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Sophia's Lexicon of Slang
A little trifle for all those wordsmiths and curious souls who read Historicals and want to know the meaning behind some mysterious Regency terms and phrases. The author has tried, with varying success, to keep her oft-times nonsensical opinions to a minimum.
Addle-pate: foolish or stupid fellow. Also “not right in the upper stories.”
Almack’s: That venerable institution in London whose vaunted
doors were closed to all those people not deemed suitable by the
seven patronesses of the day: the Ladies Cowper, Jersey, Castlereagh,
Sefton, Princess Esterhazy, Countess Lieven, and Mrs. Drummond
Burrell. To receive a “voucher” granting entrance to the place was of
supreme importance to all those balancing on the tipsy social ladder
in Town (especially those on the Marriage Mart.) The food and drink
were abominable: watered down lemonade and stale finger food.
Antidote: an unattractive woman. Also known as an “ape-leader in hell” if she was past her prime. Whoever says the modern age is awash in bad manners has never been called an ape-leader in hell.
Article: “She’s a prime article.” A beautiful woman. Sounds more like a compliment for a horse.
Bamming: to tease someone
Bandied about: gossiped about
Bang-up: dashing, or quite the thing, i.e. “We had a bang-up, good time.”
Billet doux: French for love letter.
Bird-of-paradise: a mistress or kept woman, aka, a light skirt, a bit of muslin, a high flyer, or fancy piece, doxy, a
Cyprian. There were so many words for prostitutes that one wonders if gentlemen had so little to do that they spent a ridiculous amount of time just sitting around their clubs thinking up new words to describe the oldest profession in the world.
Blue Ruin: Devilishly bad—or good—gin, depending on whether or not a man liked to feel ruinously drunk one evening followed by ruinously ill the following morning.
Bouncer: a lie, aka, a clanker.
Bounder: a terrible cad.
Bottom: courage, grit (makes you wonder what “top” meant . . .), i.e. “The gentleman had bottom when he rode “neck
or nothing” to win the race.”
Busk: a long rod (usually ivory) used as support in the front of a lady’s corset. They made today’s Victoria Secret lingerie look like child’s play.
Cake: “make a cake of himself.” To make a fool of oneself.
* Cabriolet: Designed in France, a light 2 wheeled carriage drawn by one horse.
* Barouche: A carriage that could be driven by 2, 4 or 6 horses, this vehicle featured a
fold-back type top.
* Curricle: Similar to a cabriolet although it is drawn by 2 horses. The Prince Regent
favored this vehicle.
* Landau: Very common and versatile coach which was pulled by 2 horses and could
seat 4 people. The vehicle had a hood which could be folded back.
* Drag: Resembling mail coaches, they were 4-wheeled coaches with extra seats on the
back to carry 2 grooms. Often they had crests emblazoned on the sides.
* Phaeton: A light 4-wheeled carriage drawn by up to 3 pairs of horses. They featured a
very high seat and seem like they were the “sports car” of the “fast set.”
* Town Coach: Used for formal occasions, this elegant, large carriage could carry 4 people and was drawn by up to 6 horses.Two ladies in a Phaeton Carriage
Carte-blanche: French for “blank check.” English for “If you come with me, little lady, I’ll give you a platinum American Express card with no spending limit.”
Cattle: horses, usually carriage horses.
Chit: a young girl.
Cicisbeo: a very pretty word for a very bad wife’s boy toy.
* The Upper Ten Thousand, the ton, the haut ton, the Beau Monde, the aristocracy, peerage, upper crust society: Many words for a distinctly small number of people lucky enough to be born to titles usually earned by their courageous ancestors.
* The Gentry or the landed gentry: Those who wish they had a title to go with the property they own or inherited. As with the aristocracy, most property was entailed meaning property had to be passed down to the relative outlined in the Patented Letters of Nobility. They at least got to snub their noses at people who practiced a trade.
* The Merchant class or “in trade”: The next level of the food chain. In England, the merchant class was considered vulgar. Yes, it was considered in poor taste to actually go out and earn your living. (Why wasn’t I born during this time, I ask you, when being lazy was considered chic?) But they at least had the pleasure of having servants and ordering them around.
* Servants: Need one explain? Servants’ working hours were atrocious, typically. If you worked yourself to the bone, with little time off, no vacations, etc. but were lucky enough to work for an “enlightened” master you might get a small pension after 20 or 30 years of hard labor.
