This week’s topic is exploring the slang of our eras.
One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is keeping the language appropriate to our era. The Cahill Witch Chronicles takes place in 1896, but it’s an alternate version where New England was colonized by witches and is now ruled by the patriarchal Brotherhood, the South consists of Spanish territories, and the West is governed by Indo-China. Still, I try to keep the language accurate with the times. One website I’ve found amazingly helpful (thanks to fellow YA historical fiction author Fiona Paul) is the Online Etymology Dictionary.
According to that resource, here are some fun words and usages that popped up in 1896:
battle-axe – meaning “formidable woman”
bottleneck – narrow entrance, spot where traffic becomes congested
brunch – British student slang merger of breakfast + lunch
cagey – evasive, reticent; earlier usage meant “sportive”
cheapskate – miserly person
cheesy – as in “cheap, inferior”
choked up – as in “overcome with emotion and unable to speak”
con – to swindle
grouch – as in “ill-tempered person”
headliner – as in “one who stars in a performance”
hot dog! – as an exclamation of approval
kosher – generalized sense of “correct, legitimate”
main squeeze – most important person
mumbo-jumbo – as in “big, empty talk”
night-night – nursery talk, “good-night” (nighty-night attested from 1876)
pinhead – person of small intelligence
rags-to-riches – as in “rise from poverty to wealth”
rough-house – as a verb (uproar, disturbance from 1887)
spiel – as in “glib speech, pitch”
willies – “spell of nervousness,” perhaps from the woollies, a dialectical term for “nervous uneasiness,” probably in reference to the itchiness of wool garments
Fascinating, no? Which one is your favorite?
Jess Spotswood grew up in a tiny one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing the clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or – most often – with her nose in a book. She’s been writing since fourth grade but studied theatre in college and grad school. Now she lives in Washington, DC with her brilliant playwright husband and a cuddly cat named Monkey. BORN WICKED, Book 1 in The Cahill Witch Chronicles, is her first novel. Book 2, STAR CURSED, will be out in June 2013.