Language in 19th Century America

Merrymaking Wayside Inn by Pavel Petrovich Svinin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Merrymaking Wayside Inn by Pavel Petrovich Svinin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the interesting things I’m discovering as I write my next book (which takes place from 1868 to 1873) is that by the mid-late 19th century, American speech was both oddly similar to our modern language and yet completely different. Allow me to explain.

The need to be accurate about language choice is one of the things that makes historical fiction different from other genres. Sometimes a word or phrase seems like it would fit perfectly, but upon deeper consideration, you realize it hadn’t come into common use yet. For example, I wanted one character to use the phrase “right off the bat” in 1868, but I found out it wasn’t commonly used until 1888 (and may have derived from either baseball or cricket. No one knows for certain.) When that happens, you have no choice but to find something similar that was in use at the time.

Here are some examples of words and phrases you may think are more modern (warning: some are curse words), but aren’t, plus some that are so foreign to our understanding as to be from another language.

Seem Modern, But Aren’t

  1. Bad egg – a bad person; a good-for-nothing person. (opposite of a “good egg.”)
  2. Buddy – as in a friend or pal. Came into use in 1840-1850. Is an Amercianism that’s thought to be a reduced form of the word brother.
  3. Conniption – a fit of hysteria.
  4. Fixings – trimmings, accessories, etc.
  5. Greased lightning – anything very fast. Appears to date from around 1833. (Heck, I thought it came from the play/movie, Grease.)
  6. Horny – sexually aroused. Used throughout the century.
  7. Knocked up: Pregnant. Used as early as 1813.
  8. Let her rip: let it go. Dates from around 1853.
  9. Person of color – someone of African ancestry. Dates to 1801. (I really thought this was a modern, politically correct phrase.)
  10. Curse words such as bastard, bull, cocksucker, cunt, damn, dang, fuck, piss, pussy, screw, shit, and son of a bitch.

Not in Use Anymore

  1. Absquatulate – to take leave, to disappear.
  2. Adventuress – euphemism for a prostitute or wild woman.
  3. Big bugs – bigwigs; important people,
  4. Catch a weasel asleep – something impossible or unlikely.
  5. Cutting a shine – pulling a prank or fast one; joking,
  6. Didoes – to cut up didoes was to get into mischief.
  7. Huckleberry above a persimmon –  a cut above.
  8. Humbug – to swindle or con; an impostor.
  9. Shut pan – shut up; shut your mouth.
  10. Smile – a drink; to take a drink.

Interestingly, many 19th century phrases survive in both southern dialect and in movies/TV.  (I don’t know about you, but I always associate the word tarnation with Yosemite Sam!) Some, such as bloody and balls, began as British English slang and have since come back into fashion in American English. Others have changed meaning completely, such as dude (used to refer to a dandy, now just refers to men or people in general), hoe-down (used to mean a Negro dance, now tends to be associated with a square dance or country party), hooter (used to mean a tiny amount, now refers to breasts, and usually large ones) and shucks (use to mean worthless people or things, now used as an expression of embarrassment or humility).

Which words surprise you the most? What 19th century words or phases do you know? Which do you still use?


A Nineteenth Century Slang Dictionary

Etymology Online
Everyday Life in the 1800s by Mark McCutcheon 

7 thoughts on “Language in 19th Century America

  1. I love how language evolves. This is a good collection. I don’t know if there are surprises for me but there are pleasantries.

    I recently posted “Dad Words,” based on words my father (1916-1985) used to say. Many of them are already out of use.

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