Language and politeness in Regency Britain

George IV of the United Kingdom by Henry Bone | Public Domain

In this guest article, Dr Ian Mortimer, author of The Time Traveller's Guide to Regency Britain takes us on a journey from the Georgian demimonde to polite high society to learn the slang and the etiquette of the 1800s.

So, you’d like to visit Regency Britain. Excellent choice of destination. Visiting the past always reveals so many things that you can’t learn from ordinary history books. But how are you going to get by with the language? And before you say, ‘it will be easy – they all speak like Jane Austen’, I have to inform you that that’s not quite true.

Let’s begin with the slang. This isn’t only used by the lower classes: the well-to-do have their own abbreviations and linguistic peculiarities. For example, the term ‘crim. con.’ stands for ‘criminal conversation’, meaning the evidence of an adulterous affair. You will hear the upper classes refer to the ‘haut ton’ (the fashionable set), ‘chaney’ (china) and ‘Corinthians’ (fashionable men about town). Ordinary Londoners have slang words for everything, particularly women of easy virtue. ‘Lady-birds’, ‘wantons’, ‘trollops’, ‘bachelor-fare’, ‘light-skirts’, ‘barques of frailty’, ‘Paphians’, ‘Cythereans’ and ‘demimondes’ are just a few. In addition, in male conversation, ‘straw-chippers’ are ordinary females; a ‘bit of muslin’ is a more attractive woman; a ‘fair Cyprian’ is a rather special young lady, and a ‘prime article’ is a sex goddess.

It doesn’t end there. If you hear the phrases ‘blue ruin’, ‘strip-me-naked’ or ‘flashes of lightning’, the speaker is talking about gin. A ‘flash house’ is a pub used by criminals. ‘Free-traders’ are smugglers. ‘Gingerbread’, ‘blunt’, ‘dibs’ and ‘rhino’ are all words for money. A ‘windsucker’ is a bore. A ‘snyder’ is a tailor who happily allows you to put your new clothes on credit but then charges an extortionate rate of interest. A ‘gullgroper’ is a money lender. ‘Punting on River Tick’ means to be in debt. ‘Tap-hackled’ and ‘bosky’ both mean drunk. My own favourites of all the slang phrases of the period are ‘to lush some slop’, which means ‘to drink tea’; and ‘Slubberdegullion’, which, according to Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811, means ‘a dirty nasty fellow’.

But slang is only half the problem. How are you going to introduce yourself to the natives? In a society as hierarchical as Regency Britain, there is plenty of scope for making mistakes. If you’re overfamiliar with someone of higher status than you, you will have great difficulty recovering from a negative first impression. Similarly, to be too welcoming to someone of significantly lower status will probably create bad feeling with members of your own class. Anne Lister is shocked to see her father, a landed gentleman, shake hands with a mere publican.

Gentlemen often say hello to men of their acquaintance by offering them a pinch of snuff. Slapping someone on the back is a form of salutation only employed by very close friends. Likewise, kissing a lady on the hand (a formal mark of greeting or parting) is only done between family members and close friends. Don’t kiss a woman’s hand unless you know her very well. You certainly should not try to kiss her on the cheek.

What if you are not yet acquainted? It is said that if one English gentleman sees another drowning, he won’t rescue him if they have not been properly introduced. The American Nathaniel Wheaton says that ‘it is seldom that an Englishman extends his hand to a stranger who is presented to him. He bows slightly and formally, and with a grave composure of his features, which produces a rather repulsive effect until you recollect that such is the manner of the English and that it does not necessarily infer unkindness.’

Of course, even after you advance from handshaking terms to offering your snuffbox, you will still only refer to each other by surname. Years will go by – in some cases, decades – before a gentleman will even think of using another gentleman’s first name. As for ladies, introductions are frequently arranged by letter in advance, entailing a whole dance of excessive politeness in ensuring that the lady to be called upon is not inconvenienced in any way. Like the men, the use of first names is a stage of intimacy that few friendships reach. Most members of a lady’s acquaintance outside her own family will never be called anything other than ‘Lady ——’ ‘Miss ——’ or ‘Mrs ——’.

Among ordinary folk, less importance is placed upon formalities. Men and women address each other by their first names on first meeting because they don’t have an alternative; they cannot use ‘Mr ——’ or ‘Mrs ——’ because that would denote too high a status. They will shake hands without a second thought on first meeting too. Similarly, you will shake hands on doing business with people, such as the landlord of a pub, an auctioneer or a trader in the market. Lower-status individuals are neither stifled by refinement nor hypocritically polite. You might find their informality something of a relief.