Slang of 1896

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?
 Jess3blogJess 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.


8 thoughts on “Slang of 1896

  1. I LOVE the online etymology dictionary! Though I never would have guessed that “cheesy” and “hot dog” came into use prior to the 20th century. Great post, Jess!

    • cahillwitch says:

      Thanks, Katy! This post was so fun to do – I learned a lot. I may have slipped a “gives me the willies” into Cahill book 3.

  2. Ha! I agree. Some of those really surprised me that they came up so early. My wip takes place in 1890, so that website just went on my favorites bar. Thanks!

  3. Really interesting that most of these words sound so modern I would never have guessed they started as Victorian slang! 🙂 I certainly hear them often enough!

  4. I had no idea that existed! Thank you for pointing it out! Every writing day, I search dictionaries to make sure that I’m not using words that didn’t exist (or had other meanings) in 1485 – an example from today, “obvious.” Couldn’t use it.

    • cahillwitch says:

      I’ve had to sacrifice some great words that weren’t in use in 1896, so I feel your pain! This site way simplified my process when I need to look up a word – I’m glad it’ll be helpful to you, too!

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