* The masses: None of the above.
Coup de foudre: French for love at first sight. Literally it means: a bolt of lightning.
Coze: a quiet chat.
Cry off: to jilt someone.
Curtain lecture: A man in bed received this frequently if he had a nag for a wife. A man like this was known to “live under the cat’s paw.” Most women who dared to behave this way risked having a switch taken to them. The law allowed husbands to beat their wives as long as the switch was no thicker than a thumb.
Dandy: an overdressed male prig sometimes called a “macaroni.”
Dressed in “the first stare” of fashion: someone on the cutting edge of fashion.
Dun territory: about to face creditors with empty pockets. Also known as “under the hatches.”
Facer: a punch in the face (not a face in the punch.)
Fischu: a cloth (usually lace) draped around the neck and tucked into a lady’s bodice to give the illusion of modesty.
Fly into the boughs: to become very angry or upset.
Foxed: drunk as a skunk. Other terms for the same condition: top heavy, fuddled, flustered, cup-shot, to be in one’s
altitudes, or deep in one’s cups. When this occurred, the lucky devil sometimes “cast up his accounts,” a nice way of saying he tossed up his cookies.
French leave: to leave without notice. As if the dear French (who were kind enough to let the English use their pretty language to hide some rude English behavior –see Congé, carte-blanche above) would leave without saying “au revoir” or “adieu!” That’s fustian (see below.)
Go aloft: to die. Way too many words for this final state: to cock one’s toes, go off, go home, got notice to quit, pop off, put to bed with a shovel.
Green girl: an inexperienced, young girl. Not to be confused with “green room” which was where the young bucks in London went to meet the women/actresses who were the very opposite of green girls.
Gretna Green: the first town after crossing into Scotland. Couples could marry there without a license or without benefit of reading the banns in their parish church for several weeks.
Hoyden: an outrageous girl.
In a coil: In a pickle
In a pickle: used when one is tired of saying “in a coil.”
Incomparable: an incredibly beautiful woman. Also known as a “diamond of the first water” which makes NO sense at all.
Inexpressibles: a man’s breeches. And men’s trousers were called unmentionables. Why did no one want to talk about men’s pants?
In high dudgeon: very angry
Jointure: a woman’s monetary settlement after her husband died. This was usually negotiated prior to the wedding so that the poor dear did not end up a pauper when the heir stepped forward to kick her off the estate.
Laudanum: Opium used for pain relief. It could knock a person unconscious if given in large quantities. Not surprisingly it was also addictive if taken too frequently.
Leg-shackled: married (a term first coined by author Georgette Heyer.) Also called
Parson’s mousetrap, or tenant for life.
Make a leg: to bow
Mantua-maker: a dressmaker.
Megrim: a migraine head-ache.
Men: a brief classification (so many, so little time . . .)
» Buck: Not a male deer but rather a male human—usually a young, spirited one.
» Captain Sharp: a gambler and a cheat.
» Corinthian: a well-dressed man who prefered sports to everything else (I like to think that they evolved into the fanatical television football fans of today but dressed in tuxedos.)
» Coxcomb: a silly man who is full of himself.
» Dandy: A fop.
» Fop: a dandy (Okay, they’re both clothes horses.)
» Fribble: one step worse than a fop since his manliness is in question.
» Beau-nasty: a fop who doesn’t bother to clean his clothes.
» Nob: a rich man of importance.
» Nonesuch: short for “none such as him”—a person to be respected.
» Out and outer: You had better be willing to fight when you challenge this fellow. He never turns the other cheek.
» Rake, Rogue, scoundrel, hellion, blade, bounder: What all fathers try to shield their innocent daughters from and consequently what all females want to know more about. Usually a good looking alpha male bent on amusing himself with one or more vices: women, gambling, and drinking being the primary choices in that order.
Mésalliance: an elegant–sounding word a gossip uses to describe a marriage between two people of differing classes.
Mushroom: social climber
Nightrail: a woman’s nightgown.
Nipcheese: a miser.
Nipfarthing: a miser’s miser.
Not a feather to fly with: ruined, destitute
Not care a fig about: to care less about
On-dit: French for “one says,” i.e. gossip.
