Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Regency Slang

Like many of you, I fell in love with the "Regency" novel after reading the works of Georgette Heyer, the English author who invented the genre. Heyer's work is full of what readers assume is authentic Regency-period slang, and over the years, her slang has become well known to readers who have never read a single book by Heyer. That's because authors writing Regency Romances have to use bits of this slang to establish their street cred.

In a thousand novels Regency misses worry about "making a cake" of themselves in a "Cheltenam tragedy." They are "blue deviled." Heroes may have "not a feather to fly with" when their "pockets are to let" and may turn to "parson's mousetrap" to restore their fortunes. Criminals in Heyer let off volleys of near incomprehensible but robust slang, too, as they go about "the prigging lay," as do gentleman whose more controlled aggression doesn't preclude their occasionally "landing a facer."

You can find several lists of Regency Slang on the Internet. A good one is A Regency Lexicon.

But since my next book features a protagonist who has been living in the London slums, I decided it was time to hit the primary source material to see what I could find to give my character's speech an air of authenticity that was not cribbed out of Heyer. I'll take any excuse to do primary research (and avoid writing!) So off I went.

The fact is, I have always been a bit suspicious of Heyer's use of slang. No other books or periodicals published in the period she writes about use any of the slang she employs, except for Pierce Egan, a journalist who made a pretty penny out of publishing slumming narratives--the best known is Life in London. When those books became bestsellers, he published an updated version of, Grose's Classical Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue, a compendium of slang and cant originally published in the 18th century.

Heyer's debt to Egan was very large, but I always wondered how much of the slang in Egan's book would have been used in real life. By the time any slang word hits print it's out of date, and when middle aged people from the suburbs like Egan start using subcultural slang, you know that the subculture itself has long since dropped it.

To prepare myself for my venture into slang, I started out reading Dickens' Oliver Twist. Dickens is out of my period, but I wanted to get a feeling for how the street language was used in sentences. Dictionaries don't give you that, and it's important when using slang to see it in context. It doesn't help to know that "far out" was 1960s hippie slang for "excellent" if you use it in a sentence like "Can I interest you, my dear, in a slice of this far out tiramisu."

Using slang correctly requires that you not only know what the word means, but what kind of person would use it in what kind of a sentence, and when. Slang expires faster than a gift card from a merchant about to go bankrupt.

Google Books Search makes it easy to read all kinds of primary source material that just a decade ago could only have been read by those who had the money to buy rare old books or who put in weeks traveling to distant college libraries. So I was able to find several books of slang from my period besides the Pierce Egan version of Grose's dictionary, and moreover, I was able to read the criticism of other authors about Egan's dictionary that confirmed some of my suspicions.

His critics claim that Grose padded his work with obsolete terms that had never been used in common speech, terms that appeared once in a book before vanishing without a trace. They also said Egan mixed up old slang collected by Grose with contemporary 1820s words in a very confusing way. This may explain why so many of the "Regency" phrases readers have come to know and love thanks to Heyer appear nowhere else but in her works.

But I also ran into another interesting phenomenon. I knew from reading the biography of Heyer's written by Jane Aiken Hodge, that as her fame grew and she attracted imitators, Heyer became increasingly annoyed at how others plagiarized her books. To get back at them she started putting in invented details and language, so that when she found them in other author's work she could prove those authors were plagiarizing her.

In the course of my research I noticed something else that may be related to this. Heyer appears in several cases to have used a phrase found in an 1820s slang dictionary giving it the reverse meaning to what you find in the dictionary definition. The first time I found one of these dictionary definitions that were the opposite of what Heyer used the word for, I thought maybe Heyer had just got it wrong. The second one made me think she was doing it on purpose.

No I'm not going to tell you what those phrases were, though one was one that is very common in today's Regency novel. You'll have to do your own research for that, but since it is great fun reading old slang dictionaries, that is something to look forward to.

The other thing that I learned after putting several days into this effort was what a great job Heyer did at finding the very few slang terms and phrases in these dictionaries that don't sound downright peculiar when used in a sentence. She found almost all of them that, for one reason or other, give off a rich odor of Regency authenticity. Most real Regency slang words sounds like they are part of a foreign language and it would be almost impossible to use them in a sentence in such a way that the reader could understand them without providing a long and distracting explanation.

Few of the authentic terms are linguistically interesting or have a nice sound. Very few feel "19th century", and oddly some sound so modern you can't use them in a historical novel, like "kid" as in "Here's to you kid" or "crib" meaning place you live. Heyer found the words that do have a nice sound, are easy to interpret, and give off a nice historical aroma. Wisely she left the rest behind.

If she invented a few of these slang terms or phrases, well good for her. I'm pretty sure she did. She also picked up a certain amount language that came from the late Victorian period, just as she imposed dance cards on the Regency period, though they are a late Victorian invention which were still in use in the 1920s when she started writing.

Note: The only reason you will read that dance cards were invented in the early 19th century is because Heyer made everyone think they were. No one has ever been able to find an early 19th century dance card to substantiate the claim, though there are many late Victorian ones around.

NOTE: The book that embodies what I learned about real Regency slang is is Star Crossed Seduction. It and will be released on August 30, 2011. You can pre-order it using the links you'll find in the column to your right.


Pamela Cayne said...

Wonderful post, Jenny! I've been researching and playing with Victorian slang for my current books and, I have to admit, it's fun. The best ones you can't really use because they're so odd, but I've loved learning them (and throwing a few at the hubs, of course!)

stirzs said...

