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Queer Street

Q From Randall Bart: In a recent issue you quoted from John Buchan's Huntingtower, ‘It's quite likely he's been gettin’ into Queer Street’. Surely you are going to define Queer Street. From context it looks like being in debt, possibly to a loan shark.

A Glad to help.

You’re almost there with your definition. It’s a rather dated British phrase; Queer Street is an imaginary place where people in difficulties, in particular financial ones, are supposed to live.

That seems not to have been its first meaning. It appeared in print initially in the 1811 edition of Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “QUEER STREET. Wrong. Improper. Contrary to one’s wish. It is queer street, a cant phrase, to signify that it is wrong or different to our wish.” It was used in a different sense in Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London, “Limping Billy was also evidently in queer-street”, in which it meant he was feeling sick. It was only some decades later that it became restricted to financial embarrassment.

Where it comes from is open to much doubt. It used to be claimed that it was a variation on Carey Street, this being the location of the London Bankruptcy Court. But, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the court was only established there in 1840, so couldn’t have been its source. As Carey Street isn’t itself recorded figuratively until much later, the parallels between the two forms can’t have been the cause of Queer Street taking on its specific financial overtones.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Jun. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 7 June 2008.