The sheer delight of historical slang…

I am by nature a perfectionist.  (I know, I know, the fastest way to drive yourself crazy.)

I am also, again by a twist of nature, a stickler for detail.  (Yes, that’s right, the second most direct route to madness.  Particularly if you’re a historian writing historical fiction.)

Together these two probably constitute the fastest way to send yourself round the twist, or perhaps along the quickest route to total eccentricity.

(No comment from the pit, you!)

GreatParisCipherAnd this peculiar combination of traits has seen me doing everything from riding long distances hell for leather through gale force winds and sheets of rain–terrifying, invigorating, brilliant!–to enable me to write truthfully of an age when horses were the only mode of transportation, to learning to take snuff one-handed, to learning to crack the Napoleonic codes spies used two hundred years ago.

Obviously, it was this that led me to undertake that–what’s the opposite of a wild goose chase?–tricksy bit of sleuthing over the last few weeks about the waltz, to which I’ve previously referred after I’d come up against was the visit by Tsar Alexander to Britain in June 1814…

incroyable1[He, as the victor over Napoleon, was paying us a little visit to cement the friendship between our countries, to flirt, to play the saviour of Europe to an adoring audience, to flirt…He was wildly popular in London.  (He brought his pet poodle with him.  Does that help or hinder?)

And one of the things for which he was famous was dancing all night.  Quite literally.  Whether because he genuinely liked it or whether because it was an opportunity for him to get closer, I don’t know, but he did love to waltz.  But I kept being teased by this one thing–his visit was in 1814, yet too many authors and websites were insisting the waltz wasn’t done till 1816.

alexander 1814Still,  I couldn’t really imagine the local aristocratic lovelies saying to the 6-foot tall, blond hero and emperor in his spiffing formal uniform, “No, your Imperial Immenseness, the waltz is too immodest for me and I don’t know how…”?

No, not so much, hunh?  Doesn’t really work, does it…]

So, admittedly, some of my work is just plain bonkers.  Yes, I do know that.

But, you see, all of it–every miniscule minute iota of it–is absolutely necessary so that I can convey as powerfully and dramatically and accurately to the reader what it was to live 200 years ago.  Because above and beyond all things and at all times, I strive to put the reader in the room.  (Not to tell a modern tale in dress-up clothes, but to put you in the room!)

Still, one of the tricksier areas of research though is speech.  Because I can read their letters, their journals, even their books and speeches, but who talks everyday as they write in letters?  Or diaries?  Those may be marginally better perhaps, but it’s still not the same as a recording, is it?

So one of the great finds and great delights of my life has been to come upon and read–cover to cover and more than once–a book called The Vulgar Tongue:  Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence by Captain Francis Grose, originally published in 1785 and continuing in publication until 1812…

Imagine, a book full of words like:

Slubber de gullion — a dirty, nasty fellow;
Nocky boy — A dull simple fellow;
Basting — beating; Spider-shanked — thin-legged;
Kinchin — a little child, Kinchin coes, orphan beggar boys educated in thieving…

Go ahead, try rolling them about in your mouth, letting them fall into speech.  An intoxication of language, really.  Sheer absolute joy.

It’s all too evocative, too atmospheric not to revel in it.  But the use of just a smattering of such slang in the dialogue easily transforms it from modern to, well, a sense of what they must have spoken like.

We can’t be sure, of course.

printshopwindow1And we always have the awkwardness of, in my case (I write about Napoleonic Europe), 200 years of history and hind-sight as an obstacle.  But the slang gives us a feeling for the roistering, boisterous, rambling world of London that Jane Austen did not talk about, the world of the military, the Britain that had as yet no police force, the city that hadn’t yet been ripped up by the Victorians for the installation of sewers, and the countryside given over to farming.

But even a simple reading of dictionaries of historical slang give one a sense of their different perception of things, of what mattered to them, what their daily lives encompassed, who they met with and how they perceived their fellows.  It’s an education in itself.   Occasionally shocking, often surprising, always ebullient.

As I say, tremendous fun.

