Green’s Dictionary of Slang: The Noble Art of Milling

Jonathon Green – visit his website here – is the English language’s leading lexicographer of slang. His Green’s Dictionary of Slang is quite simply the most comprehensive and authorative work on slang ever published. Today, fisticuffs, as Jonathon fibs you right in the claret-spout with his fambler…

To pick up where we left it last week, it’s all sorted: men do not scold. And nag? heaven forfend. Men shout. Loud, vain, futile. All that stuff. Gobshites, basically. But men also hit. How do I wallop thee, let me count the ways… Or perhaps not, life is too short. Not to mention nasty and brutish. And slang being, as I may have noted, an equal-opportunity employer does not discriminate between public violence and that which is perpetrated behind the domestic front door. So let us focus on sanctioned slogging. The prize-ring. The ‘Sweet Science’ as the writer A.J. Liebling called it. The Manly Art.

The term prize-fighter dates back to the 17th century when it seems to have been used only historically, and with reference to gladiators. It takes on a modern use with the rise, around 1800, of the Fancy, described by Robert Southey as ‘the Amateurs of Boxing’. The Fancy comprised the boxers (fancy coves) themselves, plus the fans (fancy blokes): sporting gents of one degree of respectability or another, bookmakers of equal variety, plus anyone who was up for the trek to some distant field where beadles and bailiffs – empowered to halt such illegal festivities – feared to tread. The fights went on for scores of rounds. The Queen of Marksbury, as various fistic practitioners have malapropised him, had yet to rule. And like any self-respecting coterie, there was a language.

Slangwise these were fistiana’s glory days. Not till the 1930s which offered such Palookaville pleasures as the tanker, who takes a dive or goes in the water (a tank being a swimming pool), the umbrella, who ‘folds up’, and the tomato can, who is ‘easily crushed’ did the smackers, soccers and bruisers offer so many synonyms.

The big word was mill. Milling had already meant any form of beating or thrashing but now it meant prize-fighting – with bare knuckles – and a fight could be a milling-bout or a milling-match. Mill itself meant a fight. Thus ‘An Amateur’(actually the slang collector John Badcock), tells in Real Life in London (1821) how ‘There was a most excellent mill at Moulsey Hurst [a cricket ground near the Thames and later the Hurst Park racecourse] on Thursday last, between the Gas-light man, who appears to be a game chicken, and a prime hammerer — he can give and take with any man — and Oliver — Gas beat him hollow, it was all Lombard-street to a china orange.’ (There was an original Game Chicken – the bare-knuckle champion Henry ‘Hen’ Pierce who had died in 1809). The milling-cove or milling kiddy was a boxer, and the milling-panney (from panny, a house) the place where the fight took place. There was a seeming variation: milvader, to box and thus milvadering, the fight. But there was no link: it came from Scottish milvad: a blow.

The boxers (buffers) seemed to be built on different lines. Nothing as simple as a head: there was the nob, the attic, the knowledge box, the top-loft, the brain canister and upper crust (fifty years before it began referring to a somewhat different variety of nob). Eyes were ogles, peepers, daylights and day-openers; teeth were ivories, domino boxes and grinders; the stomach, that alluring target, was a bread-bag, bread-basket or bread-room, a tripe-shop or a victualling office; the nose a smeller or sensitive plant; the ribs were palings. The fist, one’s most vital appendage, was the mitten, the hard dumpling, the famble, the daddle or the prop. The props were the arms. It was also the auctioneer: it ‘knocked things down’.

Knocking down was of course the point. One used nothing so prosaic as a jab, hook or uppercut. Blows could be nobbers or headachers (to the head), mufflers (to the mouth), facers (to the face), props (uppercuts) and chippers (jabs). A simple blow was a fib, which gave fibbing gloak, the boxer (gloak being a variant on bloke) and fibbing, the ‘noble art’ itself. As explained by the great boxing journalist Pierce Egan in his Book of Sports (1832): to fib was ‘technical, in the P[rize].Ring], to hammer your opponent repeatedly in close quarters; and to get no return for the compliment you are bestowing on him.’ It could also be pepper, and the boxer was a pepperer. There were staggerers and tellers (which ‘told’ on one’s stamina) and the gaslighter which presumably put out one’s lights. The knockout punch was a burster, a clicker (which also meant the fighter), a doser, a finisher, a full stop, a settler, a stopper and a sender (which sent one to the grass).

