Regency Language: A Primer
by Diane Farr (a 2000 Write Byte)
I feel sad when a reader tells me, “Oh, I never read Regencies. The language is too weird.” These readers are missing one of the sweetest treats in literature. Don’t let a few unfamiliar words keep you from sampling a Regency! Imagine what you would have missed had you refused to try chocolate because of (ick!) the way it looks.
And while you are using your imagination – a pleasurable activity which is, after all, the very reason why we love to read – try wrapping it around a few of those Regency terms. There are few reading experiences more delightful than encountering a great new word and realizing, intuitively, what it means. I laughed out loud the first time I met this Regency-era description of a silly character: “Jingle-brained.”
This is what I love about Regencyspeak. How did all these terrific expressions leave our language? They are incredibly apt. Not to mention funny.
Since we’re on the subject of being jinglebrained, let’s look at some of the other delicately-nuanced ways to call someone a fool: He’s beef-witted. A slowtop. A chucklehead. A fatwit. Baconbrained. A nincompoop. (There’s one that survived.) And the fun part is, you can instantly tell that all those terms describe a different variety of foolishness from the character mentioned above – the one who was jinglebrained. Scatterwitted. A rattlepate. Caper-witted. Birdwitted. Or simply “a goose.”
With your imagination in gear, let us consider a few of the other unusual words you might encounter in a Regency. Most of them are easily deciphered. What is the ton? Or the haut ton? The latter has survived (sort of) to the present day, translated from the French to the English, in our expression “high-toned.” The ton is a set of persons who are rich, well-born, and fashionable. In order to be a member of the ton, you must be all three. A duke’s daughter who spends her days puttering about in a Sussex garden is not a member of the ton, despite her birth and money. And a wealthy merchant can dress the part and act the part, but he will never succeed in crashing the gates. Members of the ton will instantly recognize him as nothing but a mushroom.
Oops, there’s another one. Mushroom? Why a “mushroom?” What does it mean?
Well, the first thing that leaps to the understanding is – whatever it means, it’s not a compliment. This may be all you need to know, in order to get the gist and continue reading. But since it is a truly excellent insult, it might be fun to explore its precise meaning.
Not every baseborn or undistinguished person deserves the epithet “mushroom.” A mushroom is, specifically, a baseborn or undistinguished person who does not keep his place. In other words, mushrooms are all very well in their proper sphere, but nobody wants them thrusting themselves, uninvited, into the rose garden. Think of the attributes of a mushroom: a fungus (shudder!) that pushes itself up through the dirt! And it usually comes up so quickly, dirt visibly clings to its pushy, eager, obnoxious little head.
So “mushroom” is a perfectly logical, and beautifully derogatory, way to describe a gate-crasher. A social climber. A brown-noser. A glad-hander. A name-dropper. Go ahead; use it around the office. Everyone will be impressed by your flair for language.
Ready for a pop quiz? Sure you are. Try listening in to this exchange between two dapper young gentlemen. Hint: they are leaving a room where they have just received a stern lecture from some authority figure.
“What an appalling old windsucker!”
“Yes, a regular jaw-me-dead.”
Ah, the timeless cry of youth. As I am sure you surmised, these flippant young men have failed to benefit from the words of wisdom recently droned into their unreceptive ears. “Windsucker” and “jaw-me-dead” are, obviously, colorful synonyms for “bore.”
Now, it is true that nouns can be more problematic than adjectives. You will sometimes encounter a new noun in a Regency, one that is not part of a quaint turn of phrase. What if you have no idea what a “pelisse” is? Or a “curricle?”
Not to worry. Despite the examples above, this is fiction, not a vocabulary test. Put that dictionary down and keep reading. When the heroine buttons herself into the pelisse before stepping out into the cold, you’ll have a pretty good idea what a pelisse is. And when she is then handed into the hero’s curricle (blushing at the thrill of sitting so close beside him that their knees occasionally touch), and the hero then gives his pair of matched bays the office to start and drives off a spanking pace – you’ll not only realize that a curricle is some kind of horse-drawn vehicle, you’ll have a mental picture of it that is fairly accurate: a two-person, open carriage drawn by (usually) a pair of horses. And you probably figured out that it’s a rather dashing, sporty kind of vehicle, too. Now, wasn’t that easy?
But why bother? (I hear you ask.) Isn’t it easier to just read books where the heroine dons a windbreaker and climbs into the hero’s convertible? (Terms which, I should probably point out, will puzzle readers 100 years from now.) Why hang out in some stuffy ballroom when you could spend the afternoon reading a story set in contemporary America? Isn’t today more exciting than yesterday?
Well, frankly, no. There is something wonderful about visiting a time and place so refreshingly different from our own. It’s like a time-travel vacation. For many of us, Regency England has a seductive charm that is irresistible. Once you dip a toe into the waters of that far-off time and place, you keep coming back for more. Soon, toe-dipping is out the window and only full immersion will do.
There is a giddy pleasure in visiting the polite and languid ballrooms of the Regency, once you are tipped off to the fact that, beneath the glittering surface, the room is pulsing with sexual tension. Why? Because during the Regency there were rules – strict codes of behavior – all the more powerful for being unwritten. In a world where punishment was swift and sure for even the smallest infraction, and yet one was tempted over and over again to cross that invisible line, the air crackled with danger. Exciting? My word! Was it ever.
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