Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Regency Cant? Oh Yes, You CAN!

by Susanne Dietze

Most readers of Regency-set novels would agree that a Regency just isn’t a Regency without meeting a few criteria.
The Prince Regent
  1. Time and place. The Regency was a specific period in British history, 1811-1820, when the future George IV ruled as Regent for his ailing father, George III (you may remember him as king during the American Revolution). In fiction, however, the term Regency often applies to novels set between 1788-1830.
  2. Fashion, manners, and strict social rules. Think Grecian-inspired, empire-waist muslin gowns; calling cards; drives through Hyde Park; snobby aristocrats; and receiving permission to dance the new dance from the Continent, the waltz.
  3. The use of cant.

Well, maybe that last one is just me. I love cant. I find it more delicious than those most scrumptious of Regency-era desserts, syllabub, seed cake, and plum pudding.

Roughly defined as slang, cant was the language of the underworld, the rabble, the boxer, the thief. Despite its use by the lower classes, Regency gentlemen of the highest echelons took cant for their own and integrated it into their everyday speech.

Using it in mixed company, however, was not done. It was viewed as rude, ignorant, and unacceptable. No lady would dare to use such deplorable language, but you can bet your last ha’penny that they did indeed speak a bit of cant—outside the hearing of their parents, that is.

And you can, too!

Feeling bummed out, tired, or downright jolly? Why not say:

Blue-deviled / blue as megrim / mulligrubs:  sad, depressed
Buffle headed: confused
Dicked in the nob: crazy, silly
Friday Faced: miserable looking
Grumbletonian: frustrated with the government or issues of the day, and it's no secret!
In a dudgeon: in a bad mood
In plump currant: in good health
Swallow one’s spleen: hold your tongue or curb your temper

Is there someone in your life deserving of a bit of Spanish coin (flattery)? Go ahead and tip over the butter-boat (pour on the compliments.) Try:

Is this buck using cant?
All the crack/Bang up to the knocker/Complete to a shade: well dressed
Awake on every suit: clever
Bang-up cove: pleasant fellow
Diamond of the first water: beautiful woman, sparkler among society
Prime Article: beautiful woman
Right ‘un / Great gun: good person

Looking for a set-down (insult) or cut-direct (snub)? I hope not, but here are a few anyway.

Bird-witted/ Fat-skulled / Mutton-headed: stupid
Bracket-faced: unattractive
Chawbacon: country yokel
Goosecap / widgeon: stupid person
Loose in the haft: man without morals
Miss Prunes and Prisms:  prim
Puff-guts: round in the middle
 Rattlepate: chatterbox
Saucebox: impertinent person
Vulgar or encroaching mushroom: pretentious person who is newly rich, i.e. sprung up into society overnight.
Wheyface: a person with no substance

Not Swimming in lard, well-breeched  or well-inlaid (very wealthy)? Low on blunt / brass / gingerbread / juice / the rhino?  Perhaps you can relate to these:

Cheeseparing/Nipcheese/Squeezecrab: miserly
Dun territory: debt
Haven’t a sixpence to scratch with/ haven’t a feather to fly with / ne’er a face but his own: broke, not having any coins (with faces on them--get it?)
River Tick: standing debts
Sit on the Penniless bench: poverty-stricken
Vowels: IOU

Lost in love? Nobody puts it the way a Regency does:
Do the pretty: do what’s expected
Eligible parti: suitable marriage partner
Hang in the bellropes: put off a wedding after the banns have been read
In one another's pockets:  when a married couple spends all their time together 
Leg-shackled / Riveted / Tenant for life/ Caught in the Parson’s mousetrap: wed
Make an offer / Come up to scratch / toss the handkerchief: propose
Moon-eyed: besotted
Set your cap: have hopes for a man’s proposal
Smelling of April and May: in love

I hope you enjoyed a taste of Regency cant (forgive me if I left out your favorites, Regency-lovers. I'll work on a more complete list for my personal blog.).  I’ll leave you with a little quiz—go ahead and guess!

What do these  phrases  mean?

