Friday, May 31, 2013

What the dickens and balderdash!

by Maria Grace 

Confound it all!

One of the frustrations of writing historical fiction is discovering your character could not do/hear/see/say something because it had not been invented yet! Such is my plight as I just discovered my Regency era heroine could not say 'Confound it!' as the saying did not exist for nearly another 40 years! A few other things she could not say (and the year in which she could have said them) include:

  • botheration – c. 1835
  • by gum – c. 1825
  • cheeky – c. 1830
  • cheerio – c. 1910
  • confound it – c. 1850
  • darned - c. 1815
  • drat – c. 1815
  • fancy that – c. 1834
  • frightfully – c. 1830
  • (all) right – c. 1837
  • right you are – c. 1865
  • smashing – c. 1850
But, when frustrated, as I am at the moment, she could have said any of these (and the year they made their appearance):
  • bah --c. 1600
  • balderdash – c.1675
  • barmy -- c. 1600
  • beastly – c. 1200
  • blasted – (damned) c. 1600
  • by (Saint) George – c. 1719, by Jove – c. 1570
  • by the bye – c. 18th C.
  • criminy - c. 1700
  • daft – c. 1450
  • damn- c.1300's but avoided in print until 1930's
  • damnation
    - c.1300's but avoided in print until 1930's
  • dang -- c. 1790
  • darn - c. 1790
  • deuced (damned) -- c. 1785
  • devilish – c. 1450
  • devil of a... – c. 1750
  • dickens (What the dickens?) - late 1600
  • egad -- c. 1675
  • fiddle-de-dee - c. 1785
  • fiddle faddle – from 18th C.
  • fiddlesticks – from 17th C.
  • fudge- from the 1610
  • gads -- from 17th C.
  • gadzooks -- c. 1655
  • ghastly – c. 1325
  • golly - c. 1775
  • good gracious – from 18th C.
  • goodness! – mid 19th C.
  • gosh - c. 1760
  • go to the devil – from 14th C.
  • gracious – from 18th C., gracious me – from 19th
  • hocus pocus from 1620
  • I say – from 17th C.
  • la – from 16th C.
  • lo and behold -- by 1810
  • Nation: abbreviation of damnation--by 19th C.
  • oh! - c. 1550, oh-oh -- c. 173
  • pah -- c. 1600
  • pish -- c. 1595
  • pooh -- c. 1600
  • poop- c. 1744
  • pshaw -- c. 167
  • rot it – 17th -- 18th C.
  • rubbish -- c. 1630
  • son of a (female dog)--c 1707
  • son of a gun -- c. 1710
  • tosh - (nonsense) c. 1530
  • What (how) the devil – from 17th C.
  • zooks - c. 1635
  • zounds - c. 1600
What a beastly lot of devilish rubbish it is to care whether or not she could have said any of these phrases.

Confound it all!  

English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh, Writer’s Digest Books, 1998
Etymology of Expressions compiled by Joanna Waugh
Etymology Online
 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy and All the Appearance of GoodnessClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. Very funny, and fascinating Maria :) I'd love to know how you worked out the exact years phrases were used though... :)


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  3. Thanks for sharing my list, Maria! In answer to Jane's question -- Maria listed the resources I used. Be sure to check out my list of contractions and when they first came into use as well. They're also on my "Expressions" website page. Maria provided that link also.
    Joanna Waugh

  4. Joanna, I really appreciate your list and your page. Just so you know, this is not an exact copy of your list. I have added some additional research of my own to it as well.

    Jane, the Etymology Online dictionary provides a great deal of information about the origins of phrases. Just looking up expressions and words at will give you some, but not all of the same information. You can also use Francis Grose's Dictionary of the vulgar tongue to identify some of the expressions that were in use during the Regency period.


  5. Very helpful list! My go-to reference is the Oxford English Dictionary Online (also known as the The Great Rabbit Hole), but I allow myself a few years leeway with their dates. They list origins based on when they could find a word in print (and hence likely have later dates than some of your references), but I figure a word was on the street before it was on the public page (with some exceptions).

