Modern Language in the Regency Era
Frequently, I find myself looking for expressions to find if they are anachronistic. Thus, I thought I’d keep a running list if “Regency-approved” sayings to make things easier for everyone else. If you’re the pedantic sort, I run my searches between the years 1800 and 1830. Sometimes, I go earlier than that to find an origin, but my primary interest is finding out if the expression or word was in use during those years.
Bear in mind that some of these expressions might be considered vulgar, not suitable for the upper class, particularly the women. I try to make note if that’s the case. I also try to note if I only find evidence of the term being used in America.
Please click on the toggle buttons below to see the information about each word or expression.
A – E
Add Insult to Injury
This phrase dates back to Ancient Greece in Aesop’s Fables (Aesop lived between 620 and 560 BCE). In the tale of The Bald Man and the Fly, a fly bit the head of a bald man, who hurts himself when trying to swat it. The fly jeers, “You want to avenge an insect’s sting with death; what will you do to yourself, who haveadded insult to injury?”
The expression first appears in English in 1748 in Edward Moore’s sentimental comedy, The Foundling:
Morley perused [the letter] with evident rage and indignation; then, tearing it to pieces exclaimed, “Detestable malice! vile artifice! “Mary,” he continued, taking her hand, “I can now explain all this; listen to me with composure, and you will find that, if I have injured you, it has been unintentionally. That I love you, Mary, I will not deny–” “Stop, sir,” cried Mary, hastily, “your expressions give me more terror than satisfaction; this is no time for trifling, it is adding insult to injury.”
Thus, I declare this expressions quite safe to use in any Regency context.
From the proverb: “When he should get aught, each finger is a thumb,” that appeared in John Heywood’s Collection of 1546. Certainly used during the Regency period.
(Don’t judge, lol.) Was it ever used as slang during the Regency? According to 1818’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, and Expositor of the English Language, an ass is “an animal of burden” or “a stupid, heavy, dull fellow, a dolt.” So there you have it. I doubt we’d ever see in ladies of quality using such an expression, though.
One of my favorite words, and while I can’t tell you its precise history, it was used during the Regency. From Samuel Johnson’s Dictionnary of the English Language (1827):
To BAMBOOZLE a cant word used in pure or in grave writings, from the low word bam, a cheat. To deceive; to impose upon; to confound.
Also found in Lexicon Balatronicum: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence. (1811)
Blow His/Her Head off
Yes! Definitely an expression that was used by the criminal class when threatening their victims as can be seen in a bunch of criminal trials. The first evidence I found of this term being used was from a play in 1768.
It appears this was used in America before England. I found evidence of a “cat’s nap” being used in American publications beginning in the mid-1820’s, particularly one’s about sailing and pirates. (In happy news, I have an American character in my WIP who grows up around ships, so she can totally say this!)
The first reference in print to this phrase, meaning an expression of indifference or coldness, is from Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquary (1816), “The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther.” And yes, “cauld shouther” means “cold shoulder.” The expression then begins showing up in print frequently in the 1830’s. However, the term had a different meaning that was also used during this time. A “cold shoulder of mutton” could also refer to a poor selection of meat unsuitable for a guest. Dukes and earls would not be dining on such mean fare.
Drop “like a hot potato”
I stumbled into this one when I found a reference to it in an editorial in The Kaleidoscope, or, Literary and Scientific Mirror (1822):
Thus you altogether pass over the inconsistency with which you stand taxed of blowing hot and cold, especially with regard to Mr Bass: you prudently drop that subject, as Pat says, “like a hot potato.”
I couldn’t find when this expression originated, but the fact that “like a hot potato” was in quotation marks leads me to believe that this was a well-known term at the time.
F – J
K – O
Dates back to at least the 18th century. I found plenty of evidence of this term being used during the Regency–so much that it’s almost pointless to cite any particular reference. My favorite quote using the term:
Noel, although professedly a lady killer, had much of his time amongst such females as he could not associate with in general society; and, as is not unusual with men so circumstanced, had formed his opinion of the sex upon the specimens which had chiefly come his own personal inspection. Hence he taught himself to believe, that women were made up of trickery and deception. Dignity of character and innate virtue were not to be found in his vocabulary of female attributes. The Sutherlands, The Man of Many Friends, p. 267 (1825).
Goodness, I’m glad I didn’t know Noel!
The Last Straw
I saw this expression used on its own during the Regency, or as “the last straw” to “break the camel’s back” or “break the mare’s back.” Its origins are a little unclear, but the earliest sources mention it being an Eastern proverb. The earliest citation I’ve found is in The Monthly Magazine and British Register (1799): “Let it not however be inferred that taxation cannot be pushed too far: it is, as the Oriental proverb says, the last straw that overloads the camel; a small addition, if ill timed, may overturn the whole.”
