (not that Chevy Chase), “a running pursuit,” which probably comes from the 15th century The Ballad of Chevy Chase, which tells “the story of a large hunting party upon a parcel of hunting land (or chase) in the Cheviot Hills, hence the term, Chevy Chase.”


Violet [to Mr. Travis]: “You cannot imagine we would allow you to prevent [William’s marriage from] happening in case his widow claimed her dole?”

Episode 4, Season 2, October 9, 2011

Dole is a chiefly British term referring to “the distribution by the government of relief payments to the unemployed,” as well as “a portion of money, food, or other things distributed in charity.” The word comes from Middle English dol, “part, share.” The phrase on the dole, “receiving financial assistance from a governmental agency, such as a welfare agency,” originated in the 1920s.

dressing gong

Cora: “Now I’m going up to the rest. Wake me at the dressing gong.”

Episode 2, Season 1, October 3, 2010

The dressing gong, according to David Durant’s Where Queen Elizabeth Slept and What the Butler Saw, was “an essentially Victorian feature of a large household,” and would be rung “one hour before dinner was to be served,” again “when dinner was served,” earlier for luncheon, “but never for breakfast.”


Isobel: “Is the dropsy of the liver or the heart?”

Episode 2, Season 1, October 3, 2010

Dropsy is an obsolete medical term for “a morbid accumulation of watery liquid in any cavity of the body or in the tissues,” now known as edema. The word dropsy comes from the Greek hydrops, with hydro- meaning “water,” and -ops meaning “face.”


Mr. Bryant: “In the world as it, compare the two futures. The first as my heir, educated, privileged, rich. Able to do what he wants, to marry whom he likes. The second. . .as the nameless offshoot of a drudge.”

Episode 6, Season 2, October 30, 2011

A drudge is “one who toils, especially at servile or mechanical labor; one who labors hard in servile or uninteresting employments; a spiritless toiler.” The word is attested to the late 15th century and may be related to the Old English dreogan, “to work, suffer, endure.”


Isobel [to Mosely]: “Erysipelas is very hard to cure. We should be able to reduce the symptoms but that might be all we can do.”

Episode 4, Season 1, October 17, 2010

Erysipelas is “a disease characterized by a diffuse inflammation of the skin and subcutaneous areolar tissue.” The word comes from the Greek erysipelas, which may come from erythros, “red,” and pella, “skin.” The disease is also known as St. Anthony’s fire, “said to be so called,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “from the tradition that those who sought his intercession recovered from that distemper during a fatal epidemic in 1089.”

fall like ninepins

Robert: “Good heavens, everyone’s falling like ninepins.”

Episode 6, Season 2, October 30, 2011

To fall like ninepins is a British idiom that means “to fall, break or be damaged in large numbers.” Ninepins is a game like bowling played with nine pins, and attested to the 1570s.

fighting fit

Anna: “Mrs. Patmore’s fighting fit again.”

Episode 7, Season 1, November 7, 2010

Fighting fit, which seems to have originated as a military term, means to be “very fit; in the peak of condition.” “As the pressure is brought to bear, there is coming a strain between the fighting-fit who are single and those who are married.” Recruiting at Home, Fielding Star, February 1916

guinea a minute

Carson: “You didn’t know [Mary] when she was a child, Mrs. Hughes. She was a guinea a minute then.”

Episode 6, Season 2, October 30, 2011

Guinea a minute means something or someone that is great fun, and worth a “guinea a minute.” A guinea was “a gold coin issued in England from 1663 to 1813 and worth one pound and one shilling.” “That day made a high festival for her, and, to use her own expressive phrase, ‘was worth a guinea a minute to her.'” Letters of Chauncey Wright, 1878

lead someone down the garden path

Daisy: “I feel I’ve led him up the garden path with all that nonsense.”

Episode 4, Season 2, October 9, 2011

To lead someone down the garden path means “to deceive, hoodwink,” and seems to attest to the early 1920s. This episode takes place in 1918, making this phrase a possible anachronism.

light the blue touchpaper

Violet [to Lavinia who is playing a gramophone]: “I’ll stand well clear when you light the blue touchpaper.”

Episode 6, Season 2, October 30, 2011

The full phrase is light the blue touchpaper and retire immediately or light the blue touchpaper and stand well clear. Touchpaper is “paper steeped in niter so that it catches fire from a spark and burns slowly, used for firing gunpowder and other explosives.”

The phrase is said when “doing something risky,” according to A Dictionary of Catch Phrases by Eric Partridge. Also according to Partridge the phrase didn’t gain popularity till the 1930s when the BBC radio show, Band Waggon, used it as a catchphrase. The episode takes place in 1919, signalling a possible anachronism.

like it or lump it

Robert: “And if his grace doesn’t like it, he can lump it.”

Episode 1, Season 1, September 26, 2010

The phrase like it or lump it means “to accept a situation whether one agrees with it or not.” The phrase attests to the early 1800s.

no names, no pack drill

Matthew: “I suppose [my mother is] driving cousin Cora mad.”
Mary: “No names, no pack drill.”

Episode 2, Season 2, September 25, 2011

According to World Wide Words, no names, no pack drill  seems “to have been of First World War origin,” and means “that if nobody is named as being responsible, then nobody can be punished, the point being that in some situation or other it’s wisest not to name the person being discussed.” Pack-drill was “a military punishment in which the offender is compelled to walk up and down for a certain number of hours in full marching order, with arms, ammunition, knapsack, and overcoat,” and originated in the 19th century.

penny dreadful

Daisy [referring to the Titanic]: “All them people, freezing to death in the midnight icy water.”
O’Brien: “Oh, you sound like a penny dreadful.”

