Wednesday, January 24, 2018

When To Call a Spade a Shovel

One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is getting the words right.  How did they say goodbye in the 1700s?  How did people greet each other after the Civil War?  And when did the guard on a train engine change from horse catcher to cow catcher?  
These are just a couple of the treasures that can be found in my favorite research books I Hear America Talking and Listening to America Talk by Stuart Berg Flexner.  The books not only give a fascinating peek into the past, but keep me from using a word before its time. 
Word meanings have changed through the years, sometimes dramatically. The word cowboy is a good example. Today, it might conjure up an image of a romantic hero, but it was originally a disparaging term for colonial settlers who let their cows roam rather than plow the land.  Wait.  It gets worse.  During the Revolutionary War cowboy was a term for loyalist guerrillas who used cowbells to ambush patriotic farmers.  
I write romance, so I'm especially interested in courting terms.  Oddly enough—terms changed every decade starting with the 17th century when couples would bill and coo.  I find this interesting since this was before TV or other media was around to influence language.
Skipping forward to the 1860s, the word lollygag meant to kiss and caress. (Ten years later the word meant to waste time.) During the 1870s couples were said to be lovey dovey, but by the end of the decade couples walked out together.   By 1890 couples preferred sitting in the parlor and making goo-goo eyes to walking.
I recently had a heroine fall on her patootie.  Since that word has only been around since the 1920s and originally meant girl, I knew I couldn't use it.  Oddly enough the backside seems to be the body part with the most synonyms.  
Much to my surprise I discovered that the word fanny has been around since the 1860s, though no one knows who Fanny was and why her name was used in such an odd way. Back porch was used in the 1880s and the modern sounding butt appeared in writing as early as 1859.
With all this talk about rear ends, it's surprising that Victorians considered the word legs crude. If anyone admitted to owning such things, they were called limbs or stems, never legs. As for bosoms, they hardly seemed to exist much before World War II, at least in print.   

Oh Perdition!

I'm careful not to use objectionable language, but there are times that "oh, darn" just doesn't cut it.  My characters tend to be a passionate lot.  Fortunately for me, so were the Victorians as their many euphemisms for God attests. George, ginger, Godfrey, golly, gosh, gracious and gravy are just a few of the ways annoyance or anger could be expressed in polite society.
There was also gee whillikens and gee wiz and of course doggone.   Surprisingly the term blankety blank has been around since the 1880s.
As for when to call a spade a shovel, we can all relax.  Both words have been around since 900 A.D.

Thinking back to my childhood, I realize that a lot of terms I grew up with no longer exist.  A couch in our house was called a davenport.  For some reason everybody seemed to be concerned about spontaneous combustion and the indiscriminate storing of rags was frowned upon.  My husband never stopped calling the 'fridge an icebox. 

What about you?  Any words or phrases in your past that are no longer relevant? 



  1. Great post! And I suppose that different areas of the country have different language as well, like the soda vs. pop issue! Or grinders, hoagies and Italians! It can all be very confusing. I can't think of a term that isn't used at the moment, but I bet in talking to my grandchildren, I will come up with something!!

    1. Connie, yes, that's true and your soda vs pop is a good example. I recently had a friend visit from Maine and she laughed because we Californians don't wear sneakers. We wear tennis shoes.

  2. What a fun and informative post! Thanks!

  3. Love this, Margaret! I'll have to check out those two resources you mentioned. I have English Through the Ages and it's been invaluable. But it never hurts to have more research books.

    One word... or phrase ... that my dad used that I never hear anyone use these days, was "the elements" when speaking of the weather.

  4. Hi Pam, you know the word "elements" rings a bell. Seems like I might have heard that term used somewhere along the way. Since weather is created by many elements, it's probably a more accurate term. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Margaret, I'll definitely put these books on my "to buy" list. I recently used the word patootie in a WIP, but I can't remember which one! One word/phrase I remember is "party line." Most teens wouldn't have a clue we used to share a phone line with strangers in the old BTW, I used to call a fridge an icebox too.

    1. Hi Barbara,your post brings back many memories. I remember party lines. It seemed like every time we wanted to use the phone, someone else had it tied up. As for iceboxes: Years ago, my husband and I went to Sears to buy a 'fridge and he asked the salesperson where the iceboxes were. We were directed to the camping section where ice chests were sold. I got a good laugh from that one.

  6. Thank you for sharing, Margaret. I loved the post!

  7. This term is still around but I grew up calling a refrigerator "the Frigidaire." Yes, I now know that this was a brand name but this is what we called these cooling machines. We also called the storage area in the back of our car "the boot" and there are still times when my groceries go in the boot instead if in the trunk!
    Thanks for an interesting and fun post!