In the story "An Unprotected Female at the Pyramids", one of the female characters is twice referred to pejoratively (by men) as an "old soldier".

It's clearly an idiom, since she's young ("about thirty years of age") and she's not a soldier.

Here are the two instances, for a bit of context (emphasis added):

With what income Miss Dawkins was blessed no one seemed to know. She lived like a gentlewoman, as far as outward appearance went, and never seemed to be in want; but some people would say that she knew very well how many sides there were to a shilling, and some enemy had once declared that she was an "old soldier." Such was Miss Dawkins.


"Hah! ha! ha!" laughed Mr. Ingram; "I must say she plays her game well; but then she is an old soldier, and has the benefit of experience." What would Miss Dawkins have said had she known that Mr. Ingram called her an old soldier?

What does "old soldier" mean here?

  • Never heard it before (and Urban Dictionary doesn't find it). About the only idiomatic use of "old soldier" I know of is the saying "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 20, 2016 at 14:14
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    @FumbleFingers It looks that way in isolation, and may even be intended to be that way but the following context in the provided source makes it look like it was taken as an insult, and the other instance refers back to this event as if the person was an enemy. I doubt this is idiomatic, but something needs explaining. Instead of asking why this is pejorative, perhaps our questioner ask why it was taken poorly.
    – Tonepoet
    Nov 20, 2016 at 15:32
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    @FumbleFingers I beg to differ: The lady in question has just tried to rather brazenly invite herself to a trip with the family of Mr. Ingram's interlocutor, which attempt he resisted with some difficulty. While Mr. Ingram might be admiring her chutzpah, I think it is clear he disapproves of her conduct in general. Nov 20, 2016 at 15:33
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    Just a thought. "She (...) never seemed to be in want; but some people would say that she knew very well how many sides there were to a shilling, and some enemy had once declared that she was an "old soldier." Perhaps, "old soldier" has the meaning 'an experienced and very practical person who is able to be shifty' here.
    – Yulia
    Nov 20, 2016 at 16:39
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    @Tonepoet I had to roll back because the order is backwards. Nov 21, 2016 at 17:40

1 Answer 1


There are two issues - what does it mean, and why did Trollope deploy it here (sorry).

As a set phrase wrt women, it is condescending. It means the person knows the ways of the world, and isn't likely to be caught short. Moreover, they are quite willing and able to exploit those a bit less worldly, including those belonging to a higher social class. By itself, it is neither pejorative or approbative, but it is condescending.

As to why Trollope chose it, that's harder to answer. I suspect its use by Mr. Ingram is intended to say as much about him as about the pushy Miss Dawkins. It establishes or reinforces a contrast and I think it gives the impression Mr Ingram, who has designs of his own, is perhaps over-eager to distance himself from Miss Dawkins in the eyes of his companions.

One reason for the condescending usage has to do with Waterloo. It seems all the old beggars in England claimed to have been in the Battle, and hence "Play the old soldier" and "come the old soldier" refer to deceit to avoid actually working or paying your own way. This is the sense that struck me most strongly.

COME THE OLD SOLDIER verb (also COME THE TIN SOLDIER / PUT THE OLD SOLDIER ON [18th century and still in use]: To deceive another for one’s own benefit, especially to avoid an unpleasant task [‘come the’ + Standard English ‘old soldier’; the skills of a veteran who, supposedly, knows every trick when it comes to avoiding onerous duties. Ware [[in Passing English of the Victorian Era] (1909)]] also cites the rash of beggars who proliferated in London after Waterloo (1815), all claiming to have taken part in the battle. Note nautical jargon soldier, a poor or lazy seaman, a shirker]

This is from Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, but I lifted it from Ken Greenwald's post here — Wordwizard

Thanks to @StoneyB's comment, I can add this —

It is interesting to note that ‘an old soldier’ had become a pejorative working-class expression for a scrounger

Rogues and Vagabonds: Vagrant Underworld in Britain 1815-1985

Since clicking through to these Google Books links can be problematic, you can bootstrap this by going to Google Books Advanced Search, and searching for "old soldier" in exact phrase and "rogues" in title.

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    Sorry, but I have to downvote the idea that "old soldier" could be considered a set phrase that's condescending to women. Sure - it's a set phrase. But it has no inherent "condescending" overtones whatsoever, and any such interpretation for the specific cited instance can only be justified by appeal to the entire narrative context, which is effectively Lit Crit. Nov 20, 2016 at 16:55
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    @FumbleFingers Doesn't the OP want to know what it means in this context? He seems to understand that it has a simple ordinary meaning that is counterindicated in this instance. See Ken Greenwald's post here - wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=18840 . That is contemporary with Trollope, and I think it is the most widely understood connotation of the time.
    – Phil Sweet
    Nov 20, 2016 at 17:10
  • We're going round in circles. Practically everything on this page concerns Criticism, discussion, and analysis of English literature, which is explicitly designated Off Topic for the site. I'll bow out of the discussion now. Nov 20, 2016 at 17:16
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    @FumbleFingers Practically everything on this page concerns Criticism, discussion, and analysis of English literature This would be an excellent point except for the minor consideration that practically nothing on this page concerns criticism, discussion, and analysis of English literature. And it's not Lit Crit either, because I can parse and understand it.
    – deadrat
    Nov 20, 2016 at 19:40
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    I think you've hit the nail on the head. Lionel Rose, ‘Rogues and Vagabonds’: Vagrant Underworld in Britain 1815-1985, [the Google Books link is too long to fit in a comment] says that Old Soldier was late-Victorian working-class slang for “a charity hunter and scrounger”; that’s a generation later, but it suits very well with the description of Miss Dawkins by “those who had known her long” as “selfish” and as one who “knew very well how many sides there were to a shilling”—and who apparently makes her way by imposing on people’s unwillingness to disoblige an “unprotected woman”. Nov 20, 2016 at 23:05

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