JONATHAN SWIFT’s advice in his essay ‘Letter to a Young Gentleman Lately Entered into Holy Orders’ (1721) was that ‘proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style’. Behind this succinct formula lies a more complicated truth. To be an effective writer it is necessary to grow the antennae of a grasshopper, acutely attuned not only to the aptness and music of words, but also to their potential dullness and clunkiness: the jargon noun, the cliché verb, the mixed metaphor and the unfeasible slang.

But, if all writers have to keep their phraseology under surveillance, when you write in a historical voice, the language must be policed with special strictness. I write historical fiction in the first person of Titus Cragg, a bookish lawyer and coroner in eighteenth-century provincial Lancashire. To make Cragg’s voice convincing and enjoyable for the modern reader I must walk a fine line between linguistic anachronism and the obstructively archaic (no one swooning, or saying 'I would fain' or 'methinks', or exclaiming 'Gadzooks!). My choice of words has to stick to the lexicon of the period while being easy on the modern ear: words proper for the time in an order proper for any time.

The Georgian period had its fair share of mandarin prose, littered with self-important Latinisms. But there was no shortage either of straight, penny-plain writing. Surprisingly useful models are pornographic writers such as John Cleland, author of Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748). Their books were written with less highly educated readers in mind  – servants, for example – while the nature of the genre tends in any case to favour the use of a plain, direct style. It is also, incidentally, a useful source of terms for dress and fabric, the shedding of clothes being not infrequent in erotica.

Anachronism is harder to suppress than archaism and I am constantly addressing such questions as whether Cragg would write that someone ‘giggles’ or alternatively ‘titters’.  Can he say ‘cock a snook’ or should he prefer  ‘thumb his nose’? And what about the dialogue? In what period might a character ask another to lend him a ‘quid’ so he can ‘wet his whistle’? And at what point do people start greeting each other with a cheery ‘hello’?

Fortunately, help is close at hand. My stories are set in the 1740s, the very decade when Samuel Johnson began work on the English language’s first great dictionary, which was finally published in 1755. It is a prime authority on permissible words for the period, as well as being, of course, a pleasure to use in its own right.  Very occasionally the definitions can seem a bit loose – fart is defined ambiguously as ‘wind from behind’ – or need checking for accuracy. Johnson tells us confidently, for example, that a knacker is a ‘ropemaker’, whereas in reality this trade in the eighteenth century was a sub-specialism in saddlery, the making of straps and harnesses (it wasn’t until later that knacker became a word for a horse-slaughterer). Johnson’s approach to word definition, however, also gives many enjoyable surprises.  Lunch is ‘as much food as one’s hand can hold’, the buttertooth is one of the ‘great broad foreteeth’, and a kissingcrust is ‘crust formed where one loaf in the oven touches another’. I also like his occasional asperity. A sty isn’t just a pig’s house but ‘any place of bestial debauchery’, and a favourite is  ‘a mean wretch whose whole business is by any means to please’.

There are also a few pointedly personal definitions, the most famous when he writes that a lexicographer is ‘a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words’. Johnson leaves us in no doubt of his opinion of import duties when he defines excise as ‘a hateful tax adjudged not by common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid’. But Johnson is not only a master of tart grumpiness. He soars at times to attain Swift’s standards in phrase-making. His mouse may be inaccurate but it is delightful: ‘the smallest of all beasts; a little animal haunting houses and cornfields, destroyed by cats’; and his sun is in all simplicity ‘the luminary that makes the day’.

Johnson is handy in pointing out cases where a word has fallen out of use or is ‘not now understood’. He can sometimes appear judgmental when he tags an entry as a ‘bad’, ‘barbarous’ or ‘burlesque word’, or says that ‘the sense is ludicrous’. In fact, in these cases he is usefully indicating low or ‘cant’ language. Some words do attract his disapproval, though, as when he says a term is ‘not now in elegant use’. Of the clumsy epithet writative (as opposed to ‘talkative’), he warns that this is ‘a term of Pope’s not to be imitated’.

Johnson’s dictionary is freely available on the internet, which is a great thing, but a more detailed, more rigorous, more universal online guide for the writer is the Oxford English Dictionary. This Herculean work is in continual progress and, although pay-walled, is free to members of The London Library as well as public libraries that subscribe (which most of them do). The OED is firmly based on ‘historical principles’, and its first-use dates are specially valuable. So, to address some of the queries raised earlier, the verb giggle originates from the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign, and is first recorded by the author Alexander Barclay in The shyp of folys of the worlde  (1509), where he writes ‘some gygyll and lawgh without grauyte’.  For titter the earliest quoted use is from a century later, in John Fletcher’s comedy Wit without Money (c.1625).