Episode 1, Season 1, September 26, 2010

A penny dreadful is “a cheap pulp novel produced in 19th century Britain,” and seems to have originated in 1870. It was also known as a penny horrible, penny awful, penny number, and penny blood.


Branson [to Sybil]: “Flattered is a word that posh people use when they’re about to say no.”

Episode 1, Season 2, September 18, 2011

Posh means “smart and fashionable,” but also “snobbish, materialistic, prejudiced, under the illusion that they are better than everyone else,” especially in Scotland and North England.

The word attests to 1914. The origin is obscure. The Online Etymology Dictionary says there is “no evidence for the common derivation from an acronym of port outward, starboard home, supposedly the shipboard accommodations of wealthy British traveling to India on the P & O Lines (to keep their cabins out of the sun),” and that the word is more likely from the 1890 meaning of posh, “a dandy,” which comes from “thieves’ slang meaning ‘money’ (1830), originally ‘coin of small value, halfpenny,’ possibly from Romany posh ‘half.’”

shipshape and Bristol fashion

Mary: “Carson and I were just making sure that everything was shipshape and Bristol fashion.”

Episode 3, Season 1, October 10, 2010

Shipshape and Bristol fashion means “tidily tied down and secure.” The phrase seems to have started out as two separate phrases, shipshape which came about in the 17th century, and Bristol fashion in the 19th century. Bristol is an old English seaport.

sprat to catch a mackerel

Mrs. Patmore: “He knows this is just the sprat to catch the mackerel.”

Episode 6, Season 2, October 30, 2011

A sprat to catch a mackerel (sometimes throw out a sprat to catch a mackerel) refers to the “sacrifice [of] something of little value in the hope of gaining something better.” A sprat is “a small marine food fish,” while a mackerel is another kind of fish. The phrase dates from the 19th century.

start of the grouse

Violet: “We’ll give her till the start of the grouse.”

Episode 6, Season 1, October 31, 2010

The start of the grouse refers to the start of the grouse hunting season, also known as the Glorious Twelfth, usually used to refer to August 12th, and seems to date back to 1831.

stranger things happen at sea

William: “[My mother] hopes one day that I might be first footman, or even get to be – ”
Mary: “Carson had better watch out.”
William: “Stranger things happen at sea.”

Episode 6, Season 1, October 31, 2010

Stranger things happen at sea is an idiom that refers to a seemingly implausible event or outcome that may in fact be possible. The origin seems unknown, as far as we could find, although we did locate this citation from September 1911: “We’ll go and take a close look. There may be a little mountain of dollars waiting to be picked up yonder. Who knows? Stranger things have happened at sea.”


Cora: “Now a complete unknown has arrived to pocket my money, along with the rest of the swag.”

Episode 1, Season 1, September 26, 2010

Swag here refers to “plundered property; booty; boodle,” and originates from 1839. The word may be Scandinavian in origin.


Violet: “Poor Dr. Clarkson. What has he done to deserve that termagant?”

Episode 2, Season 1, October 3, 2010

Termagant in this context means “ boisterous, brawling, or turbulent woman; a shrew; a virago; a scold,” and comes from the capitalized word referring to “an imaginary deity, supposed to have been worshiped by the Mohammedans, and introduced into the moralities and other shows, in which he figured as a most violent and turbulent personage.” The origin of the name is unknown, although there is a variety of speculation.

that’s your lot

Mary: “All right. One song, and that’s your lot.”

Episode 3, Season 2, October 2, 2011

That’s your lot means “that’s all you’re going to receive, so don’t expect anymore,” and seems to have originated around 1920. As this episode occurs before 1920, this phrase may be a bit late for the show’s time period.


William: “You won’t let a Tommy kiss his sweetheart when he’s about to fight the Hun?”

Episode 1, Season 2, September 18, 2011

Tommy is a “colloquial name for a British soldier during the world wars.” The word originated in 1884 and comes from Thomas Atkins, “the sample name for filling in army forms.” Tommy gun is unrelated and is short for Thompson gun. Hun is a disparaging term for a German, “applied to the German in World War I by their enemies because of stories of atrocities,” likened to the atrocities of the warring ancient tribe of Central Asia.

two a penny

Mary: “Butlers will be two a penny now they’re all back from the war.”

Episode 6, Season 2, October 30, 2011

The phrase two a penny means “very common, cheap.” Also ten a penny. Ten-a-penny is also “a soldiers’ nickname for the pompom gun.”

Uncle Tom Cobley

Sybil: “My answer is that I’m ready to travel, and you’re my ticket, to get away from this house, away from this life – ”
Branson: “Me?”
Sybil: “No, Uncle Tom Cobley.”

Episode 6, Season 2, October 30, 2011

Uncle Tom Cobley “is used in British English as a humorous or whimsical way of saying et al, often to express exasperation at the large number of people in a list.” The name comes from a Devon folk song, Widecombe Fair, published in 1890 by Sabine Baring-Gould in his collection Songs of the West.


Matthew: “There are plenty of hours in the day. And of course I’ll have the weekend.”
Violet: “What is a weekend?”

Episode 2, Season 1, October 3, 2010

Weekend – previously week-end – attests to the 1630s and was originally a word of north England “referring to the period from Saturday noon to Monday morning.” The word “became general after 1878.”

Anything we missed or got wrong? Let us know!