History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

12 November 2006

Period words and phrases

by Anne Mallory

I've been dinged before for using modern language - and guilty as charged in some cases (*head slams against desk in mortification* - sometimes you just read right over certain things). But sometimes a phrase or word pointed to as anachronistic isn't. For example, a thorough copyeditor once flagged a use of nincompoop in one of my 1820's set books, even though etymonline has it as 1676, and it is in the 1811 Vulgar Tongue Dictionary. Was she wrong to flag it? No. I appreciated that to her it sounded modern. In the end I did choose to keep the word, but her flag made me think long and hard about it. It came down to a matter of verisimilitude (something that appears to sound or be right) for the period.

Readers bring their own influences to the table, and that is just a fact of writing. Sometimes using something in a different way may be a better way to maintain verisimilitude. A character who says "Good luck" in the Regency is technically correct. But to a reader concerned about period feel, perhaps saying something like "Luck to you" is a better way to go. Thoughts on this?

Here are some fun words and phrases that were around in the Regency, some of which might cause a book to fly (all of the following are from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in their entirety, bar any goofy side comments):

CRIB - A house. To crack a crib: to break open a house.
("Yo, yo, MTV Cribs is here at the Duchess of Devonshire's estate. Live and by parchment!")

JAIL BIRDS - Prisoners.

ELBOW GREASE - Labour. Elbow grease will make an oak table shine.

JOB - Any robbery. To do a job; to commit some kind of robbery.

KID - A little dapper fellow. A child. The blowen has napped the kid. The girl is with child.

TO KID - To coax or wheedle. To inveigle. To amuse a man or divert his attention while another robs him. The sneaksman kidded the cove of the ken, while his pall frisked the panney; the thief amused the master of the house, while his companion robbed the house.

COOL LADY - A female follower of the camp, who sells brandy.
(I'm not sure most writers could get away with saying "She is a cool lady" in a regency novel, even if explained somehow.)

BIRDS OF A FEATHER - Rogues of the same gang.

NEGLIGEE - A woman's undressed gown, Vulgarly termed a neggledigee.
(Not in the same sense as a negligee today...but may stir up those images)

KISS MINE ARSE - An offer, as Fielding observes, very frequently made, but never, as he could learn, literally accepted. A kiss mine arse fellow; a sycophant.

DUMPS - Down in the dumps; low-spirited, melancholy: jocularly said to be derived from Dumpos, a king of Egypt, who died of melancholy. Dumps are also small pieces of lead, cast by schoolboys in the shape of money.

HUMP - To hump; once a fashionable word for copulation.

BIRTH-DAY SUIT - He was in his birth-day suit, that is, stark naked.

To KICK THE BUCKET - To die. He kicked the bucket one day: he died one day. To kick the clouds before the hotel door; i.e. to be hanged.

CROCODILE'S TEARS - The tears of a hypocrite. Crocodiles are fabulously reported to shed tears over their prey before they devour it.

DAY LIGHTS - Eyes. To darken his day lights, or sow up his sees; to close up a man's eyes in boxing.

BOW-WOW - The childish name for a dog; also a jeering appellation for a man born at Boston in America.

BLOOD MONEY - The reward given by the legislature on the conviction of highwaymen, burglars, etc.

BLACK AND WHITE - In writing. I have it in black and white; I have written evidence.

That last one is a good example of perhaps siding with a less obvious phrase - "I have written evidence" is not going to cause anyone to stop and think, whereas "I have it in black and white" might.

What words or phrases have you read that have sounded distinctly un-Regency-like (or from any other period)? Or what phrase or word do you love that sounds very Georgian/Regency/Victorian/Medieval/ Elizabethan/period? Does it matter more the particular language used, or do you just require a certain level of verisimilitude?

(Oh, and any comment on yesterday's post or today's will count in a random drawing to win a signed book on Monday - entries counted until Monday at midnight!)

Anne Mallory


Blogger Jennifer Y. said...

How neat! I find the history of words fascinating, but must confess that I don't give their use much thought as I read. I am usually too engrossed in the story to wonder if the word is anachronistic or not. I would have definitely thought some of those words were modern words (especially crib).

I did recently read a discussion of the word "Hello" in a historical romance and its origins. I have read that it originated about 1865–70, so I guess it would depend on the year the book was set.

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Monica M. said...

Great post, Anne. I love the word versisimilitude. A great one to add to the vernacular. The crib one really struck me--I would have defnitely stopped at that one. I think I'm pretty lenient on this kind of stuff as a reader--I'm more inclined to question phrases as opposed to particular words.

4:15 PM  
Blogger KimW said...

I can't think of any words I've read that didn't seem to fit the time. Although, I'm not one to dig very deeply into the romance stories I read. I read just for pleasure and don't think I'd really know the difference unless I saw a word like "awesome". lol

5:18 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Okay, now you got me thinking about medieval vernacular. When did the use of "bitch" come to be a derogatory term referring to a woman? A villian said it in a 13th medieval I just read, and somehow, I think it doesn't fit. Whore maybe, or in tudor England that an the "c" word (which I find so offensive I can't even write!).

