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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Bedrock: used pre-1802? No
Memidex.com cites its use from 1869.
- Blindside: used pre-1802? No
Dictionary.com puts the first use of this US football term in the early 1970s.
- 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!).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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)
- Mores: used pre-1802? No
1907, from Latin mores “customs, manners, morals”.
- Goal: used pre-1802? Yes
Figurative sense of “object of an effort” is from 1540s.
- 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).
- 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:
- 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)
- Red-handed: used pre-1802? Yes
1781 (of Scottish origin, I understand).
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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”.
- 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’.
- 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.
- Impasse: used pre-1802? Yes
Good word and usable! 1763, from the French impasse meaning ‘an impassable road or a blind alley’.
- Sham: used pre-1802? Yes
In the sense of ‘something meant to be mistaken for something else’ it dates from 1728.
- Transfix: used pre-1802? Yes
I was certain this was a modern word but no: 1580s, ‘pierce through, impale,’ from Middle French transfixer.
- 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!
- 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’.
- 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!
- 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).