Nineteenth Century Slang



One of the most entertaining aspects of historical research is exploring slang. Incorporating it into dialogue is a skill – there’s a temptation to over-use all the wonderful words you’ve discovered and, before you know it, your text reads like an archaic secret code. Then there’s also the challenge of making sure the meaning is apparent to the contemporary reader. But it’s also very satisfying to find just how many expressions are still current.

Here (courtesy of Marc McCutcheon’s Everyday Life in the 1800s) are a few of my favourites; some made it into Whorticulture (my historical novel about prostitution in antebellum America), some didn’t:

cut shines: play practical jokes or tricks

full chisel: at full speed

a huckleberry above a persimmon: a cut above

ornery: mean

not by a jugful: not at all

some pumpkins: great

suspicioned it: suspected

tuckered out: exhausted

wake snakes: to raise a ruckus

Choosing Names for your Characters

Choosing Names for your Characters


A barista in my local Starbucks says when he asks for customers’ names they often create alter-egos like “Superwoman”. The whores in Whorticulture understand the power in choosing your own name. It’s one of the easiest ways to reinvent yourself.

For the writer, choosing names for your characters is a fun but important part of the creative process. If you get the name right, if you find the perfect name for your character, the kind of name that makes it impossible to think of that character as anyone else, then it becomes impossible to separate it from the novel. Which is why it’s easier to remember the surnames of some iconic characters – Holly Golightly, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara, Emma Bovary, Mr. Darcy – than of people you know!

Parents take care in naming their children because they know a name has its literal meaning, a host of connotations that can change over time, and all kinds of derivatives that other nastier kids will figure out. The popularity of a name at a given time can tell us about a nation, a mood. (How many Catherines, Kates, or Elizabeths will there be in the UK after the royal family celebrations of wedding and Diamond Jubilee?) It can set the tone. But the author has other factors to take into consideration. So how do you go about it?

1. Recognise that the perfect name is a fiction. Many authors experiment with names in draft version. So even Scarlett was originally “Pansy” right up to the point just before Gone With The Wind went into print; Mickey Mouse was Mortimer Mouse; Shakespeare’s Falstaff was Oldcastle. Trust in the process to let the character’s name reveal itself to you if it isn’t there at the start.

2. Decide whether your names should be self-conscious. Artists like Hogarth invented names to comic effect to give clues about characters’ behaviour – Silvertongue the sleazy, seductive lawyer; Squanderfield the gout-ridden Earl who loves to spend. Dickens emulates this practice in his novels with names becoming a shortcut to defining personality. This can feel a bit lazy – like telling us a character wears a Rolex, drives a Porsche, and drinks Bollinger – rather than showing us traits through the things they say or think.

3. Think about whether a subtler approach is suitable. Look at the meanings of names and decide whether you want to use these ironically (baby naming sites are useful here so sign up even if it feels odd being bombarded with other irrelevant motherhood related info.).

4. Make it accurate. When you’re writing historical fiction, it’s important character names are true to their era. The internet has made it easy to research passenger lists, census returns, etc. and this is how I found all my characters’ surnames in Whorticulture. First names must also be accurate. Remember you have to have an idea of your characters’ parents too. What name would they have chosen for your character and why? (e.g. How does your character’s name compare with their siblings’…?)

5. Remember who’s telling the story. Context is important, particularly if you have a narrator. So we never learn the name of Abigail’s cousin in Whorticulture, she just thinks of him as Cousin; in Katharine’s story, she dislikes Mr. Royce so refers to him as Royce; in Seraphine’s story, she doesn’t disclose her real name.

6. Make it easy for the reader. Odile and Odette would be more confusing on the page than Black Swan, White Swan on stage. In Whorticulture, characters reappear in other stories as ‘bit parts’ so it was important that their names were reasonably distinctive so the reader would recognise them.

7. Trust your instincts. Some names just feel right. (Sorry if that’s not very helpful.) I like to speak my names out loud when I’m deciding. In Whorticulture, when Abigail considers whether Jerome is husband material, it’s his name she begins with: Abigail Seften. The words linger like snakes’ hiss. Cyrus Hinckley doesn’t sound that heroic; Jerome felt like a charmer’s name.

8. Keep an open mind. Allow for serendipity. I didn’t have a name for the little girl whose letter opens and closes Whorticulture but a chance conversation with a stranger in the French House in Soho (London) led to the name Sarah Sea Storm. I can’t quite remember whether this was really the name of my fellow drinker’s daughter or just a name he liked but it is a beautiful name and I loved the rhythm of it. And sometimes these chance encounters throw up the best names.

What’s Wrong With Nancy?

Nancy (Leanne Rowe) and Bill (Jamie Foreman) in “Oliver Twist” (2005)

Our culture has a bizarre relationship with prostitution. Prostitutes modeled for painters (e.g. Fillide Melandroni for Caravaggio) when ‘respectable’ women couldn’t; they were the subject of avant-garde works (Manet’s Olympia, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) and operas (Verdi’s La Traviata). In literature, Maupassant’s short stories and Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s are among the more convincing depictions. But arguably the most enduring stereotype is Dickens’ poor, abused Nancy of Oliver Twist.

Like many, Dickens had his own experience with prostitutes, albeit philanthropic. Maybe I’m being unfair, but his charitable attempts to rescue “fallen” women seem hypocritical given the shabby way he treated his own wife. Admittedly, when he co-founded Urania Cottage, an asylum for repentant prostitutes, he seemed to favor a less punitive regime than his contemporaries but the goal was the same: send the whores to Australia to start new lives as wives or servants.

Dickens claimed this paternalistic venture was a success but his letters also lament his “failures”. There’s Jemima Hiscock who “forced open the door of the little beer cellar with knives and got dead drunk. . . “; Sarah Hyam, found in the parlor in the early hours with the police constable who was supposed to be guarding the home; three women on route to Australia who ”lapsed” on the boat on the way over… As a writer, these women sound far more interesting to me than Dickens’ pitiful victims or gratefully reformed types.

In the early days of the Californian Gold Rush (when part of my novel is set) it was thought the west needed the civilizing influence of females. Encouraged to migrate, women soon realized the advantages of being in demand. Some furnished miners with bed and board, or opened laundries, or made pies. Others set up as prostitutes outside the mining camps (in the heyday of the Gold Rush, it was said they could earn a year’s wages in one night). Even respectable women put a price on their company, advertising themselves as  potential wives, some refusing to settle for less than $20,000. Married women divorced whenever a better prospect came along. One question I asked myself was: were those wives as much prostitutes as the many women who worked in the San Francisco saloons and brothels?

I’m always interested in how the historical can illuminate the present and these ambiguities persist in the 21st Century. I’m sure The Real House Wives of … would be furious to be likened to whores or their husbands to johns, but the basis of some of their exchanges seems remarkably similar, (if less honest): he gives her an expensive diamond-encrusted watch; she rewards him with sex. There are many other contemporary parallels with situations in Whorticulture. We have websites that enable “sugar babes” to find “sugar daddies”; a woman can auction her virginity on eBay.

The narrative here is that some women choose, actively choose rather than are duped into/abused/trafficked into etc. prostitution. Because though society and, sadly, much feminism, is still reluctant to believe that women can make such a choice willingly and intelligently after weighing up the alternatives, history tells us otherwise. What I hope Whorticulture does is to illuminate some of the social and economic conditions that women faced in 19th Century America and the choices available to them. And leave it to the reader to think about what they would do in my characters’ place….

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