Fun With Historical Romance Vocabulary

dictionary Some weeks ago, I wrote about what I have learned from historical romance, focusing on historic events and places of interest. But this is not the only way these books have shaped me: I have also picked a number of words from them. With this I don’t mean technical terms like words for carriages, clothing etc, which only describe items in their historical context and which I understand, but – for obvious reasons – don’t use in daily conversation. What I mean are words that are old-fashioned in present-day English, but which I have picked up from historical romances and that have slipped into my usage of English, sometimes to the astonishment of my listeners. As a non-native speaker, it can be difficult for me to distinguish between words that are commonly used in present-day English, and those that are regarded as unusual by native speakers!

Starting point was the word ‘fortnight’, which I recently used to my fellow reviewers here at AAR as in “this was an incredibly busy fortnight”. Another example of this kind is ‘detestable’. When I first came to England in 1986, I used this word to the amazement of my au pair mother, who wondered why I didn’t just say ‘awful’ instead. Well, in my reading I had not picked up ‘awful’ prior to this, whereas ‘detestable’ must have come from one of the dozens of Georgette Heyer novels I had read.

Here are some examples for words that my collegues at AAR use which they got from romances:

Leigh Davis: “I picked up ‘slothful’ from regencies.”

And Lynn Spencer learned to refer to annoying boys in her class as “horrid” from reading Regency trads.

Lee Brewer: “One day I told an attorney I really liked her ‘frock’. She said, ‘wow, that’s not a word I hear very often.’”

Dabney Grinnan in response to this: “I used the word ‘frock’ in a sentence the other day and my 14 year old daughter told me no one uses that word. I told her I did! :)”

Now I also use ‘frock’ now and then; its source are Mary Stewart’s novels – contemporary in the 1950s and 60s, but from a historic period by the time I read them. What words from historical romances have found have slipped into your active vocabulary? Have people remarked about them? And do you think using old-fashioned words a charming or a slightly annoying quirk?

- Rike Horstmann

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31 Responses to “Fun With Historical Romance Vocabulary”

  1. In the Regency period and for a century or so before, a “frock” was a kind of informal coat that men wore. It only became the word for a woman’s dress in the twentieth century.
    Word meanings change. I’ve always been fascinated by the change in meaning of “nice,” and to avoid confusion, I tend to avoid it in my historicals.

  2. wenmc says:

    I once told my husband I thought some people we knew (who weren’t married) were having an “assignation”. He’d never heard that word before and he’s quite well read.

  3. L A Wheeler says:

    Drat, also dratted.

    When my mother wouldn’t let me say “damn,” I found another word that worked nearly as well, and got even more attention.

    As in, “Oh, drat, I can’t find the car keys. We’ll be late to the dratted party,” though rarely used twice in such proximity.

    No idea where it came from; I’ve been using it for 50 years or more.

  4. Amelia James says:

    I’ve picked up a few Scottish swear words: God’s teeth, God’s nightgown, and Och! I also know bairn (baby), laird (lord) and of course, lass and laddie.

  5. Lusty Reader says:

    frock is TOTALLY still used, but only in the phrase Easter Frock. at least in my family ;) i think i use a lot of regency words in my head, but just barely manage to stop myself from exclaiming hell’s bells or zounds out loud.

  6. Eggletina says:

    It does not signify (with a dismissive gesture to accompany, of course)…

    I would as lief use this word as that…

    It is my wont to use these words…

  7. LeeAnn says:

    Well my favorite are those words of affection used towards men…… dolt, don’t be daft.

  8. Ellen AAR says:

    I’m not a swearer but there are times (usually at work) when I really, really want to let it rip. So I just say “fustian”! I get a few odd looks, but it works like a charm.

  9. Fay says:

    I’m glad you brought up this topic. I used the word “Scoundrel” the other day and I got the distinct feeling that it is a word seldom used except amongst romance readers. Is that true? Seems like common American English to me. :)

  10. Wendy says:

    I work in a two person office and had arranged for my male manager to interview a young woman to take over for me during my time off. Shortly before she was to arrive, though, I got an emergency call from the school nurse to come get my child. The interview-ee was a sweet young thang whom neither of us knew well, so I advised my manager that he needed to get another female presence in the office to “play propriety” during my absence.

    I wasted precious minutes explaining that one.

  11. My personal favorite, as a teenager, was “cad”. This did not go over well at the Middle School dances.

  12. AAR Lynn says:

    Back when I was in law school, I came out with the phrase “carte blanche” in describing a relationship someone had with a mistress and most of my class had apparently never heard this phrase. They also thought the word “paramour” was hilarious.

  13. Tracy Grant says:

    When my mom and I were writing trad Regencies, my dad (who wasn’t a big fiction reader but read our books) would call crowded parties “a squeeze.”

