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Confessions of a word nerd

I’ve been reading the dictionary again! Checking the etymology of words that want to wander into my prose, set in Regency England. It is of course a minefield (from 1877 as in mine and field; figurative use not until 1947). And hopefully, one I have skirted in What Kitty Did Next (Red Door Books, out 28 June!)

What started all this, you may ask? Well, I was just checking the first use of cad (it seemed a suitable term for one of my characters) and it certainly is used in many a Regency romance, but guess what? A cad, meaning someone who was a bit of a bounder, wasn’t in parlance until 1838. What about bounder then, as in “a person of objectionable social behaviour”? Nope, not until 1882. Rotter? No, not until 1889. Blackguard, as in scoundrel or villain? Yes, from mid-18th century. Scoundrel? Yes, they were definitely around in the early 1800s. As were rakes and rakehells.

Rakehells shouldn’t be confused with rakefires though. The latter is a rather lovely term used to define someone who has overstayed their welcome, hanging around so long that the fire is going out.

Bloody hell! Well, bloody has been around for centuries but it was not bandied around in polite society in Georgian drawing rooms and not often paired with hell, which had its own expletive uses. By the early 20th century, bloody’s shock value had increased even more. George Bernard Shaw caused quite a stir in 1914 when he had Miss Eliza Doolittle use the "unprintable word” and exclaim: “Not bloody likely”. There was outrage, letters to the editor, general horror! Nowadays Ron Weasley of Harry Potter fame can utter the words in the presence of Miss Hermione Granger and not even lose a House point.

Gadzooks? Zounds? If you must, but I’m not sure Mr Darcy would stoop so low. Lawks! (mid 18th century alteration of Lord!). Got to love Lawks! (and Lawks a mussy!)

Lord! Dash it, this is fine! If Jane Austen can have Mrs Bennet say "good Lord" and "for Heaven’s sake”, I’m in the clear. Society was much more polite back in the Regency, of course. Statutes passed between the reigns of James I and George III criminalised swearing. I repeat, bloody hell!

Here are two of my two favourite words from today’s dictionary trawling:

Dandiprat. “Used rarely” says the Collins Dictionary, but it was around in the mid-18th century to describe “an insignificant person”. Am keeping it in mind for insult purposes. “Begone, you wretched dandiprat!”

Then there is bedswerver! “One who swerves from and is unfaithful to the marriage vow”. First used as a compound noun by none other than William Shakespeare. Whether it was hurled about in Georgian England, I don’t know. Wasn’t there!

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