In my previous blog post I asked which of the words and phrases below could be used in a story set in 1802. These are the answers.

  1. Agent provocateur: used pre-1802?   No

According to Etymonline.com the first referenced use in English as a borrowed French term was in 1845 (this was a surprise: I was sure it dated back to the Napoleonic Wars).

  1. Spy: used pre-1802?   Yes

The Random House Dictionary has this word dated from 1200-50, a variant of the Middle English spien. So any of you planning a story about a medieval James Bond, go right (or should that be write?) ahead.

  1. Yokel: used pre-1802?   No         

Etymonline.com has its first recorded use in English from 1812 (it has, apparently, come to us from the German jokel, a rude name for a farmer). Really annoyed about this as I had to substitute ‘yokel’ in ‘The Formidable Mrs Elizabeth Darcy’ for ‘bumpkin’ (1560s) which to my ear doesn’t have quite the same heft.

  1. Bedrock: used pre-1802?   No

Memidex.com cites its use from 1869.

  1. Blindside: used pre-1802?   No                         

Dictionary.com puts the first use of this US football term in the early 1970s.

  1. Snob: used pre-1802?   No

Tricky one this. Although the word ‘snob’ was around pre-1802 its use was confined to Cambridge University students as a dismissive term for the local tradesmen. The meaning we infer – those who look down on those they believe to be their social interiors ‒ was popularized by William Thackeray’s ‘Book of Snobs’ (1848). So there’s a jarring moment in Jol Wright’s visually beautiful film version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when Mrs Gardiner accuses Elizabeth Bennet of being a snob (just one of many historical faux pas, the worst of which is Keira Knightley’s penchant for wearing rubber wellies!).

  1. Standby: used pre-1802?   Yes

Merriam-Webster has the first recorded use of ‘standby’ (as in ‘one that is held in reserve ready for use’) dated at 1796, so Elizabeth can indeed reach for that conversational standby, the weather.

  1. Upstage: used pre-1802?   No

Etymonline.com dates this from 1855, which was a painful discovery … the synonyms for ‘upstage’ just don’t cut it. I ended up using ‘overshadow’ but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  1. Stage-struck: used pre-1802?   No

Another 1802 no-no, etymonline.com dating this from 1813. The good news here is that the term stage-smitten dates from the 1680s.

  1. Scuttlebutt: used pre-1802?   No                         

Although the word scuttlebutt – a barrel of drinking water for the use of the sailors – dates from 1805, its use as a term for rumor and gossip is much later, 1901.

  1. Femme fatale: used pre-1802?   No

French borrowings are awkward in terms of dating. According to Merriam-Webster the use of femme fatale in English dates from 1912 (etymonline.com comes in a little earlier at 1895). My problem as a writer is that these anglicized Frenchisms are so marvelously succinct and evocative I really regretted having to ditch them. Some of the others that fell by the wayside:

“A woman diving off a bathing wagon in to the sea” 1790 by Thomas Rowlandson , Wellcome Library, London. Here: dipping more than her toe into a new language
  • Volte-face (1819)
  • Decolletage (1894 – try finding a synonym for that!)
  • Bete noir (1844)
  • Habitue (1818)
  • Declasse (1887)
  • Aperitif (1894)
  • Chic (1879)
  • Bona fides (1838)
  • Debutante (1817, as in ‘a young woman making her first appearance into Society’)
  • Fiancee (1844)
  • Fiance (1864)
  1. Mores: used pre-1802?   No

1907, from Latin mores “customs, manners, morals”.

  1. Goal: used pre-1802?   Yes

Figurative sense of “object of an effort” is from 1540s.

  1. Dutch courage: used pre-1802?   Yes

This dates back to the British troops seeing the Dutch troops getting ready for battle in the Thirty Years War (1618-1638).