  6. I definitely agree. I have been told that as much as 10 years leeway could be appropriate between what was in print and what was commonly used. It just stinks when the word you want is 40 years out of your work's date!

  7. Don't forget bloody (1785)...which would be much too coarse an expression for a lady, or for a gentleman to use in her presence. The OED lists the first known usage for every word in it...which is why is 20 volumes long, but it is great place to find such things. I had an editor once tell me that a particular word sounded too contemporary, but since I knew it was used by Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing (and I, oddly, remembered exactly where) I felt that I should inform him...

  8. Boy do I know that feeling. I wanted my hero's chest to deflate like a baloon and couldn't use it at all. Not even a hot air baloon. Thought he could and did come crashing down like one.

    I use both the online dictionary and, thanks to Grace's suggestion a couple of months ago, the online version of OED. I also use Google books advanced search when I really want to be able to us a word or phrase. If it's anywhere, it will be there.


    1. Ella, your hero's manly chest could most certainly deflate like a bladder....yes, I know, "bladder" may conjure a specific and most necessary bodily function, but animal bladders and intestines have been widely used throughout history as watertight vessels, capable of expansion. Witness sausage casings and early condoms. But, oh bother - you likely will want to just employ another expression!

  9. Fun article, thanks! I spend a lot of time as well researching such things -- and am often amazed at some expressions that sound too modern but, when researched, actually are useable.

    I am currently writing a story that takes place in late 1790s but is being narrated by someone over fifty years later in her old age. So I find myself having more word/phrase options in the narration part, but having to be careful in the reported speech of the actual event not to use the same words if the don't apply. Sometimes I wonder if it matters... if the general reader will even know the difference (particularly when some phrases do sound too modern that are not, or vice versa) -- but in the end, I know the difference!

    Great information and discussion in the comments, too -- thanks!

  10. One comment on contractions...when talking about contractions you must differentiate between contracted forms of speaking and those words we now consider appropriate to shorten in proper English. Contracted pronunciation has been used in spoken language from the beginning of English history, particularly in dialectic English. Contractions were not, however used in written English until rather late in history because they were not considered "proper" English and those writing the books were educated and writing for an educated audience. Writing a book in dialect would have been scorned as trash and considered just weird. The difference here is that various contractions can be used to indicate pronunciation of dialectic English without implying that that is correct among educated person or in literature. The use of contractions in conversation was also common among young men with their today, they could have their own language and slang terms, but they would not use them in front of their elders or ladies as they would have been disrespectful and overly informal. Parents would not have wanted their children to read books that did not use proper English and even those who allowed their daughters to read novels (gasp!) would have been perturbed by books that used unrefined and incorrect language.

    1. With regard to the list of contractions and their etymology on my website -- the list was compiled from William Brohaugh's English Through the Ages. According to his introduction, "English Through the Ages pinpoints as best as can be determined when each listed word became bona fide English...[W]ords are listed here according to when we know by the written record that a word was being used."

    2. Just for the fun of it, I searched for contractions in Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice (Google Books.) She used can't, don't, shan't, and won't in dialog throughout the book.

  11. Too darn funny. Interesting to know "what the dickens" was in use so early. There goes my theory it had to do with Charles.

    And personally think "gadzooks" isn't used nearly enough. I may try to bring about a Renaissance, to get it back into common English usage... ;-)

  12. LOL... if this was like facebook and featured "Like" buttons, I'd be clicking on several of the previous comments!

  13. Delightful and useful post! Thank you!

  14. Delightful! I have recently downloaded Grose from the wonderful Project Gutenberg and am enjoying the intro, where he says that some of these words will let young gentlemen get away with saying naughty things in their parents' presence. It's amazing what you'll find in Shakespeare; I use these words in my classroom introduction to Shakespeare.


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