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.

Where did that Word Come From?

Where did that Word Come From?

If you have read my previous blogs about how I write, you will know I am always looking up words. I don’t just mean finding an alternative word from the thesaurus, although I do that too, I mean discovering if the word I want was in use at the time I set my stories. (Currently 1888 to 1891.) Recently, I have had to change what I’ve written because some words didn’t exist back then; paperwork, acerbic, acidic, gobbledygook, for example. I also like to look up words to discover where they came from. I guess you might call me an amateur etymologist.

Imagine my excitement the other day when a visiting friend presented me with a present, a Reader’s Digest book, ‘The Origins of Words and Phrases.’ Once I have read the parts about how our language was born and developed and other interesting linguistic facts in the introduction, I will house the book on my shelves alongside my other handy reference guides ready to be used at a moment’s notice.

Talking of such books, I thought I would name a few of them today, in case you want to build up your own reference library and add to your writers’ toolkit. While I am about it, I’ll drop in random examples, and I’ll start with my latest addition, ‘The Origins of Words and Phrases.’

The Origins of Words and Phrases

A dictionary of over 3,000 of the most intriguing, amusing and surprising stories of the origin of some words.

Random example: Lunatic derives from the Latin word for moon, luna. Why? Because it was once thought that people went mad during the time of the full moon. Werewolves and British politicians are good examples.

The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms

Provides clear definitions of phrases and sayings with interesting facts and examples.

Random example: Roman holiday. An occasion on which enjoyment or profit is derived from the suffering of others. Origin; from Byron’s poem, ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, where a dying gladiator is described as having been butchered to make a Roman holiday.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary

This is a great resource for finding old words, those that were in use then (1755) but which aren’t now.

Random example: Gymnospérmous (adj,) [γυμνος and σπερμα.] Having the seeds naked.

Well, I said they would be random! If you want a more up-to-date definition of this word, I managed to find this one: Gymnosperms are other types of vascular and non-vascular plants of the Kingdom Plantae, which produce seeds directly (without) bearing any flower.

Here’s another random one: Réremouse (n.s.) [hreremus, Saxon.] A bat.

An Unkindness of Ravens

A collection of collective nouns arranged in various headings. I could spend hours in this book, but here are a few fun ones:

A worship of writers. A kindle of kittens. A glaring of cats. A glozing of taverners.

Clichés Avoid them like the Plague!

This book is basically a list of our top clichés and where they came from. It doesn’t just go for the low-hanging fruit, it plays hardball, and hits the ground running. You might cry, Houston, we have a problem, but the book certainly kicks ass. When you’re writing, you might find yourself between a rock and a hard place because of not knowing if a phrase is a cliché, so this book is handy for sorting the wheat from the chaff. Yes, you might have to buy it, but then, there’s no gain without pain.

Mark Forsyth’s Ternion Set

Three books by the lexicographer, Mark Forsyth, are both informative and fun to read. I’ll never remember all the information in them, but I dip in now and then to discover the meaning of, for example, syllepsis. Syllepsis is when one word is used in two or more incongruous ways. The author gives an example of the word took being used in nine ways, and I’ll use it to give you an example of my own.

It was late, and the party was winding down, so I took my hat, my coat and my leave.

The set of three books also includes The Etymologicon, ‘A circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language’, and The Horologicon, ‘A day’s jaunt through the lost words of the English language.’ For example: Breakfast (somehow) comes from the Greek word, ariston, therefore the study of breakfast is aristology, and if you like eating breakfast, you are an aristologist.

There, I bet you didn’t know that.

The Vulgar Tongue

This is one of my favourites, and I use it a great deal when writing characters such as Frank Andino, and the new character in the Larkspur Mysteries, Bertie Tucker. This is a collection of slang and cant from 1785. I have a PDF version of it as well as a hardback because the PDF is easier to search. When doing so, I come across words like davy for affidavit. Crank, brisk and pert are all words for a mix of gin and water. A member mug is a chamber pot (or was). Seeing as how I am fast becoming an old fogey, I can tell you that it’s actually a very noble thing to be. Fogey derives from the French word fougueux, meaning fierce or fiery, and referred to retired soldiers.

Knowing your… stuff

I have plenty of other books in my collection, from dialect dictionaries to Brewer’s Fact and Fable, and from Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’ grammar guide to the more succinct Joanne Adams book on the subject, ‘Grammar. Know your shit or know you’re shit.’

The shelves also contain an Oxford English dictionary, a thesaurus, a dictionary of quotations, a rhyming dictionary, and a guide to the English language, among others, and my online reference bookmarks include a glossary of Scottish words and an Irish one. Ship rigging diagrams, men’s clothing of the late Victorian era, a dictionary of idioms, a Cornish dictionary, a Gothic glossary, there’s a whole file about prisons and another about workhouses, and then there are digital, online copies of some of the print books mentioned above.

You don’t need all of these in order to write, but the point is, if you’re writing, words are your tools and how to use them is your craft. Understanding where words came from, and exploring how the language developed is background research for the writer in the way a painter understands what colours go together.

Apart from anything else, reading about words is fun and educational.

I must leave you with that thought now, because I’ve been sitting here for ages without a break, and I need to use my member mug.

See you on Wednesday for the Work In Progress update.