  14. Hannah says:

    I’ve used the word “increasing” to refer to pregnancy. Well, that’s a pretty accurate (if not so tactful) description of what’s going on :)

  15. Patti says:

    Whenever I reread any Jane Austin, I tend to ask people I haven’t seen in a while if their family is “well.” At least I don’t say are they “in health” :-)

  16. Interesting, Rike. I tend to actually use some of these words in speech. Possibly because I’m used to using them in print! Actually, I’m surprised to find fortnight on your list. I thought it was still common enough. What has fallen out of use is sennight for week. Obviously shortened from sevennight, I suppose.
    The word frock is still used here in Australia, perhaps more in the phrase “all frocked up” than as a word in its own right. I’d say the meaning didn’t need translation except that I once remarked that a poodle, decked out with a bow in its top-knot, bling-studded collar and silver nail polish, was all frocked up and got some very startled looks. Perhaps they just didn’t hear what I said.
    Patti, I don’t think asking if people are “well” is that uncommon, although if you ask someone here in Australia how they are doing, the answer is likely to be “good”.
    It’s also possible that words and phrases we think dead and gone are alive and well elsewhere.

  17. elainec says:

    I use “well’ all the time, as in “I feel well”. I hate to hear people say ,”They feel good.” ‘I’m well, thank you,” is something I say every day. I never associated it with Regency language.

    Since I’ve read thousands of historical romances, I’ve probably internalized a lot of phrases and use them in my everyday speech. As I read novels this week, I’ll try to look out for words/phrases that are antiquated, but which have maintained more than a toe-hold in my everyday speech. :-)

  18. SN says:

    Hang on, ‘fortnight’ is most certainly NOT an old-fashioned word!
    We say people are ‘well’ all the time!

    Maybe it’s because Americans speak differently to other English-speakers, but a lot of the words listed are quite common today in Britain/Australia/New Zealand etcetera.

    I think a lot of it is about differences between English and American English rather than differences from one era to the next.

    • SN: Hang on, ‘fortnight’ is most certainly NOT an old-fashioned word!
      We say people are ‘well’ all the time!Maybe it’s because Americans speak differently to other English-speakers, but a lot of the words listed are quite common today in Britain/Australia/New Zealand etcetera.I think a lot of it is about differences between English and American English rather than differences from one era to the next.

      Yes, exactly. I had an email from a reader once, clearly from North America, complaining about my spelling. She objected to “grey” “honour” and she also disliked single quotation marks which are M&B’s house style and not uncommon in British pubbed books. The really peculiar thing was that she had read my books before and enjoyed them without noticing these sorts of “mistakes”. (Which led me to think she noticed because this particular story just hadn’t engaged her sufficiently.) I think of this as “Higgins’ Syndrome” – the tendency to assume our own brand of English is the only correct one.

  19. I find myself saying “What the devil?” a lot, and (these are a bit more subtle) “by God!” or “Good God!” as opposed to the more contemporary/American “Oh my God.” Oh, and I’ve been known to say, or at least type, “Huzzah” instead of, say, “Yay.”

  20. Rike says:

    These are great examples! I especially like the idea of Regency words swapping to other family members, like in the example of Tracy Grant’s father :-)
    As for swearing, I tend to say “Oh dear” or “Goodness gracious”. The latter, I picked up from an English-born lecturer. In bad cases I use “bloody hell”, with “bloody” rhyming with “goody” – a leftover from the six months I spent up in the North of England.

    • MarySkl says:

      Rike: These are great examples! I especially like the idea of Regency words swapping to other family members, like in the example of Tracy Grant’s father
      As for swearing, I tend to say “Oh dear” or “Goodness gracious”. The latter, I picked up from an English-born lecturer. In bad cases I use “bloody hell”, with “bloody” rhyming with “goody” – a leftover from the six months I spent up in the North of England.

      These are so interesting. I have said “Goodness Gracious” my entire life and I am from the southern USA. I also (via my mother) say, “Goodness Gracious Mercy Me!” when I REALLY want to rant .

  21. “Bloody hell” wasn’t actually used before the twentieth century, so it’s a relatively modern phrase.
    I wasn’t allowed to use it as a child, because it’s not just “rude,” it’s “common” (sharp intake of breath from all my relatives). Common is to be avoided at all costs. Not common enough to be used by the upper classes in that don’t care, vaguely amused by the hoi-polloi thing, either.
    So of course, these days I use it all the time. It’s lost a lot of its connotations, and now it’s a mild curse, though I wouldn’t dream of using it in front of my mother.

  22. Claire says:

    Here’s one- “ablutions” instead of daily bathing.
    I like that word. :)

  23. LeeB. says:

    Claire: I like that one too. And “break my fast.” ;)

  24. JulieR says:

    In high school, after reading far too much Georgette Heyer, I managed to work the word “animadvert” into an English essay. I was hoping my English teacher would have some reaction, but sadly, he said nothing.

    I recently overheard two women in the Macy’s fitting room talking about how well a “frock” fit, which struck me as strange at the time. Of course, “frock” is a perfectly fine word, but I don’t think I’d ever heard it spoken aloud before! From their accents they were possibly Indian or Pakistani.

  25. Ann Stephens says:

    I am all in favor of bringing ‘Huzzah!’ and ‘bird-witted’ back.

  26. Anne says:

    I picked up the phrase ” wool gathering” from regencies. I find myself accusing my students of it sometimes. They look at me blankly.

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