Writing historical romance is a gratifying experience that can oftentimes be difficult too. An author makes choices that help modern readers understand the way people spoke in historical times, but must also season the story with historical words that transport readers to that era. Which words to use and when to use them? Well… that’s a talent every writer must master. Fortunately, several books are available to help authors achieve storyline Zen.
My go-to book for pirate jargon has always been THE PIRATE PRIMER by George Choundas. A fascinating book! A dash of ‘You’re wasting words’ and a smidgeon of ‘What maggot’s burrowing under your periwig?’ goes a long way. (Pirate!)
Most Regency authors tackle stories of the upper crust. Who doesn’t love daring and dashing dukes, marquises, or earls who champion the day? Even historical aristocrats spoke in gentleman’s code. Several of my favorites include ‘Banbury stories’ (falsehoods), ‘befogged’ (confused), ‘dicked in the nob’ (crazy), and ‘land a facer’ (punch in the face).
Word substitutes like these aren’t as difficult for the average reader to understand. But what happens when characters hail from the seedier side of society?
Enter the book CANT, A Gentleman’s Guide, The Language of Rogues in Georgian London. Love this introduction to the book!
“Planning to go to Georgian London? You’ve collected some period money, got yourself kitted out with the appropriate clothes and had your inoculations. If not, go and do it right now.”
~ CANT, A Gentleman’s Guide, The Language of Rogues in Georgian London by Stephen Hart
In CANT, the language of the London Underworld, readers are taken to places where the poor, thieves, rogues, mayhap pirates and murderers roamed. If one couldn’t speak the speak, one might ‘Catch a Cold’ (get into trouble). Think Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, though it takes place 70 miles north of London in 1837, readers can relate to the characters’ accents and seedier environment.
Everyday words used in shabbier districts, not far from where aristocrats dwelt, are definitely contrary to the modern ear, confusing, strange, and oftentimes amusing. Used sparingly modern readers relate to the characters, setting, and plot.
Here are a few that my pirates would enjoy:
Rum Prancer Do you picture a dancing pirate on the deck with rum in hand? Get ready for this. Rum Prancer refers to a fine, beautiful horse.
Rum Kicks Sounds like something a pirate might do while hanging from a noose at Tilbury Point, but we’d be wrong. Rum Kicks refer to gold or silver-brocade breeches.
Rum Clout Something a pirate might have when the rum is never gone. Nope! Rum Clout means a fine silk handkerchief.
Rum Nab The old nab the rum and run trick, eh? Could work, except Rum Nab refers to a good hat.
Rum Nantz A man named Nantz who likes to drink rum? Wrong. Rum Nantz refers to good French brandy.
Words a pirate needs to know in a London Underworld tavern:
Tavern/Ale House: Bowsing Ken
Alehouse/Inn: Touting Ken
Obscure Tavern: Hedge Tavern
Rogue’s Tavern: Flash Ken; Flash Crib
Beggar’s Tavern: Mumpers’ Hall
Rendzvous Tavern: Stop Hole Abbey
Fleet Street: The Mitre
Covent Garden: The Rose Tavern
Whitehall and Charing Cross: The Rummer
Pall Mall: The Star and Garter
All Nations: Collection of leftovers collected from bottles and bowls
Bragget: Mead and ale sweetened with honey
Cobbler’s Punch: Treacle, vinegar, gin, and water
Grog: Rum and water
Huckle my Puff; Twist: Beer, eggs and brandy, served hot
Kill Devil: Rum
Punch: Spirits, water, lemon and sugar
Purl Royal: Canary wine with a dash of wormwood
Toddy: Rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg
Vessels and Quantities:
Pint or Quart: Gage
Half Pint: Nip; Size of Ale Cogue; Shove in the Mouth
Bottle: Bouncing Cheat
Small Bottle: Bawdy-House Bottle
Large Bottle: Soldier’s Bottle
Quart Bottle: Scotch pint
Drinking Glass: Flicker; Romer
Drinking Bowl: Bubber; Whiskin
Silver Tankard: Clank
Rum Clank: Large silver tankard
Clank Napper: Thief who runs away with tankard
Full glasses or bowls: Bumpers or Facers
Empty bottles: Dead Men or Marine Officers
Drunk much? Here are various ways to say it:
Lightly Intoxicated: Bit by a Barn Mouse; Chirping Merry; Hickey; Mellow; In a Merry Pin; Tipsy
Getting drunker: Drop in His Eye; Half Cut; Half Seas Over; Sucky Boosey;
Drunk: Been in the Sun; Corned; Got into the Crown Office; Cup-Shot; Cut; Disguised; Flawed, Flustered; Foxed; Hocus; In his Altitudes; In the Gun; Nazie; Pogy; Pot Valiant; Bought the Sack; Top Heavy
Drunk Man: Bingo Boy; Ensign Bearer; Guzzle Guts; Piss Maker, Swill Tub; Tickle Pitcher; Toss Pot; and Vice-Admiral of the Narrow Seas (‘a man who urinates under the table into his companion’s shoes’)
Drunk Woman: Mort
Very drunk: Top Heavy Clear; Deep Cut; cut in the Back Leg; Drunk as David’s Sow; Drunk as a Wheelbarrow; Drunk as an Emperor; Floored; Maudlin Drunk; Surveyor of the Highways; Swallowed a Hare
Sick: Cast you your accounts; Cat; Flash the Hash; Cascade; Shoot the Cat; Flay the Flea; Flay the Fox
Hung over: Crop Sick; Womble-Ty-Cropt
Rat: Someone who gets taken up by the Watch and forced into an overnight stay
And there you have it! Adding ‘cant’, ‘Flash Lingo’, ‘St. Giles’ Greek’, and ‘Pedlars’ French’, to stories provides that extra level of depth needed to help readers travel back in time. As a historical author, I’m grateful to George Chaundas, Stephen Hart, and many other researchers for their brilliant and thrilling books. Like good wine before its time, there’s nothing better than ‘Faking a Screen’ (writing) and ‘Snilching’ (learning to behave) into roguish circles.