The phrase cock a snook may have a nice medieval ring to it but, to a writer of Chaucer’s time, a snook was merely a topographical word for a promontory of land. By the late seventeenth  century it was applied to the sergeant fish, having been adapted from ‘snoek’, the Dutch word for the pike (we are now, after all, in the reign of the Dutchman William III). Down at the Cape, both Dutch and English colonists applied the term to the snake-mackerel, a Southern Ocean fish that would later become notorious in Britain during the Second World War for its disgusting taste. However, ‘cocking a snook’ has nothing to do with cooking a fish. It began to be used in reference to a derisive thumb-on-the-nose gesture at the end of the eighteenth century, too late to be in Titus Cragg’s vocabulary. On the other hand, quid for 20 shillings (‘origin uncertain’) was in use in the seventeenth century, when it meant a sovereign or a guinea. So, with a quid in your pocket, you could probably wet the whistles (mouths in the 17th century) of all the customers in the tavern, and trouser some change. As for hello, it is a terrible trap for writers of historical dialogue. The word first appears only in the late 18th century, and then only as an exclamation of surprise. Novelists should not on any account let characters greet each other with ‘hello’ until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Use of the OED does come with a warning. It is a garden of forking paths, leading from word to word in an odyssey that draws you ever further from the one you began with.  I keep an alphabetical list of random discoveries made along the way; largely obsolete but always with plenty of flavour. The flavour of a word is an elusive quality. I don’t know why some words make better seasoning than others, but loppered milk for milk that’s turned, aduncity meaning crookedness, and a flickermouse for a bat (as in Die Fledermaus) are a considerable pleasure to meet with.

Some of the words in this personal lexicon give glimpses of the lost social world of Georgian Britain, where a bootcatcher was (in Johnson’s definition) ‘a person at the inn whose business is to pull off the boots of passengers’ and a piepowder court was ‘a court held in fairs for redress of all disorders committed therein’. A bunter was a woman gathering rags to sell to paper makers, while an even less salubrious recycler was the tom-turdman, trundling his barrow through the streets in the hours of darkness collecting night-soil. Then there are cases where the job has endured but the word, without obvious reason, has gone. In the eighteenth century a jagger was someone who transported and delivered goods on a cart, and a crocker was, more guessably, a potter. Many of the technical specifics of everyday eighteenth-century objects – the difference between bag-wig and bob-wig or between a cutlass and a hanger – are lost to modern readers. With footnotes not an attractive option, the novelist would have to smuggle a definition into the text, which can be a difficult trick to pull off without striking a clunking, teacherly note.

Yet sometimes the exact though obsolete term remains the most satisfying. In one of my books I have Cragg writing that ‘the villagers sat before me in their stuff gowns, spit-boots and patched buffin coats’. These are unfamiliar items to us but were commonplace in that world and he would not have needed to explain that the gowns were of poor material, the boots were those of a labourer and the coats were of low-grade wool. This makes it hard plausibly to finesse a gloss into a text that Cragg is supposed to have written, but I nevertheless let them stand because they have flavour even without an indication of their exact meanings.

While historical vocabulary has countless strange words, it is also thick with false friends. An exemplary case is buxom, which Johnson says means compliant or obsequious, but by some mysterious alchemy has morphed into big-breasted. Shrewd, which we use admiringly, was once a particularly malicious way of saying clever; to niggle meant to have sex; a go-cart was for teaching children to walk (not to race at speed); and a Georgian cadger, far from being a parasite, was a useful person who came to town selling butter and eggs from the countryside. Medical terminology has many examples of words that mislead the modern ear. Hectic was an adjective that indicated tuberculosis, a virus was a snakebite and the screws were a case of rheumatism.

So, when hunting for words, the historical novelist must take special care to catch the right ones and avoid getting hold of the wrong. But, of course, all writers have to keep tabs on the swirl and churn, the ebb and flow of language. In the Preface to his Dictionary, Johnson describes the process whereby, like living things, ‘some words are budding, others falling away’.  Words have a rich and variegated life and Swift’s phrase ‘proper words’ must not be misinterpreted as a call for dull propriety.  Good writing celebrates the energy of linguistic variety, and for this Johnson had a memorable phrase. He called it ‘the exuberance of signification which many words have obtained’. 

(This blog was first published as an article in the Autumn 2016 issue of The London Library Magazine.)

Posted on November 16th, 2016


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