Tuesday, July 6, 2010

No Slang like Old Slang...Unless It's New

As I'm noodling with a story idea set in (gasp!) early 20th century America, I'm realizing it will take a major re-set of my 19th century British-obsessed brain to maintain historical accuracy. Which is why I thought it would be fun to revisit this post, which originally aired in November 2008. Answers will once again appear in the comments section, if you want to keep score.


Regina and I have enjoyed presenting you with odd words and phrases used at different times in the 19th century. They’re fun to know and, for us, fun to use (sparingly!) in writing our books to help give them that early 19th century “flavor”.

But we’ve discovered that an important part of using authentic slang is sounding authentic. As I’ve researched the words and terms I’ve discussed here in Nineteenteen, I’ve found some that sound very 19th century but aren’t, and others that sound quite modern but are indeed, old—sometimes far older than the 19th century. So I’ve put together a bit of a quiz for you: below is a list of words or phrases and how they’re used. Can you tell if they’re genuinely 19th century (or before), or more recent inventions? Answers will be in the comment section so you can test yourself without peeking. Good luck, and have fun!

1. Nuts or nutty: To be infatuated. (“Sir Steven is quite nutty over Caroline, despite her appalling taste in millinery and that regrettable moustache.”)

2. Lily-livered: Cowardly. (“We thought Cecil was going to offer for Amelia, but the lily-livered lad hid in the library reading Cicero all evening instead.”)

3. Nitwit: A fool or simpleton. (“Did you hear that Freddy Hamilton ordered six mauve waistcoats with orange stripes from his tailor? He’ll look quite the biggest nitwit in all of Mayfair!”)

4. Kick the bucket: To die. (“That scoundrel John lives in daily anticipation of his uncle’s kicking the bucket so that he’ll inherit his fortune, but the old man looks quite healthy to me.”)

5. Pig: A derogatory term for a police officer. (“As he marched around Hyde Park carrying his “Give Peace a Chance: Wellington Out of Spain Now!” sign, George worried that he and his fellow anti-war protesters would be arrested by the pigs.”)

6. Fussbudget: A complaining person. (“Aunt Gladys is such a fussbudget that I’ve sworn that I shan’t take her out in my high-perch phaeton ever again!”)

7. Put the kibosh on: To stop an action. (“Mama put the kibosh on Annabel’s dancing with Lord Speen a third time by calling for the carriage.”)

8. Smashing: Splendid, wonderful. (“The refreshments at Lady Herman’s Christmas ball were simply smashing! Where did she find strawberries like that in December?”)

Don't forget, answers are in the comments section. So how did you do?


Marissa Doyle said...

1. Old. To be “nuts” or “nutty” on someone or something is documented as far back as 1607!

2. Old. I can never hear the adjective “lily-livered” in any but Yosemite Sam’s voice, but it’s actually been used since Shakespeare’s day.

3. New. Though “nitwit” sounds Shakespearian, it’s very much a 20th century creation, from 1928.

4. Old. Kick the bucket has been in use since the 18th century, along with more to-the-point “croak”.

5. Old! This one surprised me, but “pig” as a rude word for police officer is as old as 1811.

6. New. Though this one sounds rather 18th century to me, “fussbudget” is not recorded reliably till 1904.

7. Old. People were putting the kibosh on things back in 1836 though it sounds very 1940s, doesn’t it?

8. New. This is another one that just sounds smashingly correct, but it’s not documented till 1911.

Liviania said...

I think "smashing" is the most surprising!

Alison said...

As a language student dabbling in Irish Gaelic for the past 5 years - 2 of these words have Irish roots.
Kibosh - literally means "Cape of Death", and Smashing - is really "Is ma shin" in Irish meaning "It is good" - you also say another variation of an Irish word when you say "So Long" - it's "Slan" meaning "Goodbye" :) Thought I'd toss that it's the mix.

QNPoohBear said...

I LOVE early 20th century America! It's my favorite time period. I can help with gentlemen's slang. I read an unpublished manuscript diary that spanned the years 1890-1948. He described a car that continually broke down as a "lemon" and he was always saying Bully when he thought something was cool. One day I mean to write a novel using his young adult love life as the basis.

Marissa Doyle said...

Okay, QNPoohbear, I know who to talk to if I get the green light from my agent! I've got some memoirs that I'm reading to get a flavor for the time (ca. 1910) and place (Cape Cod--which is easy because it's my home territory)--any recommendations for non-fiction?