"Ace of Spades," "draw someone's cork," and “shoot the cat”

Susanne Dietze has written love stories since she was in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she writes in the hope that her historical romances will encourage and entertain others to the glory of God. Married to a pastor and the mom of two, Susanne loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, travel, and spending time with family and friends. She won first place in the Historical category of the 2011-2012 Phoenix Rattler, and her work has finaled in the Genesis, Gotcha!, and Touched By Love Contests. You can visit her on her personal blog, Tea and a Good Book, http://www.susannedietze.blogspot.com/.


  1. Oh Susie! These are incredible and I plan to find one use for my current WIP!

    I'll try ace of spades...a success at cards, addicted to gambling or my personal favorite...a grave robber. I'll watch for more suggestions before you give the real answer.

  2. Cute, Susie. I can see why I don't write Regency, though.

    I don't know what this is: "syllabub".

    Can you use "vowels" in a sentence for me?

    Would "drawing the cork" mean deliberately stirring someone up?

  3. Hey Suzie! I think drawing the cork is a great phrase and I imagine you are right. Susie will tell us when she gets here.

    Syllabub is a cream dessert, generally sweet but mixed with lemon juice, wine, or something... We had a choice to get it on the menu while in Williamsburg (that was the plan, but then we got sidetracked with chocolate)

    Knowing Susie, she has probably made a syllabub. I think of it as a pudding.It seems to have fallen by the historical wayside.

  4. Some of these made me chuckle out loud, like "grumbletonian."

    And are Cheese Nips crackers somehow related to "nipcheese?"

    As to the quiz, Susie, I'm drawing a blank (which probably has some meaning from Regency days, too), but I must know what "shoot the cat" is referring to!

  5. Good morning! You bang-up ladies are all awake on every suit this early morning with your clever guesses.

    I am getting kids out the door but I'll be back in a little while to join the chat--or in Regency speak, we'll enjoy a comfortable coze.

    I love your guesses!

  6. I like the Regency Era, but the thought of writing in it is scary. Regency people really know their stuff. That's why mine is set in Virginia with just a Regency flair. I don't know that I have any guesses. Ace of spades sound positive for sure.

  7. Ok, I'm back!

    I'm glad you enjoy some of the phrases, Deb! Aren't they fun? I wish I could've included more, but I suppose the post would've gone on far too long. There are oodles of fabulous phrases that have to do with boxing, drinking, and horses.

    Some of my favorite horse-related cant includes: prime bits of blood and bone, beautiful stepper, blood cattle, and a sweetgoer (all positive, insinuating well-bred, quality stock); and bone-setter and screw (meaning ill-bred).

    I'll give you a hint about Ace of Spades. It has nothing to do with cards. It's actually a type of person.

  8. Hey Suzie! Ooh, you're on the right track on "drawing someone's cork." It is definitely a deliberate action, but it's more than stirring someone up. Good guess!

    "Vowels" refer to a paper indicating debt, or an "IOU." "I paid your vowels, you spendthrift."

    I have never made nor eaten syllabub, but I truly think I would like it. My recipe from the Jane Austen cookbook includes juice and rind from one lemon (reserve half the rind), 1 3/4 c. heavy cream, 1 c. superfine sugar, 1 c. white wine, and a light sprinkling of dry English mustard (hmm...). Beat them until stiff peaks form, then pour into dessert glasses and chill. Mix reserved rind and 1T. coarse sugar and sprinkle on the syllabubs before serving.

  9. Niki, "grumbletonian" is a fabulous phrase and I think we should restore it to the lexicon. Just sayin.'

    I need to be more of a nipcheese, that's for sure.

    Here's a hint on "Shoot the monkey." Another phrase for the same thing is "cast up one's accounts."

  10. I'm scared to write Regency, too, Dina! But I love it. One thing I've noticed about inspy Regencies, however, is they aren't as full of cant as the "traditional Regencies" I used to read. I try to use cant cautiously in my stories, sprinkling in a bit of flavor that is (hopefully) clearly understood to the reader.

  11. Ew, gross. So "shoot the cat" or "shoot the monkey" is especially common in early pregnancy, for example, am I right?

  12. LOL Niki! I don't know "shoot the monkey," but yes, I shot the cat a lot when I was pregnant. ;)

  13. Great post, Susie. I've never heard of cant before and my first instinct - as Quality Control Czar - was to go in and add the apostrophe. I'm glad I decided to read it first. :D

    I've skipped the comments above so I don't know if these have been answered correctly or not, but here are my guesses:

    Ace of Spades: beautiful and rich woman

    Draw someone's cork: to tease or try to 'get their goat' LOL

    Shoot the cat to target or do something with a goal in mind

    Yeah, now you see how my ditzy brain works.

