Talking the steampunk talk (PG)

The Victorian Era was a time of miasmic fog, elegant manners, and the criminal classes. The slang of the time was often colourful (to say the least).

I took most of the following list from “A Long Way Home” by Mike Walker (and the rest from “Victorian London” by Liza Picard and my own nautical days), choosing those that were fun and/or largely self-explanatory (so I could potentially use them in my book).

I left out three-quarters of the original words because they were too rude.

Most of these words are from cant, and others are unique to Australia.

All nations – a mix of drinks from unfinished bottles

Avast – stop

Bacon-faced – full-faced

Baked – exhausted

Bark at the moon – to agitate uselessly

Barrel fever – illness caused by excessive drinking

Beef-head – idiot

Belay that – hold on a bit

Bingo – brandy

Bit of red – a soldier

Black arse – kettle

Blashy – rainy weather (Irish)

Blue as a razor – very blue

Blue stocking – learned woman

Bollocks –testicles

Botany Bay – vagina

Chunder – to throw up

To have some guts in one’s brains – knowledgable

Brandy-face – drunkard

Brattery – nursery

Break-teeth words – hard to pronounce words

Gold bridge – easy and attractive way to escape

Broganeer – one with a strong irish accent

Canting crew – criminals

Caper – to be hanged

Cast up one’s accounts – to vomit

Cat-sticks – thin legs

Caterpillar – a soldier

Chalk – to strike someone’s face

Conveyance – a thief

Cove – fellow

Cully – fellow

Swear like a cutter – swear violently

Dangle in the sherrif’s picture frame – to be hanged

Deadly nevergreen – the gallows

Gone to the diet of worms – dead and buried

Dilly – a coach

Dim mort – pretty girl

Dip – pickpocket

Dog booby – an awkward lout

Empty the bag – to tell everything

Enough to make a dog laugh – very funny

Duke of limbs – a tall, awkward fellow

Eternity box – coffin

Step into eternity – hanged

Expended – killed

Fence – receiver of stolen goods

Fiddler’s money – all small change

Flash the gentleman – pretend to be a gentleman

Footpad – thief on foot, mugger

Fork – pick a pocket

Game – plucky

Gammon – nonsense

Gentleman in red – soldier

Glass-eyes – person wearing glasses

Glim – lantern

Groggified – tipsy

Gut-foundered – extremely hungry

Half seas over- half drunk

Hanged look – villainous appearance

To be under hatches – dead

Hog in armour – finely dressed lout

Irrigate – take a drink

Jack ketch – hangman

Jack of legs – very tall person

Jaw-me-down – talkative fellow

King’s Head Inn – Newgate

Knob – an officer

Lappy – drunk

Lift – shoplifting

Light-timbered – weak

Little house – a privy

Make – steal

Monster- huge (as in “The Monster School”)

Red-letter man – a catholic

Repository – jail

Ride as if fetching the midwife – to hurry

Rusty guts – a blunt, surly fellow

School of Venus –  a brothel

Scragged – hanged

Shake a leg – wake up/get to work

Shiners – money

Smart as a carrot – very smartly dressed

Snail’s gallop – to move very slowly

Squeak – betray

Swag – shop

Tilter – a small sword

Tommy – lesbian

Whisk – an impertinent fellow

The sad part of discovering such wonderful words is most of them are too startling to work in a book. I cut most of them in editing, because they were simply too distracting. Any vaguely historical book (including medieval-style fantasy) has to find a balance between accurate historical language and comprehensibility to a modern audience. On the up side, some Victorian slang has trickled through to today (“fence” for example) – so that helps.

My advice: always use contractions (I’m, he’s, they’ve, haven’t), never use thees and thous (except in an actual poem – an unfortunate number of fantasy writers use them incorrectly, which is just embarrassing), avoid visual dialects like the plague they are (“‘Ave a good day ya fine chappy, wot wot?” – stick to an occasional verbal tick like “what what” if you must) and of course avoid all modern slang (“My fine fellow, your tale about that strumpet was seriously TMI.”)

I found my own steampunk voice by soaking in books and letters written by real people living in Victorian times – and then just writing what felt natural to me.

Some of the words stayed, however, and I’m glad.

Published by Felicity Banks

I write books (mainly adventure fantasy for kids and young adults), real-time twittertales, and a blog of Daily Awesomeness. @Louise_Curtis_ and http://twittertales.wordpress.com. My fantasy ebook is on sale at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/278981.

4 thoughts on “Talking the steampunk talk (PG)

  1. There’s a space for mixing registers (Oh, that wast entirely TMI, my dear fellow) in comedy, but it’s a very fine art, and, as you say, must be done sparingly – it’s the shock value that counts when you do that. It’s entirely unexpected, so it hits hard when you use it. When you use it a lot in the same sequence, it loses its shine.

    1. W: And most importantly, you need to actually know enough to know you’re doing it. (Editors help a LOT because the English language has far too many words in it for one person to know the origins of them all.)

  2. I still love ‘Duke of Limbs’… and most of the ones that you (very, very wisely) left out.

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