Out: Short for “allowed to mingle with society,” i.e. “Is your daughter out yet?” Not to be confused with today’s
shortened version of “out of the closet.”
Paragon: a person who behaves with the utmost propriety.
Parvenu: pushy social climber
Pay addresses: to propose or to court a lady.
Play fast and loose: to act without thought and in an inconsistent way, i.e. “Sophia was playing it fast and loose when
she said she could draft a witty lexicon in one day.”
Portmanteau: French for “carry coat”. This was a trunk that usually opened into two halves.
Posting banns: to announce or publish in church an upcoming wedding (usually done for 3 consecutive Sundays before the marriage.)
Puff-guts: a fat man.
Pull a face: to scowl.
Rag-mannered: no manners, unpolite.
Ratafia: weak, fruity brandy liqueur. No self-respecting rake would be seen drinking such a feminine brew.
Ready, the: money, aka, “blunt,” “wherewithal” or “rhino.”
Reticule: a purse that was considered lovely in its day. It looked rather like an ugly, long tube sock which leads one to
wonder what Regency-era designers were thinking. . .
Ring a peal over his head: to reprimand or scold loudly.
Scandalbroth: tea—the gossip-monger beverage of choice. Also known as cat-lap or chatter-broth.
Sixes and Sevens: chaotic, i.e. “The house was at sixes and sevens when the cat got into Father’s snuff (see below.)
Snuff: The legal cocaine of 200 years ago—usually carried in ornate snuffboxes.
Squabs: the upholstered, cushioned portions inside a carriage.
Take the King’s shilling: to enlist in the military.
Tendre: French for a budding affection
Tiger: a groom (usually a boy or small man) who rides on a small platform on the back of a cabriolet or a curricle.
Town bronze: to acquire a facade of clever sophistication.
The Marriage Mart: Each season ambitious mothers trotted out their unwed daughters who were determined to do
their families proud by “leg-shackling” (marrying) a peer of the realm with plump pockets. And every season
gentlemen proclaimed their desire to avoid the old ball and chain but succumbed eventually—especially in proper
Historical Romances—as they should!
The cut (the cut direct, the cut indirect, the cut sublime, the cut infernal): No, this is not about cuts of meat. It’s all about precise levels of renouncing a person’s acquaintance. These supremely offensive maneuvers are still practiced today at most American Middle schools.
» The cut direct: crossing the playground to avoid someone approaching you.
» The cut indirect: Looking the other way as you’re crossing the playground.
» The cut sublime: to remark on the new blacktop to your other acquaintance while you look the other way while crossing the playground.
» The cut infernal: to stop and tie your shoe while looking the other way on the playground as the offensive person passes.
To boil one’s lobster: When a man of the cloth trades in his career and his robes for scarlet military finery.
Ventre à terre: French for “belly to the ground,” meaning traveling (usually on horseback) very fast.
Vowels: IOUs when gambling.
Wag: someone who is impish or mischievous.
Enter the Era
The regency period is generally acknowledged to be between 1811 – 1820. The period is named after the eldest son of King George III, the “Prince Regent”, who took up the reins of power in England after his father was legally declared mad and incapable of governing the country. This fun-loving Prince of Wales loved food, fashion, and of course, entertaining despite the winds of war with France. This era has been frequently likened to our generation’s 1960s – a period of free love and war. Although, of course, in 1815 one did not engage in “free love,” there was a greater freedom in dress prior to the starched up Victorian period. During the regency, ladies still had to be properly chaperoned, and thank goodness for that, otherwise how would the dashing young gentlemen of London have kept their hands off those dainty misses with gowns cut low enough to inspire feverish poetry, and dampened petticoats to encourage a better view of feminine charms. Gentlemen also revealed their physiques in form-fitting coats and pantaloons or breeches for formal occasions. Sometimes the men even used girdles or padded their calves to improve their appearance.
Social standing was everything during this era. If you were lucky enough to be one of the titled “Upper Ten Thousand,” you led a charmed and usually leisurely life indeed. In ton circles, wit, and good manners vied with beauty and intelligence. And everyone seemed to know exactly how many “thousands a year” each member was worth. Marriages were to be entered into with great foresight to ensure an excellent blend of fortune and title. These were the days of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Of course, the lower classes led an existence altogether the opposite of the aristocrats: ungodly type working conditions with very little pay, very long hours, and almost no time off. The middle class, often rich merchants, were considered vulgar and beneath the notice of aristocrats. And although marriage between classes occurred, it was beneath contempt for a title to marry a “cit”and the subject of intense gossip. It was increasingly done to fatten the ever shrinking purses of members of the beau monde whose ill fortune or over-indulgence forced them into this inescapable fate.
