Can I Have a Word?

In today’s blog, I am looking at words. Well, it’s what I do every day. Write them, look at them, go over them, misspell them, then go over them again and rearrange them. Some days, I write so much I get a kind of word blindness, and what I think I am looking at isn’t what I am seeing; I see what I meant to write, when in fact it’s gobbledegook.

Gobbledegook is a word that didn’t come into common English usage until around 1936 (there had been some printed instances of it in the 1920s), after that, it shot right up the usage charts to reach a peak in 1955. So, if you are writing historical fiction set before 1936, don’t write gobbledegook. I’ve talked about this subject before, but today, for lack of anything else to talk about, I wanted to present an old favourite of mine: words from the past.

For this, I am using two resources. ‘Passing English of the Victorian Era, a Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang & Phrase’, compiled by J. Redding Ware, originally published in 1909, and ‘Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’, published in 1811 and compiled by ‘Captain Grosse et al.’ Both books are available from ForgottenBooks.com. I’m going to give you some random words from each book, starting with ‘Passing English’ which includes American as well as British words.

To find my first word, I ran a search/find in my PDF version and looked for the word Toby. I found one instance.

Five words/phrases in use before 1909

Cross-life men (Thieves) Men who get their living by felony. Used amongst themselves rather plaintively it would seem, and in remarkable contrast with the 18th century term, ‘gentlemen of the road’, ‘high toby men’, and others.

According to Green’s Dictionary, ‘High Toby’ meant highway robbery; as low toby, on foot, and high toby, mounted robbery.  “[They] were but ‘low toby-men,’ from their frequenting the by-ways.”

Duffer-fare (London. Cabmens’ slang). In the neighbourhood of the theatres, as closing time approaches, the police will not allow cabmen to drive empty cabs through the Strand highway. In order to get past the police, and so obtain a chance of a fare when the theatres vomit their thousands, cabmen will ask a pedestrian to be chummy enough to jump in, and be driven into the Strand. Here arrived the ‘duffing-fare.’

So, a duffer-fae was cabbies’ slang for giving someone a free ride so you could access the Strand when theatres were ‘vomiting their thousands.’ (Love that image.) And talking of theatres…

Ten bob squats (Theatrical) Stalls in a theatre. About 1880 going to the theatre had become so fashionable, owing possibly to the steady patronage of the Prince of Wales, that the price of stalls in most of the best houses was raised. (To ten bob, I suppose.)

In old British money, a ‘bob’ was a shilling. The Bank of England 10-shilling note (notation: 10/–), colloquially known as the 10 bob note was a sterling banknote. Ten shillings in £sd (written 10s or 10/–) was half of one pound. The ten-shilling note was the smallest denomination note ever issued by the Bank of England. [Wiki]

And still talking of theatres, here’s an expression we still use. Barnstorming is ‘to make a rapid tour of an area as part of a political campaign’, and/or to ‘travel around giving exhibitions of flying, and performing aeronautical stunts’, but did you know its origin and original meaning? (From the USA, I reckon.)

Barn-stormers (Theatrical, 18 cent.) Inferior actors who play in barns. Used, of course, in scorn by those comedians who have reached permanent footlights. The term has now almost passed away in consequence of the enormous increase in the number of theatres which now exist, even in the smallest towns. The ‘barn stormers’ hire a barn near a village, and there give their performance – frequently of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare in a barn? Whatever next? Next, is another random word, I found hanging about.

Marwooded (Hanged) This term prevailed while Executioner Marwood held office. He died in 1883.

Some words/phrases in use before 1811

Randomly selected from The Vulgar Tongue are these five, picking up where we left off.

COCKLES. To cry cockles is to be hanged: perhaps from the noise made whilst strangling. (This is street slang also known as cant.) Related to this, we have COLQUARRON. A man’s neck. His colquarron is just about to be twisted; he is just going to be hanged.

Not to be too fixated, but related to both of those is CROP. To be knocked down for a crop; to be condemned to be hanged. Cropped, hanged. So now we can see where the expression, ‘to come a cropper’ comes from. Also on the same subject, if you danced upon nothing, you’d been hanged. There are several other words associated with this subject, but let’s move on to something more pastoral and talk about the fruitful vine.

FRUITFUL VINE. A woman’s private parts, i.e. that has FLOWERS every month, and bears fruit in nine months.

Or maybe not. How about returning to my roots on the Romney Marshes and the image of sheep safely grazing in the fields?

WOOLBIRD is another name for a sheep, or you could refer to one as a BLEATING CHEAT (don’t ask me why), just as you would refer to a sheep rustler as a CHEATING RIG.

By the way, we have to thank sheep for giving us condoms. Have a read of this:

CUNDUM. The dried gut of a sheep, worn by men in the act of coition, to prevent venereal infection; said to have been invented by one colonel Cundum. These machines were long prepared and sold by a matron of the name of Philips, at the Green Canister, in Half−moon−street, in the Strand. That good lady having acquired a fortune, retired from business; but learning that the town was not well served by her successors, she, out of a patriotic zeal for the public welfare, returned to her occupation; of which she gave notice by divers hand−bills, in circulation in the year 1776.

Not sure about the use of the word ‘machines’ when describing a cundum, however.

I could go on all day, but I won’t. The point to be made from all this, if there is a point at all, is that when writing historical fiction, you need to be aware of the words your characters and narrator would have known and not known. However, my advice is to also consider your reader. Too many colloquialisms, slang, cant and obscure words, and your writing will be Hubble de Shuff, your readers will be Both-Eared, and your sentences will be Nonsense, which, you might like to know, was the word used to describe the act of melting butter in a wig.

In a wig? Well, there we are.