Linguistic Landmines: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Regency England

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin
Written by Kathleen Baldwin

Part 2

For you brave souls who are planning to time travel back to the Regency era I’ve put together this short linguistics guide. But first a warning…

Hide Your Brains

No, not from zombies!

If you want to flirt with a dashing duke or snag a handsome viscount for a waltz, I suggest you disguise your smarts. During the Regency era, intelligence in a young lady was generally viewed as a liability. Brainy women were dangerous to society. Consequently, brilliant women of the time, such as Jane Austen, often lived their entire lives unmarried.

Besides, you wouldn’t want to be considered a bluestocking now would you?

What is a bluestocking, you ask?

A bluestocking is a woman who dares to discuss controversial issues like war and politics. Oh my! She even reads books about philosophy and science. Can you fathom such behavior? Not only that, but a bluestocking insists on talking about what she has learned. Appalling!

It all goes back to the problem of being exceptional. You may remember from A Time Traveler’s Guide to Regency England, Part 1, being declared “unexceptional” was a high compliment. As the young ladies in A School for Unfortunate Girls learned, one must vigorously guard against appearing too exceptional or end up getting carted off to a school to reform one’s manners.

Talking the Talk

French—ah, the romantic language, the language of nobility.

Yes, yes, I realize I’ve just warned you against appearing too smart, and now I’m telling you to learn some French. It sounds contradictory, but sprinkling a few elegant French phrases in your conversation will make you seem sophisticated and upper crust.

You needn’t get too good at it. It is perfectly all right to butcher the accent or mispronounce a word here and there. After all, Britain was at war with France and you wouldn’t want to be viewed as a sympathizer even though the English dressed like Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, and adored French lace, French wine, French silk… well, really, they admired all things French. It’s a pity England was at war with them.

Oh Sir You Flatter MeBaby Talk and Lisps

For young ladies of the ton (society’s upper ten-thousand) a baby-talking lisp was en vogue. It was considered très chic to lisp like a toddler while lacing French phrases into one’s conversation.

I ask you, what could be more appealing to a roguish Regency buck than a young lady who sounds like a lisping four year-old and knows a smattering of French. “Oh thir, you flatter me. Merci beaucoup, er, I mean, merthi beaucoup.” She blushes and lowers her fan (translation: I really think you’re hot).

Language of the Vulgar Tongue

On the other hand, young gentlemen preferred to act tough by using a cant popularized by common thieves. If a young man wanted to be seen as a cool dude by his friends, otherwise known as a Dandy or a Corinthian, he must get his hands on a coveted cheat sheet, called Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue. From this scandalous dictionary he’d learn to sling around phrases like, “My, but aren’t you a prime article.” This means he thinks you’re really good-looking. Unless he’s talking to a horse. In that case, he thinks the horse is fast, a “real goer.”

Idioms and Colloquialisms

Baldwin_Article2_Img3If a handsome earl shakes his head and says, “Mr. Smiley, poor fellow, stuck his spoon in the wall yesterday.” Whatever you do, you mustn’t laugh. This does not mean Mr. Smiley had an unfortunate accident with his eating utensils. It means the earl’s dear old chum has given up the ghost, curled up his toes, shuffled off this mortal coil. There, did I use enough idioms? In short, poor Mr. Smiley has died.

On to cheerier expressions. If someone invites you to nuncheon, they are not planning to engage you in a tournament with nunchuks. You may breathe easy. A nuncheon is a midafternoon snack with tasty biscuits and tea. It might even be held out of doors if the weather is balmy.

Which brings us to the word barmy, not to be mistaken for balmy. If someone looks down her nose at you and whispers behind her fan to a friend, “I do believe that young lady is barmy.” She’s insinuating that you are daft, looney tunes, or just plain Alice in Wonderland nutty.

I’ll be back with more semi-sage advice for all of you brave Regency time travelers.

Preorder A School for Unusual Girls today:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell’s

Follow Kathleen Baldwin on Twitter at @KatBaldwin, on Facebook, or visit her online.

9 thoughts on “Linguistic Landmines: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Regency England

  1. Kathleen, I’m loving learning all this historical backstory about this “unfortunate female era” to your absolutely delightful and intrigue series. Now I’m ready for the next installment! Thanks, Sabine

  2. This was fascinating, Kathleen. I’d never heard about the attraction of a “lisping French” accent or the “spoon stuck in a wall” idiom. I get teased a lot about how I pronounce some words. I always say “it’s my Mississippi showing….” : )

  3. I never would have made it back then, because my sharp tongue would have gotten me into trouble. Though I have used the blonde stupid angle sometimes. Loving this Kathleen. What interesting information about the Regency. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

  4. As with Part 1, this is so delightful. Also disturbing with how females should act. I enjoyed this thoroughly. Thank you, Ms. Baldwin for this blog.

  5. Oh dear! I’m afraid I’d be a Blue Stocking, if I lived back then. . . and would probably be a good candidate for Miss Stranje’s establishment. Dear me! Georgie (in your book) was really a rather modern girl in her behavior. LOVE your book, Kathleen. (I got an advance copy, and can’t wait for the next one in the series!!)

  6. I love reading books from the Regency era, but I think I’d rather stay put in my time, now that I have a greater understanding of what it was really like.

  7. Love this post! It is really fascinating how every era has different speech idiosyncrasies. I really think they should bring back some of the more interesting idioms and colloquialisms. And speaking of French, what are the idioms in France during the 18th and 19th centuries? It would be interesting to see their unique ones and compare if any are similar to the English ones! Thank you for such a wonderful historical guide! I look forward to many more of your articles and posts!

Comments are closed.