Friday, November 23, 2012

Mrs Chronism and her chatty daughter Verbal Anna

Since writing COACHMAN I've had a few conversations on the topic of conversation - as in, were the words I put in my characters' mouths actually current in the year 1838?

Well, yes they were.

Weren't "mate" and "kid" too modern for a Victorian coachman to use?


Well... actually, no.

Rest assured folks - when writing of characters in a past era, the dear old Oxford English Dictionary Online is an ever-open tab in my browser. It has a fantastic Historical Thesaurus which details when words appeared in print with quotations from the earliest examples of how they were used. (And the OED online is free to access if you have a library membership card. Just type in its number to sign in.)

Words I've looked up for earliest usage have included these: (dates below if you want to guess before I tell you!)

mate - my friend
kid - child
customer - client
sandwich - bread & filling
chit-chat - idle discussion
slipshod - careless workmanship
fusty - ancient and old-fashioned
upright - righteous
cash - ready money
brat - two meanings, child, and rough apron
cocky - my friend
daft - foolish
dasher - elegantly dressed and attractive person
gob - mouth
snotty-nosed - contemptible

I've had queries about the contemporary use of mate and kid in particular, which is why they are the top of the list.

One word I encountered in a mid-Victorian carriage driving book, An Old Coachman's Chatter (1890), was the term muff. You probably are familiar with its use for a hand-warmer, often of fur. My grandmother left me a fox-fur muff, complete with a head whose jaws were sprung so you could put a scarf or a pair of gloves into its grip. However, in that book, "muff" seems to have been a term of contempt - a stupid, inept, clumsy person; a klutz; and "muffish" described something badly done, not stylishly. It was so emphatically used in Edward Corbett's advice about how NOT to drive that I just had to check to see whether it was something I could use in 1838!

So here are the answers:

mate - my friend - 1380 "man" and 1500 a term of friendly address
kid - child - 1690
customer - client - 1480
sandwich - bread & filling - 1762
chit-chat - idle discussion - 1710
slipshod - careless workmanship - 1818
fusty - ancient - 1492; old-fashioned - 1609
upright - righteous - 1530
cash - ready money - 1596
brat - two meanings, child - 1557; and rough apron - 1691
cocky - my friend - 1693
daft - foolish - 1450
dasher - elegantly dressed and attractive person - 1807
gob - mouth - 1568
snotty-nosed - contemptible - 1682

Oh, and muff - inept person - 1819.

Happy word hunting.

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