Alongside all of this was blood. Or claret. Of all the Fancy’s favourite terms this is perhaps the sole survivor. One could claret one’s opponent or tap their claret, i.e. draw their blood; and the first such blow was the claret-christening; the nose was the claret-jug, claret-cask or claret-spout.

For a while this was a popular tongue. In 1819 the poet Tom Moore, writing as ‘One of the Fancy’, composed the poem Tom Crib’s Memorial to Congress. He satirised the recent Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, held by the four powers of Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia to deal with post-Napoleonic France, as ‘The Grand Set-to between Long Sandy and Georgy the Porpus’. Among its slang-filled verses were such as this:

Neat milling this Round – what with clouts on the nob,
Home hits in the bread-basket, clicks in the gob,
And plumps in the daylights, a prettier treat
Between two Johnny Raws ’tis not easy to meet.

Modern boxing is more likely to provide imagery than slang: out for the count, beat someone to the punch, saved by the bell, or chuck, throw or toss in the sponge or towel, itself already in use in the mid-19th century. The last great exponent of language in the world of boxing was Muhammad Ali, but his delivery was all his own work. Let one former British champ, who came to grief against Ali among others, speak for modernity. As he explained c.1970: ‘I’m only a prawn in the game’.

Next week (and for six more after that): Jonathon marks the beginning of Lent by looking at the Seven Deadly Sins of Slang…

Do you have a question for Mr Slang? Email it to and we’ll send it on to Jonathon.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
Share This Post

About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

16 thoughts on “Green’s Dictionary of Slang: The Noble Art of Milling

    February 24, 2011 at 08:44

    when did the phrase ‘to duff someone up’ come about, and does it have anything to do with the pudding?

      February 24, 2011 at 09:10

      It appears to have a WWII RAF origin. The probably root is the Scottish duff, to hit, to strike. The pudding refers back to standard English dough. However duff = hit, at least as listed in the Eng. Dialect Dict. does suggest ‘especially to give a blow with a softish substance’. It cross-refers to doof, another Scottish term,. defined as ‘a hollow-sounding fall, like that of a loaded sack coming to the ground’ or, as a verb, ‘to strike forcibly, to fall heavily’. All of which suggests onomatpoeia to me.

  2. Gaw
    February 24, 2011 at 09:50

    The hard dumpling is a nice one. Tough love.

    Bill McLaren used to talk about there being a bit of ‘argy-bargy’ when a line-out descended into free-for-all. I wonder whether you’d know where that’s from? More recent rugby commentators have pleasingly talked about a touch of ‘handbags’ in the same situation.

      February 24, 2011 at 14:34

      Argy-bargy is quite simply a clipping and then reduplication of the SE word argument. Not surprised that Bill McLaren used it, the first record I have found is in Jamieson’s 1887 Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scots Language:

      ‘Argewe, The terms argie-bargie, argie, and bargie, are applied to such contentions.’

      The English Dialect Dict. (1907) includes it too, again attributed to Scots and offers the synonymous ‘argle-bargle’.

      • Gaw
        February 24, 2011 at 15:00

        Marvellous – thanks Jonathon.

    February 24, 2011 at 10:44

    Also “Milling” was one of the tests to obtain your “Commando Dagger”, 2 or 3 minutes of bashing your opponent (who could be your best friend) and no defensive stance was allowed.

    jonathan law
    February 24, 2011 at 12:15

    There’s quite a funny passage in Ulysses, the Cyclops section, where Joyce spoofs the language of Edwardian boxing journalism:

    It was a historic and a hefty battle when Myler and Percy were scheduled to don the gloves for the purse of fifty sovereigns …The welterweight sergeantmajor had tapped some lively claret in the previous mixup during which Keogh had been receivergeneral of rights and lefts, the artilleryman putting in some neat work on the pet’s nose …The men came to handigrips. Myler quickly became busy and got his man under, the bout ending with the bulkier man on the ropes …The Englishman, whose right eye was nearly closed … came on gamey and brimful of pluck, confident of knocking out the fistic Eblanite in jigtime …

    There’s a good deal more. As usual, you feel that Joyce could go on this way for ever if he wanted to. What’s mainly interesting is the clash of registers – the queasy mix of the slangy with the ponderous and archaic. All in the cause of ‘elegant variation’, I suppose – after all, you can’t just keep saying that A. thumped B. or vice versa.