  14. Niki - that's like taking a pregancy test and saying, the bunny died. The guys used to say that when I worked in the commcen. Every morning throughout my pregancy, that's how they'd greet me. Ugh.

    And now that I've read the comments, I believe I'm way off on the last two.

  15. Great posting, Susanne. It's so great to see the Regency era taking off in the Christian market.

  16. Oh, what a delight! I enjoyed these so much. I'm smiling from ear to ear. :D

  17. Great guesses, Anita! You are "getting warm" on the Ace of Spades.

    Big reveal for "Shoot the cat:"

    To throw up.

    Why'd they come up with that? I don't know. I hope it didn't involve any real cats.

    Speaking of "the bunny died," when I was a senior in high school, my real pet rabbit died and I was sad about it. I was telling a friend and a teacher overheard, misunderstood, and freaked out.

    Thanks for not adding the apostrophe!

  18. Hi Christine! I'm delighted by the upswing in Regencies in the Christian market, too.

    Thanks so much for coming by.

  19. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, DeAnna!


  20. BIG REVEAL for "Draw someone's cork:"

    1) It's a boxing term.
    2) Cant for "blood" is "claret," aka wine. When you remove a cork from a bottle, wine comes out.

    So...To "draw someone's cork" is to give someone a bloody nose. ie, "The rogue touched you? I'll draw his cork!"

    One thing about Regency cant, it's colorful!

  21. Fun post, Suzie. And it kind of makes me cringe in horror, as I'm hoping to start on a book later this year with a Regency gentleman as a hero. No way am I going to nail all those nit-picky little Regency quirks.

  22. Ace of spades. I want it to be someone who makes digging remarks or is a gravedigger.

    I absolutely can find a place for boxiing phrases!

    This is such a clever subject and post!

  23. Hi Naomi! I don't know how well I'm doing nailing nitpicky Regency quirks, either, but I'm having fun sprinkling a bit of cant into my story.

    Thanks for coming by!

  24. Ooh, Deb, "Ace of Spades"...I like a person who makes digging remarks. I like the gravedigger, too.

    Time for the BIG REVEAL!

    Ok, in a deck of cards, an ace of spades is sometimes a symbol of death.

    An Ace of Spades is...a widow. A younger widow.

  25. Wish I had time to read all the comments, as this is a charming post.

    Word of caution from the experienced: You use these in a novel, and you're likely to have your editor asking what in the world you just said and can it be rephrased in English.

    One resists the urge to respond that it is English and she wants American. :-)

    My response is to make this make sense in context.. And to use these phrases sparingly to give it a flavor, as one uses French or Spanish or any other language sparingly to give the flavor of the speaker's native tongue, and not whole paragraphs that will befuddle the reader.

    That said, I usually ahve The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue 1811 edition open while writing.

  26. Great advice, Laurie. A sprinkling of period phrases can truly enhance the story's sense of time and place. But we have to choose wisely!

    I really should get the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

    I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for coming by and sharing your experience with us!

  27. I think I would like to try the syllabub without mustard, please.

    And I can't wait to tell someone I'm going to draw their cork. I love it!

    Thanks, Susie! This was so fun.

  28. This is great I live slang, and all things involving linguistics, especially etymyology. Kindle has a wonderful tool for exporing this easily- The New Oxford American Dictionary. When I come across a word in a Medieval novel this is unfamiliar or seems out of place, the answer is usually just a couple of clicks away and said Dictionary has become most invaluable.

    Some very interesting insights into social customs which also interest me. I remember reading one series recently in which the characters would be harping on about the importance of etiquette, and adherence to social expectations one minute, and then not even batting and eyelid when a person did something which would be regarded as totally unacceptable and disgraceful according to those same standards and expectations the next. Very confused methinks.

  29. Slang can certainly add to the setting, can't it, Anna? It definitely gives the dialogue a bit of flavor.

    The Regency was definitely a time of double standard. Good insight.

    Thanks for coming by!


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