Let’s Cut to the Chase!

Cara/Andrea here,
As a writer, I think a lot about language. And in crafting a story set in the past, I feel it’s very important to be historically accurate. Words and phrases are constantly evolving—new terms and sayings enter the vernacular, meanings change over time, certain discoveries are added to the lexicon. So it’s a challenge to get it all right. Did rhododendrons grow in English gardens in 1802?  Did the word “twit” exist in Regency times, and if so, did it mean what it means today? The questions that pop up are intriguing and fun to research.

Naval-shipI also find myself fascinated by how certain sayings have come into being and love exploring their derivations. For instance, do you know how “Let the cat out of the bag” come about? (It refers to the cat ‘o nine tail whip that was employed on British naval ships, which was kept in a bag and p brought out with great ceremony when a man was sentenced to a flogging. Thus, “to let the cat out of the bag” was definitely not a good thing!)

There are a great many of these historically-inspired sayings that we all use today, as well as enteraining "period" words, and so I thought I would have some fun in sharing some of the ones I find particularly interesting . . .

Slush fund
During the early 1800s, the meat served aboard ship in the British Navy was pretty disgusting and consisted mostly of fat and gristle. For the most part, it was simply boiled in large vats, leaving a thick scum on the top of the water which was called “slush.” This was skimmed off, and half of it was used to waterproof the ship’s rigging. The other half belonged to the ship’s cook as an official perk of the job, and he sold it to tallow merchants to supplement his Navy wages. Thus the term “slush fund”.

Type-1Out of sorts

When type for books and newspapers was set by hand, printers would choose the letters from wooden job cases, which were arranged not according to the alphabet, but rather to standard layout based on the frequency of a letter’s use. Other compartments held lead “sorts” for spacing the words. When a printer ran “out of sorts” he usually turned snappish, yelling at his apprentices to for more lead so he could finish the job. Thus, to be “out of sorts” is to be in a bad mood.

Court-tennisCut to the chase

saying comes from the arcane game of court tennis, which was the sport
played by Henry VIII (very different from lawn tennis, which didn’t come
into being until the 1870s.) It has a very complex, complicated set of
scoring rules—don’t ask—but one of them involves a ball landing in a
certain place. When it does, a “chase” is called. However, the set is
played out before the players engage in a game within a game, which
ultimately determines the winner. So “cut to the chase” means skipping
over parts of an endeavor to get to the most important, or dramatic,

Bite the bullet
In the days before anesthesia, soldiers wounded on the battlefield would be given a bullet to bite down on while a doctor operated on a wound in order to keep from screaming in pain.

BobbylightBobby (or Peeler)

The modern day London bobby, or policeman, owes his nickname to Sir Robert Peel, who established the first official police force in London, circa 1830. Early law enforcement officers were also called “peelers”.

A square meal
For easy storage, the wooden plates used in the British Navy were usually square instead of round.

Manton-pistols-1Going off half cocked
An improvement was made to flintlock weapons in the early1600s, whereby a mechanical safety mechanism was designed to keep the gun from firing in the half cock position. Thus, “going off half cocked” means “exploding” prematurely. It also has connotations of something not working properly.


the Thirty Years’ War, a regiment of mercenaries from Croatia—then a
part of the Austrian Empire—were hired by the French. The Croats, called
Cravates by the French, traditionally wore a colorful muslin scarf
knotted at the neck, with long tails, often trimmed in lace. The style
quickly caught on with the French, who simply named it after the
original wearers. When the neckcloth became popular in England, it was
simplified even further to ‘cravat.”

Now, every period has its own lexicon, and the Regency is full of colorful words. Here's just a smattering of "Top of the Trees" words  (taken from from the dictionary complied by the incomparable Regency author Dee Hendrickson.)

Regency-ladySqueeze crab
– penny pincher
Thatch gallows – a worthless fellow
Up in the stirrups – very well off financially
Wigging – a severe scolding
Whisker – a lie
Spanish coin – false flattery
Dicked in the nob – crazy
Saucebox – an impudent person
Thornback – an old maid
Rodomontade – vain boasting or bluster
Pop off – to die suddenly
Nubbing cheat the gallows
Paperskull – a fool

So what about you? Do you know any terms with an interesting or esoteric historical background that you’re particularly fond of? Any Regency words that tickle your fancy? Please share!

Is History Bunk?

Anne here, pondering the much bandied-about question of historical accuracy in novels. How historically accurate should an author be? Or can an author be? Which areas are the most important to get right? Language? Dress? Events? Likelihood? Tone? For me it's always a balancing act. (And I know it's not Regency but I couldn't resist this photo of a rather large lady riding on an ostrich.) Ostrich-Aside-1910

Historical language
For me, the portrayal of historical language is like dialect — you need a good whiff of "historicity" to give you the flavor and effect of the era, but not real accuracy. It's like rendering dialect on the page — if totally accurate it would be tedious and difficult to read.