    Of course, this is a very specific lingo that JJ is parodying, but doesn’t it point to something about sports journalism in general – the self-conscious mixture of the demotic and the would-be heroic, the desperate need to find new ways of saying the same old thing?

      February 24, 2011 at 14:26

      A wonderful example. Joyce – I read Ulysses for citations but quailed at Finnegans Wake – is full of slang, from all and every period. For instance he offers pretty much the entirety of the cant lexis as produced by Thomas Harman in the Caveat for Common Cursetours (1566). This is most likely a conscious parody of Pierce Egan’s style as used in his journal Boxiana. Unfortunately I have returned my borrowed copy, but JJ could have inserted his creation therein without many eyebrows being raised. (Other than it’s a bit restrained by the standards of fistic hyperbole and/or synonymy).

      And yes: sports journalism does seem to demand variation; whether the hacks always achieve elegance is another story. Liebling, who would on occasion fall – quite deliberately – into the Egan style, was one who always did.

  5. Worm
    February 24, 2011 at 12:44

    v. perceptive point Jonathan

    Gadjo Dilo
    February 24, 2011 at 12:53

    Great piece of Joyce, that 🙂 It’s a good point about the need to find new ways of saying the same old thing, but isn’t ‘to get no return for the compliment you are bestowing on him’ meant as irony and as humour in it’s own right?

      February 24, 2011 at 14:28

      So I at least have always assumed.

  7. Gaw
    February 24, 2011 at 15:13

    Incidentally, as mentioned in a Dabbler post from last September, Pierce Egan not only invented the term the ‘sweet science’ but was also the originator of Tom and Jerry, in his Life in London or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis. He seems an inventive and original character but doesn’t seem to have been much written about, at least in recent years. I can’t find any copies of this story either – it sounds a hoot.

    February 24, 2011 at 17:48

    I wrote about Egan in my history of lexicography, Chasing the Sun (1996) but there is much else to say. I am a big fan. I know Life in London well and have copies of that (not, sadly a 1st), and of its sequel, the Finish to the Adventures of Tom and Jerry (1830) as well as his Anecdotes of the Sporting World (1827). Egan’s Book of Sport appeared in 1832. His magazine Boxiana ran from 1812-28 and contains round-by-round ‘commentaries’ on contemporary prize fights, as well as potted biographies of the stars. I suppose that Egan is effectively the ‘father’ of sporting journalism. Life in London was phenomenally successful: there were several print imitations, it was adapted into number of plays (in both London and New York) and there was much else including what could be seen as prototype ‘merchandising tie-ins’. One man, another sporting journalist John Badcock, who wrote as ‘Jon Bee’, made his career as a plagiarist of Egan, writing a slang dictionary (in 1823 Egan published a fourth, revised edition of Francis Grose’s Classical Dict. of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785), putting out what he called ‘Real Life in London’ and editing his own boxing magazine, aimed to rival Boxiana.

    • Gaw
      February 24, 2011 at 21:26

      Thanks for the additional information. He sounds a good subject for a biography.

    February 25, 2011 at 14:18

    Sorry Jonathon, slightly late to this one. I met a bloke a few years ago who had been involved in milling – it seems to have a modern context now as a sort of right of passage fight in the army [unofficially of course] and in other manly art, fight-club type areas?

      February 25, 2011 at 20:13

      Luc, Jon Hotten,

      I have a couple of examples of the verb from 1990s/2000s but neither military. Both seem to be Irish writers. And a big gap between that and 1950s. It must have been largely sidetracked off into military use. And as a noun, there’s nothing (at least that i have found) after 1935.

Comments are closed.