Disclaimer: A version of this blog was originally published on Love Historicals in April.
I’ve always been fascinated by slang. I remember as a kid I liked using the slang I heard in the Star Wars movies. I’d tell other kids, “Now you’re Bantha fodder!” Yeah. I got some weird looks.
When I was in high school, I fell in love with the 1940s. The famous jazz singer Cab Calloway wrote a jive dictionary I just adored. I still love his songs, like “Are You Hep to the Jive?” with lines like, “Whaddya say, gate? Are you in the know, or are you a solid bringer-downer?”
But I don’t write books set in the Star Wars universe or even the 1940s. My books are set in Regency England, and if you’ve ever read a Regency romance, you know the novels have their own lexicon. Maybe that’s what attracted me to the period.
|Not the final cover|
I've been able to integrate slang into Earls Just want to Have Fun, the first first book in my new Covent Garden Cubs series. A cub is a cant (slang) word for a young thief. I’ve written about spies and courtesans, but I also wanted to dip a toe in another part of the Regency world—the part most of the people living in London were familiar with: the underworld. The hero is an earl, so he’s not all that familiar with thieves’ cant, and that made some of the character’s verbal exchanges pretty funny (to me, at least!).
But I have to say the thing I found the most interesting about Regency cant was how much of it we still use today. The words even mean pretty much the same thing thieves used them to mean 200 years ago. This actually created a dilemma for me because if I used certain period cant phrases, they sounded too modern. I was afraid the reader would think I was being anachronistic. Throwing in a “modern” phrase also means I’d run the risk of jarring the reader out of my historical setting. I had to be careful which phrases I chose because I wanted to be sure 1) the reader could figure out what they meant from context, and 2) the phrases didn’t sound too modern.
Here are a few examples of “modern” phrases that aren’t so modern.
Down—aware of a thing; knowing it.
In the Regency, a house-breaker might say, “There is no down,” meaning the people in the house are asleep or not alert. That’s not so far from some of the phrases we use today, like “Are you down with that?” or “Keep it on the down low.”
And what would the house-breaker call his fellow house-breakers? His cronies or possibly his gang. We still use gang as a label for a group of miscreants or kids up to no good.
There were other words I wanted to use but were afraid they weren’t in circulation in that period. To my surprise, many of the words we associate with crime were familiar to people in the Regency. Some of these include snitch, fence, to grease (bribe), job (like do a job; robbery), and pig (police officer or Bow Street Runner).
Interestingly, the word rap, which I didn’t have occasion to use, meant to take a false oath or curse. For example, “He rapped out a volley,” meaning he swore a lot of false oaths. Isn’t that similar to the definition of rap/rappers we have today?
By the same token, the word rogue, which shows up as part of the title of many Regency romances (including one of mine), didn’t have the meaning it has today. Today it’s sort of a compliment, meaning someone who goes out on his own or a man who's somewhat debauched (not a word we use a lot today!). In the Regency, a rogue was more or less a thief or a person who made a living by dishonest means. The arch rogue was the leader of a gang of thieves, think Fagin in Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
Just for fun, I thought I’d give you a little quiz. See how you do.
1. Dub the jigger means
A. stab the man.
B. open the door.
C. bribe an official.
2. Dead cargo is
A. worthless booty.
B. a man who’s been hung.
C. a lazy rogue.
3. A flash ken is
A. a rich man’s house.
B. a container to hold gunpowder.
C. a safe house for thieves.
I’ll post the answers later today, and I’ll be checking in to answer comments all day too. One person who comments will win a copy of my new latest release Love and Let Spy (open internationally). Winner announced Sunday!