As a writer, I think a lot about language. And in crafting a story set in the past, I feel it’s very important to be historically accurate. Words and phrases are constantly evolving—new terms and sayings enter the vernacular, meanings change over time, certain discoveries are added to the lexicon. So it’s a challenge to get it all right. Did rhododendrons grow in English gardens in 1802? Did the word “twit” exist in Regency times, and if so, did it mean what it means today? The questions that pop up are intriguing and fun to research.
I also find myself fascinated by how certain sayings have come into being and love exploring their derivations. For instance, do you know how “Let the cat out of the bag” come about? (It refers to the cat ‘o nine tail whip that was employed on British naval ships, which was kept in a bag and p brought out with great ceremony when a man was sentenced to a flogging. Thus, “to let the cat out of the bag” was definitely not a good thing!)
There are a great many of these historically-inspired sayings that we all use today, as well as enteraining "period" words, and so I thought I would have some fun in sharing some of the ones I find particularly interesting . . .
During the early 1800s, the meat served aboard ship in the British Navy was pretty disgusting and consisted mostly of fat and gristle. For the most part, it was simply boiled in large vats, leaving a thick scum on the top of the water which was called “slush.” This was skimmed off, and half of it was used to waterproof the ship’s rigging. The other half belonged to the ship’s cook as an official perk of the job, and he sold it to tallow merchants to supplement his Navy wages. Thus the term “slush fund”.
Out of sorts
When type for books and newspapers was set by hand, printers would choose the letters from wooden job cases, which were arranged not according to the alphabet, but rather to standard layout based on the frequency of a letter’s use. Other compartments held lead “sorts” for spacing the words. When a printer ran “out of sorts” he usually turned snappish, yelling at his apprentices to for more lead so he could finish the job. Thus, to be “out of sorts” is to be in a bad mood.
Cut to the chase
This saying comes from the arcane game of court tennis, which was the sport played by Henry VIII (very different from lawn tennis, which didn’t come into being until the 1870s.) It has a very complex, complicated set of scoring rules—don’t ask—but one of them involves a ball landing in a certain place. When it does, a “chase” is called. However, the set is played out before the players engage in a game within a game, which ultimately determines the winner. So “cut to the chase” means skipping over parts of an endeavor to get to the most important, or dramatic, point.
Bite the bullet
In the days before anesthesia, soldiers wounded on the battlefield would be given a bullet to bite down on while a doctor operated on a wound in order to keep from screaming in pain.
Bobby (or Peeler)
The modern day London bobby, or policeman, owes his nickname to Sir Robert Peel, who established the first official police force in London, circa 1830. Early law enforcement officers were also called “peelers”.
A square meal
For easy storage, the wooden plates used in the British Navy were usually square instead of round.
Going off half cocked
An improvement was made to flintlock weapons in the early1600s, whereby a mechanical safety mechanism was designed to keep the gun from firing in the half cock position. Thus, “going off half cocked” means “exploding” prematurely. It also has connotations of something not working properly.
During the Thirty Years’ War, a regiment of mercenaries from Croatia—then a part of the Austrian Empire—were hired by the French. The Croats, called Cravates by the French, traditionally wore a colorful muslin scarf knotted at the neck, with long tails, often trimmed in lace. The style quickly caught on with the French, who simply named it after the original wearers. When the neckcloth became popular in England, it was simplified even further to ‘cravat.”
Now, every period has its own lexicon, and the Regency is full of colorful words. Here's just a smattering of "Top of the Trees" words (taken from from the dictionary complied by the incomparable Regency author Dee Hendrickson.)
Squeeze crab - penny pincher
Thatch gallows - a worthless fellow
Up in the stirrups - very well off financially
Wigging - a severe scolding
Whisker - a lie
Spanish coin - false flattery
Dicked in the nob - crazy
Saucebox - an impudent person
Thornback - an old maid
Rodomontade - vain boasting or bluster
Pop off - to die suddenly
Nubbing cheat - the gallows
Paperskull - a fool