Wednesday, September 11, 2013

They didn't say that...did they?

by Maria Grace

In both reading and writing historical fiction, we’re on the lookout for expressions that do not fit the era. Most often the trouble is modern expressions creeping into a historical work. But here are Regency era (or older) expressions that sound far more modern than they are:

Barbecue: 1650s, "framework for grilling meat, fish, etc.," from American Spanish barbacoa. About 1730 the term was used for an outdoor feast where a whole animal was roasted and to describe the animal so roasted.

Bigwigs: As the cost of wigs increased, very large wigs (perukes) became a scheme for flaunting wealth. Bigwigs were snobs who could afford big, poufy perukes. 

Chock-full: found about 1400; “Chock” is an alternative spelling of “choke”.

Croak: A slang verb for “to die”, from the sound of a death rattle.

Pea-shooter: 1803; quickly generalized to any ineffective weapon.

Pronto: A musical direction borrowed from Italian in 1744, meaning “quickly”
Real thing: meaning genuine, was first used in 1818.

 • Red Tape: excessive bureaucratic nonsense, from the red tape used to bind up legal and other official documents.

Sell out: An officer who has sold his commission back to the army; the way an officer would retire from an army career.

Snug as a bug in a rug: A rug was a particularly heavy blanket for sleeping and “bug” refers to a bedbug.

 • So-so: mediocre; first recorded use as an adverb was in 1530 and as an adjective (so-so wine) in 1542.

Son of a gun: the illegitimate son of a militia officer.

Swagger. To bully, brag, or boast, also to strut.

Sweet heart: a girl's lover, or a man's mistress; from a sweet cake in the shape of a heart.

To wet one's whistle: to drink.

Turned off: a convict would climb a ladder to the gallows. The prisoner would be ‘turned off’ the ladder to be hanged.

White lie: A harmless lie, one not told with a malicious intent, a lie told to reconcile people at odds with one another.

Whitewashed: One who has taken the benefit of an act of insolvency, to defraud his creditors, has been whitewashed.

Wild-goose chase: A tedious uncertain pursuit, like the following a flock of shy, wild geese.

Word of Mouth: To drink by word of mouth, i.e. out of the bowl or bottle instead, of a glass.

And my personal favorite:

Kerfuffle: an agitated disturbance; goes back to 1583.


Grose, Captain (Francis). (2004) Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811 ed. Ikon Classics
Online Etymology Dictionary 
Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?

 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. I do like kerfuffle, I use it frequently!

    1. It's one of those words that just rolls delightfully off the tongue!

  2. Interesting. Shared.

  3. Oh, yes, I have this dictionary, I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg. Fascinating stuff, and I like the bit in the introduction which says that now young men can say naughty things without their parents realising they've said anything rude. :)

    1. People haven't really changed in all these centuries, have they? Thanks Sue!

  4. Great info, Maria, as always! I tweeted as well!


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