And as for me, well, I’ve learned at least one thing, I can tell you–I am without a doubt a plaguey saucebox and a scapegrace.  Ha ha ha ha.  (But you probably already knew that.  Though now, you have the precise nomenclature, yes?)

photo by B.Bennetts

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22 comments on “The sheer delight of historical slang…

  1. Huw Thomas says:

    I love the sound of ‘buckish slang’. Is this slang for young bucks or does it have a different meaning?
    I’m also sure there’s a more modern equivalent of ‘slubber de gullion’ that I’ve seen elsewhere but I can’t bring it to mind at the moment.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      ‘Bucks’refers to young men about town rather than anything to do with class–so keen interest in sporting, pugilism, carousing, women…this the period of young men hanging about the great boxers, of cock-fighting, gin-fuelled wildness…and so one finds a great mingling between the males of all across society.

      Slubberdegullion is one of my favourite words and I use it as frequently as I can get away with it.

  2. While I know you love this stuff, and I understand why, I think the trick is to use such slang in a way that the modern reader can understand the expression without having to ‘google’ it.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Yes, indeed. And it has to not sound forced. That’s really important. Otherwise, you just sound like you’re being coy and the gag-o-meter reading goes right off the chart…

  3. prue batten says:

    Oh I love slang! Well done, M.m. B! I especially like the Regency slang so perfectly employed by Georgette Heyer and would happily go round injecting it into my speech as we wrestle sheep through the yards and into paddocks and the shearing shed. Much better than the average slang on offer here in Australia. Now if you hear of the perfect dictionary of Twelfth Century Slang do let me know. I suspect some soldiers and seamen in my novels could do with it like a pottage could do with salt and pepper.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, Piers Ploughman has some pretty racy stuff in it…There was a BBC Michael Wood documentary last night on a woman from the village of Codicote, one Christina, and there was some pretty jammy poetry mentioned in that…you might see if you can get it.

      I do use a great deal of Regency slang in my speech…but the truth is, here in the country where I live, a lot of it hasn’t exactly died out…which maybe is why if flows off the tongue with such ease…(lots of practice).

  4. Tinney Heath says:

    Excellent post – though it would have been worth it for the title “Your Imperial Immenseness” alone.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ha ha ha ha! He was! He actually thought–no, I’m not making this up–that his ability to schmooze all day, attend a dinner in the evening, then turn up at a ball after midnight and dance (he liked the waltz and the polonaise best) until five ayem, sleep till ten, then start it all over again, was proof that he was God’s chosen vehicle. A remarkable individual!

  5. I love it,too, perhaps a little too much.

    That was the one point where my first book got slaughtered in reviews. It was from a male perspective, with a number of military and ex military characters, who in my mind, would definitely relax their speech around other men.

    Instead of finding it as fascinating as me, the readers complained I was to much and the footnotes I include to explain anything not obvious were also distracting ect&ect. Needless to say I was really disappointed.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I work from eye-witness accounts mostly, and their speech was more than a little relaxed. Ha ha.

      It’s a funny thing, what readers expect and what they’ll complain about. I’ve just finished a book by Harry Sidebottom–a bestseller about ancient Rome–and he’s got the thing loaded with Latin terminology and footnotes and a glossary. And people love him for it!

  6. june h. says:

    I had no idea that dictionary even existed!!! That’s going to be my first summer read… Never in my life have I been so excited to read a dictionary haha.

  7. chasbaz says:

    I particularly like “Sinks of London” as a source of good cant:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=lPxnKPkEiIUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=modern+flash+dictionary&hl=en&ei=I-UITfbWN47msQO6_YmtDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEEQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

    And of course Pierce Egan’s Life in London is a delight. Immersing yourself in these and you’ll end up talking like a buck before you can say Mary Robinson!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I can already talk like a buck. It’s one of my most endearing traits. They particularly enjoy it when I let rip at the stables… (They were talking about putting a swear box in the school, just for me…)

  8. chasbaz says:

    But draw the line at filing your teeth, eh?

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