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 By the time any slang word hits print it's out of date, and when middle aged people from the suburbs like Egan start using subcultural slang, you know that the subculture itself has long since dropped it.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.