To make a long story short
I found many written references of this expression after 1808. The earliest use dates to at least 1764 in The Tatler by Sir Richard Steele.
Contrary to what a certain dictionary says, the first known use of this expression was in 1789. William Wilberforce in an 1809 letter stated, “I must own that from my earliest days, at least my earliest travelling days, I never passed a parsonage in at all a pretty village, without my mouth watering to reside in it.”
See full article here.
P – T
(Meaning hungry.) Yes! I found evidence of this in an The Son of Commerce: An Original Poem in Thirty-four Cantos, published in 1806 and written by “A Sailor.” To quote: “The breakfast is ready, sir; well said my boy, I feel a little peckish–Hollo, hoy!” The word was also found in the 1811 A dictionary of buckish slang, university wit and pickpocket eloquence.
Steal one's thunder
This expression is attributed to John Dennis, a minor English playwright. In 1709, he published a tragedy that met with little success, but he invented a sound effect for thunder. A few days later, at the staging of MacBeth, Dennis heard his thunder, leaped to his feet and cried, “That’s my thunder by G–! How these rascals use me! They will not have my play, yet steal my thunder.” However, the expression doesn’t seem to be common in print until the 1850’s. The only references I could find prior to that time were in books about the English stage relating the story about Dennis.
Take with a grain of salt
This one is tricky. It originates from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, 77 A.D. In English, it was first used in 1647 in John Trapp’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. That said, after searching Google Books from 1600-1830, there is not much evidence the expression was used. I don’t see it pop up again until 1836 in The Baptist Magazine. Given that there is no explanation of the expression, it had to be familiar enough to the readers of the time. So, it was probable in the vernacular prior to 1836, but I can’t pinpoint the precise date. For all I know, the expression took off in a quick burst like, “Yada yada yada,” after George’s girlfriend said it on Seinfeld.
U – Z
This one involved me having to slosh though a lot of treatises about proper well maintenance in the 19th century. You’re welcome. Now, according to Merriam-Webster, the expression, which means to reduce the effectiveness of something, wasn’t used until 1850. Oh contraire. I found evidence of this being used in 1811 in a rather tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor of the Christian Observer about the hyperbole used by the author’s sisters:
I can pretty well judge how far the strength of the expression is suited to the subject; and water down as I see occasion.– But, Sir, it is on their account I write to you; upon them the effects of all this are very severe. In the first place, when any really great occasions arise, they are sore distressed indeed. Having used up all the strong words of the language upon weaker topics, as they cannot swear, they are obliged to be silent; and having expended their strong emotions in the same prodigal manner, they have no resource but an hysteric.
The writer goes on to ask of his sisters to stop calling him a “little stiff Quaker”–the real reason for his letter saved for last.
As this book was printed in London originally, I think the expression would be safe to use as an English expression from 1811 forward. Would it have been used by the upper class? That part is unclear to me. Use with caution.
Words & Expressions Not Found During the Regency
Barking up the wrong tree
I’m going to go out on a limb (Ha! Pun!) and say this probably isn’t safe to use as a Regency England expression. While I did find it used in an American magazine in 1813, the first time I found evidence of it being used in an English publication was in 1833, and the article was a review of an American novel. In fact, the expression seems quite popular in America in the 1830’s and 1840’s, but it doesn’t seem to spread overseas.
Best of both worlds
This expression originated from Voltaire’s Candide (1759), but it appears not to have taken off in England until the second half of the 19th century. Prior to that time, the meaning was different than the one we think of today. Instead, it meant, “To make the best of both worlds–to manage so as to get the good things of earth and be sure of a good place in heaven.”
So, don’t ask why I looked up this word; I couldn’t tell you. However, it’s not used in Regency. The only reference I could find to it was in an 1810 burlesque play called Tom Thumb the Great by Kane O’Hara. There’s a character named “Princess Huncamunca,” and at one point, another character says to her, “Come my Hunky, come my pet.” I’m not sure whether I’d prefer the nickname or “Huncamunca.” So, if you happen to be writing about a Regency character called “Huncamunca,” feel free to use the diminutive, “Hunky.” Otherwise, you’re out of luck.
Out of the blue
“Out of the blue” appears to be a close relative of “bolt from the blue.” Arguably, the latter may have been used during the Regency. It first appears in English in The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle from 1837, where he says: “…sudden really as a bolt out of the Blue…” I would not recommend, however, using “out of the blue” in a Regency novel unless the word “bolt” is attached. I found a good blog post from Glossologics if you’re interested in this phrase.
Before Steve Austin took on this moniker, this expression was used by Shakespeare in Henry V (2:3):“Cold as any stone.” There’s also a reference to being “stone-cold” in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Night Walker, first published in 1640. The references I’ve found to the expression in the first half of the 19th century seem to use it only as it relates to temperature. I haven’t found evidence that the term was used to mean “unfeeling” or “insensible” as it is today.