I love reading up on odd words and phrases used at different times in the 19th century; my copy of The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is battered and dog-eared, as are several other similar reference books in my collection. Period slang is fun to know and, for authors of historical fiction, fun to use (in moderation!) to help give our books that early 19th century “flavor”.
But I’ve discovered that an important part of using authentic slang is sounding authentic. Some words and phrases sound very 19th century but aren’t, and others that sound quite modern 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 (per Eric Partridge’s Slang Today and Yesterday) are below after a spoiler alert 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 of proposing.)
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 Mayfair!)
4. Kick the bucket: To die. (That scoundrel John lives in daily anticipation of his rich 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?)
- Old. To be “nuts” or “nutty” on someone or something is documented as far back as 1607
- 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.
- New. Though “nitwit” sounds Shakespearian, it’s very much a 20th century creation, from 1928.
- Old. Kick the bucket has been in use since the 18th century, along with more to-the-point “croak”.
- Old! This one surprised me, but “pig” as a rude word for police officer is as old as 1811.
- New. Though this one sounds rather 18th century to me, “fussbudget” is not recorded reliably till 1904.
- Old. People were putting the kibosh on things back in 1836 though it sounds very 1940s, doesn’t it?
- New. This is another one that just sounds smashingly mid-Victorian, but it’s not documented till 1911.
So how did you do?