Christina’s Guide to Historical Novels – Part 3 (Vocabulary and Society)


Part three of our Guide to Historical Novels takes a look at some of the vocabulary and social terms used during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Doff/Doffed – To tip or remove (one’s hat) in salutation

The Clink
– The name of a prison which was on Clink Street in the Southwark area of London.

– request, ask

Vex– to irritate or annoy

– years ago

Prithee – contracted form of “I pray thee”, i.e., I ask of you

Nary – None; absolutely nothing

The whole kit and caboodle – the entire thing

– to be whipped

Shoot one’s mouth off
– talk nonsense, untruth

The devil makes work for idle hands – if a person is not busy he will do evil things

Dander – To have one’s dander up; to be incensed, angry, resolute, fierce

Caning/Six of the best – Caning was the main form of punishment in schools with six being the maximum number of strikes you could receive in one go. Caning, as the name suggests involved being struck on your hand or butt with a wooden cane

Debrett’s – A specialist publisher, founded in 1769 that produces guides on etiquette and manners for both men and women that many members of high society swear by. It also compiles an annual publication that catalogues the biographies of Britain’s most distinguished figures.

Calling Card – A visiting card, also known as a calling card, is a small paper card with one’s name printed on it. The footmen of aristocrats and of royalty would deliver these to the servants of their prospective hosts introducing the arrival of their owners. The essential convention was that one person would not expect to see another person in her own home (unless invited or introduced) without first leaving his visiting card for the person at her home. Upon leaving the card, he would not expect to be admitted at first, but might receive a card at his own home in response.

The graveyard shift -When people realized that they were burying a great deal of people before their time, they came up with a solution. They tied a string onto the “dead” person’s hand, buried them, and tied the other end of the string to a bell and then tied it to nearby tree branch. If the person revived enough to ring the bell, a cemetery worker on “the graveyard shift” watching over the newly deceased would rush out and dig them up.

Debutante – (keep in mind this is during the 1700-1800s not today’s definition of a debutante) is a young lady from an aristocratic or upper class family who has reached the age of maturity, and as a new adult, is introduced to society at a formal “début” presentation. It also meant the young woman was eligible to marry, and part of the purpose was to display her to eligible bachelors and their families with a view to marriage within a select upper class circle.

Those who wanted to be presented at court were required to apply for permission to do. If the application was accepted, they would be sent a royal summons from the Lord Chamberlain to attend the Presentation. As well as debutantes, older women and married women who had not previously been presented could be presented at Court.

On the day of the court presentation, the debutante and her mother or other eligible lady would be announced; the debutante would curtsy to the reigning King or Queen and then leave without turning her back.

– The social season or Season has historically referred to the annual period when it is customary for members of the a social elite of society to hold debutante balls, dinner parties and large charity events. In London society, the Season traditionally began after Easter and ended with the “Glorious Twelfth” (August 12), the start of the shooting season for red grouse.

Thus concludes Christina’s Guide to Historical Novels! Hope you enjoyed it, maybe learned something new and hopefully you’ll be more inclined (and prepared) to take on a historical novel, whether it be written by a contemporary or classic writer.

Heard another unusual phrase or word? Leave a comment!

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