Old-fashioned Gender-neutral Terms of Endearment

If you know me, you know I’m the proud parent of a genderqueer artist. Learning to address someone you adore with gender-neutral pronouns is like learning to speak a second language. It challenges the way that you think about gender and identity. When you hear someone speaking your first language (referring to your loved one in old familiar terms), it is too easy to slip back into old ways of speaking, even though you are trying to show your loved one the respect they deserve.


Clearly, these changes to my language infiltrate the rest of my life. I’ve searched in vain for genderqueer folk in the nineteenth century, but have only been able to locate their trans and cross-dressing friends. ‘Genderqueerness,’ as a concept, didn’t exist yet. Victorian England was a very heterosexist gendered society, but they still had gender-neutral terms of endearment.

Many of the labels that signify closeness use gender to personalize the connection. For this reason, it is easy to think of gendered terms of endearment as ‘traditional,’ or more ‘natural,’ but even the Victorians were capable of expressing affection without binary language.


A ‘cobber’ is a late victorian way of calling someone your ‘BFF.’ Likewise, ‘pally’ was a more affectionate way of saying ‘pal.’

Calling someone a ‘crackerjack’ was like calling them a pro, or super-talented. In fact, there are many contemporary ways to refer to someone affectionately by complimenting their abilities.

Though it has connotations of snobbery today, ‘fancypants’ was a way to compliment someone on their good looks.

Which brings us into romantic relationships, where your ‘mash’ is someone (of any gender) that you are infatuated with.

An ‘out-and-outer’ was a bold Victorian, but the term could be used to insult someone for being too outspoken about their beliefs. The Victorian Era was, after all, a time when referring to someone as a ‘squarehead’ was a way of saying they were honest. Out-and-outers were extraordinary people, who were reckless and beautiful. ‘Ripsnorter’ and ‘ripstaver’ were other ways of saying basically the same thing.

Leave your favourite gender-neutral terms of endearment in the comments.

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A Few Words on the Art of Canoodling

A reader recently asked whether the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties would include a chapter or section on seduction. I haven’t composed one yet, but it is an interesting idea that would be especially useful to writers of Victorian erotica.

In order to avoid saying the word ‘penis,’ Victorians definitely preferred euphemisms that would be useful in Victorian writing. Instead of penis, one might say: ‘male organ,’ but that doesn’t sound very sexy, and conjures images of an awkward how-to talk, rather than the whispering of sweet nothings. The clinical clinical sounding, ‘intermittent apparatus,’ might be uttered by a sexually inexperienced scientist of any gender.


By the end of the century, ‘pisser’ was a popular word. The phrase ‘pull your pisser” had the double meaning of playfully teasing a gentleman, or deceiving him, as in ‘pulling his leg.’ At this time, the ‘middle leg’ was also another word for penis.

Victorians used the words ‘dick’ and ‘root,’ as people still do in many English-speaking countries, but they had some funnier terms, like ‘peter,’ ‘Johnson,’ and ‘John Thomas.’ Interestingly, ‘John Thomas’ was also a generic name for a livery servant. This term is usually traced back to Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928), but the Oxford English Dictionary has traced it back to 1879, which means that, if you are ever looking for Victorian porn star names, ‘Peter Johnson,’ and ‘John Thomson’ are practical options.

In a post I wrote last year on Victorian Dirty Words, I found a lot of synonyms for lady bits. However, upon further investigation, words like, ‘crinkum-crankum,’ ‘honeypot,’ and ‘muff’ are all older than the nineteenth century, though they were still in use. My instinct is to chalk this up to Victorian attitudes toward women’s sexuality. Victorian women’s sexuality wasn’t talked about unless it was being condemned, which is why Victorians came up with slut-shaming words like, ‘charver,’ ‘dolly-mop,’ ‘fly girl,’ and ‘cock-teaser’ for promiscuous women.

Still, the art of canoodling (a Victorian word for seduction) rarely ever means shouting synonyms for genitals at each other.

The last part of the Dictionary is devoted to ‘niceties,’ which includes words that can be used for sweet talking. It includes pet names for your sweethearts, and lovely adjectives to make them your own. ‘Dinah,’ another word for a female sweet heart, might be ‘dossy,’ or ‘ducky,’ if you like the way she dresses. And anyone’s ‘mash’ (crush) would be ‘jim-dandy’ (an excellent person or thing).

One of the things that I’ve learned about the origin and usage of words over time is that good writers seem to have consistently conjured up wonderful new words, as well as interesting uses for existing terms. I’m still not sure whether I will include a section or chapter on the art of seduction, but I have no doubt that writers of Victorian erotica will be able to put the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties to good use!