It is so wonderful to find this blog post on the very day I decide to try to figure out one of Heyer's slang words. In her book Cotillion, one of the male protagonists states that he is not in the "petticoat line" it almost sounds as if he is implying he is into men. But he turns out to marry her, so I am wondering if anyone thinks he just means he doesn't have a mistress. I am looking for anyone's opinion. Just curious. I have not found anyone else who knows Heyer, who I randomly stumbled upon in a used book store in New Zealand. I fell in love with her. Glad to know that she truly is an appreciated author.

Jenny Brown said...

Stirzs, Heyer shaped a whole generation of American romance authors and her books have never gone out of print.

"in the petticoat line" may be a true Heyerism, as searching Google books for that expression finds only three hits between 1750 and 1850 and none seem to me to be meant the way Heyer uses the phrase.

From another later usage found on Google books where it is described as "a rude phrase" which was insulting to a woman a man cared about, it may be 1920s slang for "a bit on the side."

Jeanie said...

I am interested in Regency and Victorian slang. Could you give me some hints when using Google Book Search to find works pertaining to authentic slang from those eras? You know, key words and phrases to plug in. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

Jenny Brown said...

Dickens is always a great place to start when writing stories set in the Victorian era. For earlier periods it's tougher to find slang because very few people wrote novels set anywhere but in polite society and when they visited some lower class setting, they were so obviously alien that it isn't likely they were accepted by the locals and given full entree to their world.

Most Regency novelists rely on Grose in the Pierce Egan update. There's another Regency slang dictionary by John Badcock on Google Books. There are some useful books by John Partridge but they aren't on Google Books.

For usage in polite society, I would scan Maria Edgeworth's Regency novel, Patronage, Mary Bruton's books,and some of the Minerva Press novels. Austen is of course a wonderful resource for the rhythm of speech in polite society.

Jeanie said...

Thanks so much for the pointers. They will be a big help.

Cecily said...

I thought when Heyer mentions whether a man is "in the petticoat line" she was referring to whether or not they were hanging out for a wife. She uses this phrase in many of her novels and the context surrounding this phrase is always about whether a man is looking for a wife so he can have an heir. I guess I was totally misreading this if it is referring to whether he is getting some on the side.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, thanks so much!

We've actually just been discussing a similar topic over at Almacks - a Heyer discussion group. Which, btw stirz, has 100's of Heyer fans - come join us!


The discussion Almacks was about the origin of the term 'Cheltenham tragedy' and whether it was actually in use or created by Heyer. Interesing stuff!


Jenny Brown said...


Thanks for the invitation. That looks like a very good group. I wish I had time to add more groups to my life, but right now I'm trying to cut back because I need every minute I can come up with to fill my various commitments.

Anonymous said...

In Georgette Heyer's "black sheep" Miles Caverleigh says that he "started in the petticoat-line at Eton: that's why they expelled me" which doesn't really fit the descriptions above! I can't find anything that explains what this means either!

Jenny Brown said...

I always thought from the way it was used that "in the petticoat line" meant that someone was a skirt-chaser.

Anonymous said...

You're probably right, it does fit it just didn't seem to at first, thanks!

trossachs trundler said...

so gad i read this, i'm trying to sort out what writes well, and may have been used in regency times. not so easy.

Pipes said...

Regarding the Heyerisms that she invented to catch out imitators: the BBC has posted an article about those phrases.


Quote: "Hysterical women 'have fits of the vapours' and 'enact Cheltenham Tragedies'. This last was the subject of a plagiarism suit. Heyer had made this particular piece of slang up; and when it appeared in another book she asked that the author prove that it had been used elsewhere."

Thought this might add to the long debate on the Internet about the real vs invented Regency slang used by Heyer and others.

Jenny Brown said...

Great link. Thanks!

maeriealyss said...

petticoat line was supposed to be hanging around loose women


Tiara said...

Would you recommend Jennifer Kloester's "Georgette Heyer's Regency World" as a good 'pocket guide' to the Regency Era? I've done a good bit of research for myself, but my local library doesn't support a particularly impressive nonfiction collection so it's been limited to Google and it's often difficult to determine what's real and what someone pulled out of the reticule...

Jenny Brown said...


If that question for for me, I'd have to say it isn't a book I am familiar with. There are such rich resources on Google that I don't keep any generic guides on hand. Plus I'm very fortunate to live in an area where there are many small towns with excellent collections and where I can order anything I need from an Interlibrary Loan system that extends to Boston. I order a lot of books from them online when I'm researching and pick them up at my local branch. Does your library system provide anything along those lines?

Jenny K. said...

This was a fun post, Jenny... I'd agree that Dickens is a wonderful source of slang. I can never believe how "current" he still reads, even today. You hear his words, especially when listening to them being read on a good audio book, and say to yourself, I can't believe he was writing over a hundred and fifty years ago! Definitely ahead of his time...

Kate Dolan said...

Thanks for investigating. My first attempts to read Heyer were cut short when I got annoyed with all the slang. I recently got past it and started to enjoy her characters and stories but still wondered about those phrases that appear so much in her books and no one elses (except "blue devils," which Rosalie Calvert Stier used in her own diary to describe her depression.) I'm pleased to find out that my instinct was correct and can only hope I haven't let any of her fictional terms creep into my writing yet! Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

'Not in the petticoat line" means not in the habit of pursuing women if loose morals or no it being a ladies man, on one web site it was suggested it was a way to politely confess suggest homosexuality! In an era where such a confession could lead to imprisonment or being a pariah? Not likely! In fact it was simply a confession of not being a rake or not being in the habit of treating the enjoyment of female company as a leisure pusuit.

Anonymous said...

Can mean not after finding a bride currently or not in the habit of chasing light skirts. I think it comes down to context how it is interpreted.