Friday, October 4, 2013

Regency Slang or a Dashed Plummy Way of Speaking

I originally wrote this post for my publisher's blog: But I thought I'd share it here as well.
The creative use of slang in a book can instantly transport you to another place and time and make the characters seem real. The richness of the slang of the Regency era is one of the reasons I decided to write romances in this time period, like my latest book, Saint Sin.  Not only do you have the slang of the upper classes, but also a completely different informal language spoken by the lower classes, especially those individuals on the fringes of society.

The slang used by lords and ladies was often euphemistic and sought to make things sound better than they were. Instead of drunk, they would say foxed, disguised or lurched. A loose woman was a fashionable impure or a Cyprian, who might work in a house of Venus. Gossip was the rattle, the hum, the on-dit or tittle-tattle.

But there was plenty of color in the terms used by the swells (as the lower classes called the upper classes). People didn’t get depressed, they got blue-deviled. If they did something foolish, they made of cake of themselves, or they might be called henwitted, addle-pated or baconbrained.  

The gentlemen’s pastimes of gambling and driving especially seemed to inspire vivid expressions. A good driver was known as a tulip of the goers, a crack whip or a dab hand with the ribbons.  A poor one was called cowhanded. A good team of horses might be described as a bang-up pair, fast trotters, sweet-goers or prime cattle.  

The era’s passion for gambling resulted in many colorful gaming terms. To cheat was to gull or gammon.  If you had plenty of money, called the ready or blunt, people would say you had deep pockets or were a high flyer.  When you owed too many gambling vows, you were done up, dished up or deep in dun territory.  Those most likely to lose to the sharps were green boys who lacked town bronze, like my heroine’s brother in Saint Sin.

Women of this era didn’t have much power or independence. All their status was derived from the males in their lives. As a result, many of the terms for females were condescending.  A young woman might be referred to as a chit, an article, a bit of muslin or even baggage (as in, she’s a cunning baggage). If she was tall, she was a long meg or, serious and well-educated, a bluestocking. A false woman was a jade or jilt. A stupid one, a milk and water miss or wet goose.  If no one offered for a young woman after a Season or two, she was said to be on the shelf.  If she was boisterous or wild, she was called a hoyden or a hell cat.

The upper classes used a lot of slang, but it was nothing compared to the lower classes, who spoke in cant, a complex vernacular that was virtually indecipherable to those unfamiliar with it. If someone told you to dub your mummer, they meant you should shut your mouth. A jigger was a door. A mauley, a hand. A man was a cove or moulder, and a woman, a mort, molisher or a titter. A coach was a rattler or a rumble tumble. If something was good, it was prime twig, plummy or bang up to the mark. To go out to the nines was to be well-dressed.

Since it was very much a street language, a lot of cant related to criminal activity. To tout was to keep watch for the traps, rollers, pigs or quinters (police runners). A cracksman was a housebreaker. A knuckler, a pickpocket. High toby was highway robbery on horseback. A bob was a shilling; a bull, a crown.

In some cases, the terms used by the upper and lower classes were the same, but mostly, the only thing they had in common was a delightfully expressive style of speaking. To make my stories accessible to readers, I had to be sparing with my use of slang, and only sprinkle a few words in here and there. My main characters in Saint Sin speak mostly like we do, with only a bit of Regency slang thrown in. But the delightfully descriptive way people of this era spoke greatly enhanced my pleasure in writing about this world.

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