  1. Sang-froid: used pre-1802?   Yes

1712 (from the French meaning of ‘cold blood’). Fortunately a number of other anglicized Frenchisms made the cut-off date of 1802. These included:

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, not a snob but definitely wearing her wellies
Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, not a snob but definitely wearing her wellies
  • Passe (1775)
  • Rendezvous (1640)
  • Pique (1530s)
  • Sobriquet (1640s)
  • Faux pas (1670s)
  • En route (1779 – I was so pleased about this, synonyms are a nightmare)
  • Tete-a-tete (1728)
  1. Red-handed: used pre-1802?   Yes

1781 (of Scottish origin, I understand).                                                         

  1. Light-fingered: used pre-1802?   Yes

I had one of my characters described as ‘light-fingered’ so when I read in The Cassell Dictionary of Slang’ that ‘light finger’ was ‘US, 1950s’ I was a little put out. Fortunately, further research had the term backdated to 1540. Phew!

  1. Vendetta: used pre-1802?   No

Etymonline.com has this making its debut in 1846, from Italian vendetta ‘a feud, blood feud’. A shame it’s so recent, it’s such a very evocative word.

  1. Proletariat: used pre-1802?   No         

I was searching for a synonym for ‘the mob’ and tried all manner of alternatives. ‘Proletariat’ was a no-no: 1853, from the French prolétariat.

  1. Hoi polloi: used pre-1802?   No

Another try at finding an alternative to ‘the mob’ and another no-no: 1837, from Greek hoi polloi ‘the people’. (OK, Byron used it in 1822 but that was in Greek so it doesn’t count!). If you do need alternatives, ‘the commonality’ is OK (1580) as is ‘riff-raff’ (late 15C).

  1. Itinerary: used pre-1802?   Yes

This came as a surprise to me, ‘itinerary’ sounding quite a modern word, but no: mid-15c, ‘route of travel’ from Late Latin itinerarium “account of a journey”.

  1. Deadlock: used pre-1802?   Yes

One of only two decent (and usable) alternatives to ‘stand-off’: ‘deadlock’ was first used in 1779 in Sheridan’s play ‘The Critic’.

  1. Stand-off: used pre-1802?   No                         

A really useful term but one, sadly, no one in Georgian England would have employed. Its use in the sense of ‘stalemate’ is dated 1891.

  1. Impasse: used pre-1802?   Yes

Good word and usable! 1763, from the French impasse meaning ‘an impassable road or a blind alley’.

  1. Sham: used pre-1802?   Yes        

In the sense of ‘something meant to be mistaken for something else’ it dates from 1728.

  1. Transfix: used pre-1802?   Yes

I was certain this was a modern word but no: 1580s, ‘pierce through, impale,’ from Middle French transfixer.           

  1. Grouch: used pre-1802?   No

I needed a word to describe Darcy when he was in one of his moods. This seemed perfect until I discovered its first use was in 1896. Drat!

  1. The game is afoot: used pre-1802?   Yes

This phrase is so synonymous with Sherlock Holmes that I’m guessing most people would think it was coined in the late 19th century. Wrong; it was first used in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’.         

  1. Pedestrian: used pre-1802?   Yes

Another surprisingly usable word with its meaning ‘a walker’ dating back to 1793. Fortunately the word ‘pavement’ is from the 13th century so they had something to walk on!

  1. Bric-a-brac: used pre-1802?   No

1840, from obsolete French à bric et à brac (16c.) “at random, any old way”, a nonsense phrase.

So … how did you do? My score was 14/30 … pretty poor, I suppose, but as they say practice makes perfect (a mid-16th century maxim so one Elizabeth Bennet might have used). 


Crispy Crispins

Interesting take on tradition. And I especially like the use of the word “yokel” which I learnt not so long ago. 🙂

Jan Edwards

fireHaving just passed Hallowe’en and its various misconceptions – of which I will write another time – we are fast approaching Bonfire Night.  Most folks across the UK will be thinking of the old rhyme. Remember, remember, the fifth of November. Some will even know the full version as repeated in the film V for Vendetta.

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I am just completing what I hope will be the final, pre-submission, edit of “The Formidable Mrs Elizabeth Darcy” and one of the tasks I’ve set myself is to cull all those words and phrases which no character of 1802 would ever have used. Morning-dress-Ackermanns-ca1820This proved more difficult than I anticipated involving much reference to (amongst others) “The Cassell Dictionary of Slang” and http://www.etymonline.com. Having done this I thought it might be fun to give those of you writing Georgian-era tales a chance to see just how clued-up you are on the words and phrases that are a no-no (or a yes-yes) in England of 1802.