What were slanderous terms for a woman in regency England? Just curious....;-)


5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Anne. It's fascinating that many phrases are still used in exactly the same way today. You're right about "Cool Lady." That would stop me because "cool," like "awesome" are so in vogue today. I'd always assumed "nincompoop" was ancient, same with "ninny." Just doesn't have a modern sound to me. Thanks for the pointers to such useful etymological sources. :-)

Susan Mitchell

6:00 PM  
Anonymous sonja goedde said...

I recently learned how the term "son of a gun" came about. The phrase originated as 'son of a military man' (i.e. a gun). The British Navy used to allow women to live on naval ships. Any child born on board who had uncertain paternity would be listed in the ship's log as 'son of a gun'. While it is attestable fact that, although the Royal navy had rules against it, they did turn a blind eye to women (wives or prostitutes) joining sailors on voyages, so this version has plausibility on its side. The sources for this point of view are:

- The Royal Navy Museum, who confirm that women sometimes travelled on their vessels during the age of sail.

- The Sailor's Workbook; William Henry Smyth, 1867. [son of a gun is] "An epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands at sea; one admiral declared he literally was thus cradled, under the breast of a gun-carriage”.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Nita Wick said...

I very much enjoyed your post. I love history and especially historical romance. I love it when authors go out of their way to use words and phrases of the time. It really pulls the reader into the world of long ago.

8:08 PM  
Anonymous Sally Jane Driscoll said...

Ah, a discussion of one of my favorite subjects featuring one of my favorite words---nincompoop! I always thought it was a dig at the French: "[Je] ne comprends pas." As Dickens wrote, "Esker?"

Maybe readers question the validity of lively and more accurate speech in historical novels because the characters ain't speakin' "literary" or even because they expect the past to be more sedate and mannered than our time.

I wonder if there's a list of all the modern slang terms that date back to Shakespeare and are not modern at all.

8:25 PM  
Blogger Diane Perkins said...

Hey, Anne,
I'm pretty happy with the language as long as characters don't go on "ego trips" or as Susan said, say "awesome."

I know I've decided against using some Regency words because they sounded too modern but I'll be derned if I can think of one of them know.

I just finished my next Warner book (under my Diane Perkins name)which is all about con artists and scams and confidence games. None of those words were correct for the period so I didn't use them. What a pain!

But I love the language. I immersed myself in Georgette Heyer Chivers audiotapes, read by wonderful British readers, to get the feel of the language when I started writing.

"A Twelfth Night Tale" by Diane Gaston in Mistletoe Kisses, in bookstores now

9:03 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Hey Anne! I can't believe that I go away for a few days and the blog goes crazy. LOL! Just my luck to have missed all the fun.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Love it, Anne! A couple of years ago when Joanna Maitland, Nicola Cornick and I were writing A Regency Invitation, I needed a slightly vulgar but not out-and-out obscene expression for copulation. Eventually I discovered "poop-noddy". I kid you not.
There's always a balance to be struck between accuracy and feasibility.
My editor once queried me when I made an allusive reference to the phrase "pigs might fly". I checked it and found that it was quite old enough, but I did have a good think about whether or not to use it. I generally double check slang expressions. In the same book I had used the phrase "Bully for them" only to discover that it was a late 19th century term, so out it went.
In my first book a character referred to the female of the species being more deadly than the male. Before I did the proofs I happened to re-read Kipling's Rikki Tikki Tavi - and there it was! Ooops. I thought it was a proverb!
It's nigh on impossible to check absolutely everything. Finding that one was sheer luck.
Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart is one that uses an enormous amount of Middle English. I ended up having to read the first chapter or so aloud to myself to get the hang of it all. That's one extreme, and since I loved the book the effort was worth it.
There is a very funny site - I found the link on Anne Gracie's links page - that gives genuine period phrases which in today's context sound exactly the opposite of what they were originally meant to convey. There's also a listing of various anachronistic terms.
You might like to check it out. I put the addie below, pasted from my browser.

Elizabeth Rolls

5:26 PM  
Blogger Anne Mallory said...

Hi, Jennifer, Kim, Susan, Nita and Kalen!

Monica, I love it too. Such a great word. :)

Kathrynn, remind me to send you something... ;)

Sonja, very neat! Thank you!

Sally, Elizabeth's link has a nice selection. If I find a nice big database, I'll send it on to you!

Diane! Can't wait to read about your scam artists. I love those scammers - well, in fiction, that is. :)

Elizabeth, poop noddy - lol! Don't you hate it when you have a great phrase and can't use it? That link is fabulous - thank you for sharing it!!

11:37 AM  
Blogger Anne Mallory said...

By the way, Nita won the contest! Congratulations, Nita! Just send me an e-mail with which book you'd like, and I'll send it out! My e-mail address (with the @ symbol replacement) is anne (AT) annemallory.com

Also, the contact form on my website goes to the same place:


11:40 AM  

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