Historical Trivia

When Your 19th Century Characters Need to Sound Like Real People

When you’re a historic fiction writer, you need to provide a solid plot, characters your readers will love (or love to hate), a fully-alive, realistic world and, possibly, a few real historical events or people to add into the mix.  In addition, your characters also need to sound believable. 

It’s a lot to juggle!

Let’s face it, there’s nothing more jarring than a soldier or doctor prior to WWI using the term “shell-shocked,” or a character in the 1920’s describing something as “awesome” instead of “the bee’s knees.” Once you find appropriate dialogue, you don’t want to use slang that’s so archaic or off-the-wall your readers have no idea what you’re talking about.

What’s a HF writer to do?

Fortunately, there are a number of slang dictionaries online and I dug through them all while writing Mystery on the Mersey – which is set in 1862.  Until I found Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909).  This was the last resource I needed.

The Victorian Era encompasses 63 years, from 1837 – 1901.  But slang changed a lot over that time period, you say.  No worries!  Passing English not only indicates when the term was used, but also whether its origination was British, Irish, Scottish, or American and, in some instances, specific regional or occupational usage.  My one gripe would be that there’s no index, but hey, I’m a historic fiction writer.  I love digging into research and falling down the rabbit hole.  And bonus! It’s available online here where you can search it.

Below is a run down, in no specific order, of some of the gems found in this book.

Tight as a biled (boiled) owl (American): Completely drunk. (Drunk is a popular entry. Some other ways to say drunk: bang the elephant; arfarfan’arf; be-argered; full as a goat; and up the pole).

Shake yer toe rag: Show a clean pair of heels – run away

‘ Arf-a-moe(1890 on): Abbreviation of half-a-moment

Blouser: To cover up, to hide or mislead

Don’t lose your hair: Don’t lose your temper (replacing “dash a wig”)

Barber’s Cat:  A skinny man

Inkslinger (Navy):  Purser’s clerk;  term of sovereign contempt

Meater (street slang):  Coward

Cop a mouse: Get a black eye

Looking seven ways for Sunday: (Lower London): Squinting

All his buttons on: Sharp, alive, not to be deceived, (similar to “sharp as a tack”)

Now you can translate this bully egging on a fight:  “What’s that?  You trying to blouser me?  Come ‘ere!  I’ll cop you a mouse!  Yeah, shake yer toe rag, ya meater.  That’s what I thought!”

Until next time, thank you for visiting!

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