BelleAssembleeEven written language from the past is often difficult for modern readers to read. One would imagine that using a contemporary account such as a diary or letters from people who lived in that time and place would be foolproof, but even leaving aside differences in interpretation by different individuals, a modern reader still might not buy it.

In my second book, Tallie's Knight, where the characters were making the Grand Tour through France and Italy, I relied heavily on just such original documents. After the book came out, I heard from a fellow author that she'd heard Italian readers complaining that the few Italian phrases I'd used in the book were wrong and it was simply dreadful that I'd made such sloppy mistakes. I asked my friend to ask the readers to write to me directly, and I eventually had an email conversation with one lady.

I showed her my original sources, and her response was more or less, "Oh my goodness, you used 19th century Italian! How marvelous! What wonderful research." Still, my reputation had already been ruined in that quarter by the public discussion of my rotten Italian. So in that case, my historical accuracy counted against me. 

So it doesn't matter if the history is right, as long as it seems right to readers? Maybe.

1817-walkingdressHistorical dress

Dress is probably the easiest area to get right. Thank goodness we have so many paintings and drawings and costumes saved from the past. But even so, one has to remember that the drawings we have from publications such as La Belle Assemblée, were for the rich upper class, and just as most people today don't wear high fashion outfits, the dresses of the magazines of the day would not necessarily be worn by the ordinary people in the street. They'd likely be wearing much older clothes, often repaired and made over, or adapted from even older dresses. Hardinghowell

My heroines are often strapped for cash and I enjoy playing with these notions and having them adapt clothes and refurbish garments and hats, as people usually did, and I like to research how they did that.

What about historical events?

The trouble with that is that history is frequently in the interpretation. People might be able to agree on a date or an isolated fact or two, but stories are brought to life through images and sensations and command of fine detail. If you can lay your hands on an eye witness account or two, that helps, but even so, witnesses differ, and not just in small details.

CliveI remember a superb documentary I watched once on the Roman occupation of Wales. It opened with an eminent Oxbridge historian presenting a very plausible introduction of how the Romans occupied Wales, and how the Welsh had responded. There was a filmed reenactment and all — thrilling stuff.

Then on came a quite different, equally eminent historian who stared into the camera and said in a strong Welsh accent, "Absolute rubbish!" And then gave his version of what happened, which was just as reasonable and logical and fascinating, based on exactly the same evidence — and was quite, quite different. The whole documentary was presented like that, as a kind of debate and it was wonderful. (And I know the photo above is neither Roman nor Welsh, but it's Clive, so I rest my case, that sometimes we prefer fantasy to accuracy)

And how far do we go with historical attitudes? Sharpe
Classism, sexism, racism and more — all were alive and well in my period. Do I show my characters as racist/sexist/classist as they were most likely to be? Dear readers, I have to admit I don't. I try not to give my people modern enlightened attitudes but there are areas into which I refuse to stray.

I want my readers to like my characters and wish them well, and if they're showing abhorrent attitudes, no matter how historically likely those attitudes might be, readers (and their author) won't like them. (There's also the additional problem that many readers assume that the attitudes and prejudices expressed by characters are also those of the author, and I certainly don't want to go there, either.)

Do readers want historical accuracy anyway?
I suspect most don't. Many of the genre's most popular authors stray more to the "history-lite" side of the line, but readers love their stories and their characters, and simply don't care if the characters sound more like modern Americans (or Australians) than 19th Century English people. In fact some prefer it, because it makes the books more accessible to modern readers.

Historical writers are a bit like those historians debating about the Welsh and the Romans — we each have to decide what our own take is on historical accuracy, and in the end, it's more about the creation of a vibrant, plausible and exciting fictional world than it is about history.

Laurie, on All About Romance said" Some readers demand a great deal of history in their romance. Others prefer a smattering." So what about you? Do like a meaty helping of history, or a light snack? Do you have a favorite "history-lite" author whose writing can make you forget about history and just read for the story? What kind of historical inaccuracy really bugs you? And what's the best historical romance (or historical crime or any other historical sub-genre) you've read lately?

PS Having been asked for further details of the Welsh History program I mentioned, I've since discovered it was called The Dragon Has Two Tongues, a 13 part series on the history of Wales that was broadcast 20+ years ago, and though I couldn't find the Roman episode on line, here's the first episode of the series: http://tinyurl.com/bqkdons