So which of the following words and phrases could be used in a story set in 1802? I’ll give the answers in my next blog post. Have fun and good luck!

  1. Agent provocateur:                                     used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                          (as in ‘I wish you to act as an agent provocateur and raise the mob in rebellion’)
  1. Spy:                                                                    used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                   (as in ‘Gaston was suspected of being one of Napoleon’s spies’)
  1. Yokel:                                                                 used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                  (as in ‘She possessed all the grace and manners of a village yokel’)
  1. Bedrock:                                                            used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                 (as in ‘Loyalty to the King is the bedrock of our society’)
  1. Blindside:                                                          used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                 (as in ‘His attacker came from behind, blindsiding him’)
  1. Snob:                                                                    used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                 (as in ‘Sir Percy was an arrogant man, a real snob’)
  1. Standby:                                                              used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                (as in ‘Elizabeth reached for that conversational standby, the weather’)
  1. Upstage:                                                               used pre-1802?                 Yes/No               (as in ‘Elizabeth wore her plainest gown, not wishing to upstage the other ladies’)
  1. Stage-struck:                                                      used pre-1802?                 Yes/No               (as in ‘I’ve always wished to an actor, being stage-struck from an early age’)
  1. Scuttlebutt:                                                         used pre-1802?                 Yes/No               (as in ‘These rumors of invasion  are nothing more than pernicious scuttlebutt’)
  1. Femme fatale:                                                    used pre-1802?                 Yes/No              (as in ‘Wearing her gown sans-chemise she looked the femme fatale of legend’)
  1. Mores:                                                                   used pre-1802?                 Yes/No               (as in ‘When in Paris one must adopt the mores of the Frogs’)
  1. Goal:                                                                       used pre-1802?                 Yes/No              (as in ‘Our goal must be nothing less than the defeat of Napoleon’)  
  1. Dutch courage:                                                  used pre-1802?                 Yes/No               (as in ‘The stench of brandy on his breath signaled he had sought a little Dutch courage’)
  1. Sang-froid:                                                           used pre-1802?                 Yes/No              (as in ‘Darcy was unperturbed by the threat, his sang-froid unruffled’)
  1. Red-handed:                                                        used pre-1802?                 Yes/No              (as in ‘The butler was caught red-handed, stealing form the cash-box’)                  
  1. Light-fingered:                                                  used pre-1802?                  Yes/No             (as in ‘She is a light-fingered girl, much given to thieving’) 
  1. Vendetta:                                                               used pre-1802?                  Yes/No             (as in ‘This is more than simple dislike, it smacks of a vendetta’)
  1. Proletariat:                                                         used pre-1802?                 Yes/No               (as in “I will have nothing to do with the proletariat, they have neither breeding nor manners’)
  1. Hoi polloi:                                                            used pre-1802?                 Yes/No              (as in ‘I will have nothing to do with the hoi polloi, they have neither breeding nor manners’)
  1. Itinerary:                                                              used pre-1802?                 Yes/No              (as in ‘Bingley has changed his itinerary and gone to Paris rather than Rome’)
  1. Deadlock:                                                              used pre-1802?                 Yes/No             (as in ‘Our army is deadlocked in its struggle with the French’)
  1. Stand-off:                                                              used pre-1802?                 Yes/No               (as in ‘The French and English armies are in something of a stand-off’)
  1. Impasse:                                                              used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                (as in ‘Negotiations with the French regarding Malta have reached impasse’)
  1. Sham:                                                                    used pre-1802?                 Yes/No               (as in ‘Her marriage was a put-up affair, nothing more than a sham’)             
  1. Transfix:                                                             used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                (as in ‘Elizabeth stood stock-still, transfixed by the pistol pointed at her’)            
  1. Grouch:                                                               used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                (as in ‘Susan did not much care for Darcy, judging him an ill-natured grouch’)
  1. The game is afoot:                                           used pre-1802?                 Yes/No                (as in ‘Bring your pistols, Darcy, the game is afoot’)
  1. Pedestrian:                                                           used pre-1802?                 Yes/No              (as in ‘The pavements of London were crammed with pedestrians)
  1. Bric-a-brac:                                                         used pre-1802?                 Yes/No              (as in ‘Lydia’s box was crammed with a miscellany of bric-a-brac)                          download