England was at the height of the Napoleonic wars during this period. Regiments were formed all over the country and sent to face Napoleon’s sword. Brightly colored regimentals turned many a young girl’s head. In turn, the atrocious evils of the battlefield scarred the psyche of scores of young men. Tories and Whigs battled it out in the political arena, arguing over such issues as the regency, the Corn Laws, and the Luddites.
Regarding the sciences & medicine, it was certainly a period of “survival of the fittest.” Average lifespan was between 19 and 26 depending on where you lived. Science was reaching new peaks at this time – often times making discoveries they did not know how to put to good use. One example of this was the discovery of nitrus oxide, commonly known as “laughing gas.” Despite the discovery, people still underwent barbaric, unsanitary surgery without any pain relief other than alcohol. And apothecaries still “bled” the sick and infirm and prescribed horrendous concoctions such as cobwebs or snail tea. One of the most notable discoveries was that of the small pox vaccine. In other sciences there were many advances: steam engines for trains, factories and boats were invented as well as gas lighting.
The Arts and education flourished during the Prince Regent’s reign. Music from artists such as Beethoven and Mozart was in high demand. Art collectors brought paintings and sculpture to England by the masters of the Renaissance period. Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge were the poets of the day, Austen, Edgeworth and Scott were the novelists. Young boys, as early as six were sent off to be educated at schools such as Harrow and Eton. Girls were typically given less formal education, focusing on writing and accounts, music, dancing, geography, drawing and French.
As you can tell, I could go on and on about this great period in history. But I shan’t!
Witness the wild Beauty of Cornwall . . .
It’s no coincidence Cornwall is the setting for my new series featuring the mysterious
Widows Club. I love Cornwall because it reminds me so much of the wild beauty of
the Pays Basque region of France which is where I spent a good part of my childhood.
The vast French seascapes featuring crumbling palisades look very much like the
Cornish coastline. The English coasts must have appeared very much the same during
the Regency period. Cornwall is still untouched by development in many areas. Visitors
(especially during the non-tourist season) may soak up the beauty of the cliffs and the
sea and experience the magic of the county.
Cornwall comes from the word “Cornovii,” meaning hill dwellers, and “Waelas,”
meaning strangers. Contrary to popular belief many suggest Cornwall has never been
a shire county of England. It is in fact a Duchy, i.e. ruled by a duke — Prince Charles
to be precise. As late as 1856 the Duchy of Cornwall was still asserting its rights as a
This is a mystical land of farmers, fishermen, tin miners, and smugglers. For more than 2,000 years tin mining was a major industry here. Today there is only one working mine in the area. Pilchards, a type of fish, ran in shoals off the Cornish coast for centuries. The 14th century Huer’s Hut in Newquay was inhabited by a hermit who was entrusted with lighting beacon fires to help guide fishermen as they placed their nets. The fisherman’s motto was, “Pilchards are food, money, and light, all in one night!” But the fisherman shared the sea with smugglers during wartime. Smugglers traded warm English wool (for uniforms) for fine French brandy.
A Cornish proverb suggests, “There are more saints in Cornwall than in heaven.” And if the ancient churches, holy wells, stone circles, standing stones, and pagan burial sites are any indication, this is indeed a place of legend and lore. One of my favorite stories is that of St. Guron’s Well in Bodmin. It is saithe groom drinks from it before the bride, then he shall have the upper hand. If a bride gets there before him, she will be in charge. One smart bride secreted a bottle of the well water to her wedding and drank from it before her new husband left the church!
Cornwall truly is breathtaking – a spot not to be missed. My hope is that readers will enjoy an “armchair’s view” of this beautiful place while reading the Widows Club series!
Interesting websites . . .
» What’s in a Name? This website explains the correct forms of address.
» Stand and Deliver . . .all about 19th century highwaymen.
» A detailed map of London in 1792
» A detailed map of Paris in 1789
» The Regency Collection: Everything you always wanted to know about the regency period
» How to cut quills to make pens from feathers