She Sprained Her Ankle: A (Brief) Look at Some Regency Cant

As a fan and writer who is solely focused on Regency (Georgian) writings, one thing you cannot ignore is cant, aka slang. A quick Google search will bring up a few blogs, pages, and places that state they contain true Regency cant, Having researched the 19th Century exclusively for something close to 7 years now (and close to 25 off and on if you count that I’ve been looking into the world of Jane Austen since the tender age of 12), I believe I understand the fascination with Regency slang-it’s hilarious. Not only that, its an interesting look into what the people were saying in the streets, in the pubs, in the brothels, or even privately. But then, I also find terms such as “Groovy” or “the Bee’s Knees” funny at times (and am guilty of using them as well) even though they are technically examples of 20th Century slang, albeit from different decades.

Take, for example, the term “Adam’s Ale.” Now, considering that everyone at this time drank alcohol in some form or another, one would assume that this term would refer to a sort of cheap, inexpensive ale, like a house brew. Oddly enough, it’s slang (or cant, if you prefer) for water-plain old water. Not to get much into it, but “Adam” most likely refers to the Biblical Adam and that his “ale” in the Garden of Eden would be water. I am in no way an etymologist nor have I even taken any etymology classes. I have only deduced why “Adam’s Ale” means water by looking at it logically. Sherlock and Spock Prime would be so proud.

Another one that I enjoy is “Banbury Tale.” If you’ve ever read or seen a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the term will clearly strike a chord because of Algernon’s poor “friend” he supposedly visits. This wonderful piece of cant basically means a nonsensical tale or story (now that reference to the play completely makes sense, doesn’t it?). So, as someone with a background in Theatre, I appreciate Wilde’s creative use of this term as an important plot device. Plus, considering that this was slang 100 yrs prior to the play, that’s quite impressive that it was still known and still in use enough to be relevant at that time. Now, I have no idea why or how this term came about. I did some research and all I can find out is that Banbury is a town located in Oxfordshire, England. This same town is mentioned in an old nursery rhyme called “Ride a Cock Horse.” And, of course, there are Banbury Cakes. Round pastries filled with spiced fruit that date back to the medieval period and still made today. Anyone of these reasons could have inspired the meaning of the slang-or none of them. It is just a fabulous piece of cant that I truly enjoy, especially the way Wilde incorporated it. Plus there is something about “Banbury tale” that sounds very British. If you are a fan of comic book films (such as myself; I like to be a well-rounded nerddess), you will recognize that the character Luis (played by the talented Michael Pena) tells Ant-Man tidbits of vital information in a very Banbury-esque way. Never think that comics are not language strong-they are filled with some heavy literary themes.

This brings me to one of my personal favorites: Ankle. By itself, it doesn’t mean much except “pregnant.” So, in Austen’s day, if a lady was said to have “sprained her ankle,” it meant she was pregnant. How and why that even came to be in use, I cannot fathom. But I do sense a slight issue with it being used. What if a woman actually sprained her ankle? Would people assume she was with child until it was further explained that she really sprained her actual ankle? I giggle at the possibilities that such a wrong assumption could do comically. Though I do slightly cringe as well for any woman who did suffer under false rumors when they, in reality, had a painful injury. Now, my goal is to insert history back into Austen’s novels, which isn’t easy. And “ankle” has delighted me that I decided to give an example of how it could be used in Austen.

In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne injures her ankle on a walk and meets the dashing Willoughby. I believe she twisted it in the novel, but it’s been a few years since I’ve read it, so let’s say she sprains it instead. Now, Colonel Brandon, hearing that this poor, young girl of 15 has “sprained her ankle,” because of his past, jumps to the conclusion that Marianne is expecting and needs someone to give her respectability. Hence the beautiful hothouse flowers. Perhaps a box of sweets from Gunter’s thrown in for good measure. Of course, upon arrival, Sir John informs Brandon that Marianne, in fact, actually sprained her ankle. Brandon leaves relieved, but heartbroken because Willoughby has now entered the picture.

Now, in the above instance, Brandon assumes one thing based on his past that we don’t know the full history of yet, which makes us question his motives. Especially given that he is 20 years her senior. But once we, the reader, find out his true past, this episode redeems him in our eyes and we see why he jumped to conclusion. And of course, this would be the most obvious choice in which to use the term “ankle” in its slang form and while I do plan on using it, it won’t be in Sense and Sensibility. Nor shall I divulge!

There is one troublesome fact that you must be aware of when it comes to researching and using slang or cant (both are correct). Some just seem to use it solely to use it. As if using as much slang as possible will make the story (or chapter) that much more authentic. Well, to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t. Take, for example, Georgette Heyer. She is considered the Queen of Regency Era Romance and I have read a few of her works. I cannot say that I’ve read them all as they tend to be very formulaic, predictable, and later works rely more on slang than earlier ones. Now, her earlier works are well-written and are still very popular. They tend to be checked out of my local library at least seven times a year (that’s per book), which is pretty decent circulation I’d say. Now, her later ones the library has as ebooks because the hard copies just didn’t circulate and I do think it’s because they tended to be more formulaic and heavier on cant. And it seemed she did it to make them “feel” more Regency or for more realism, I myself cannot say. But I personally take issue with overusing cant to make things “feel” authentic to a period. No one disputes that Jane Austen wrote during the Regency Period and she uses very little, if any, slang in her novels.Now, one could make the argument that since she was the daughter of a man of the cloth, she wouldn’t have been exposed to such language. Except that she had brothers that went into the Royal Navy who would have used such language whenever they came home (and much worse as well). No one has ever stated that Austen doesn’t “feel” authentic for lack of cant. She uses the language that would have been heard and used in polite society. No gently bred woman would have used such language and that’s where I feel writers, like Heyer, have gotten it wrong. They put slang into the mouths of their heroines. Slang would have been used by the men, the servants (privately) and the poor. Men in the Army and Navy had their own slang as well. Polite young women-never!

As for myself, yes I plan on using some cant but in order to remain true to Austen, I shall endeavor to use very little and that which is used will never be used by any woman, unless she is of a lower status. And while we can all agree that a barouche is a type of carriage during the Georgian/Regency Era, this doesn’t make the word slang. I’ve seen online dictionaries of supposed slang contain such words as Barouche, Abigail, Abbey, Curricle, Seamstress, and Fichu as slang. These are not cant, but actual words of items. A Barouche and Curricle are modes of transportation. And Abigail and a Seamstress are positions a woman can have. An Abbey is a place that Nuns reside in. A Fichu is a piece of clothing for women. The modern equivalent is someone writing a modern dictionary of slang including the terms SUV, Leggings, and Lobbyist. Any quick search will inform you that SUV stands for Sport Utility Vehicle and that they have been around, in some form or another, since the 1930s. Leggings are clothing women wear (and they are comfortable). Lobbyist is a job for many in Washington, D.C.

Such is the danger I see many authors of historical fictions fall prey to. They do very little research beyond the usual writing guides that are widely available and provide very little information. They fail to comprehend that just using an overuse of cant and terms does not give the story an authentic feel. Writers that research authors that existed during the era that they are interested in, that look at letters, advertisements (if available), even fashion plates and art are given greater insight into the world that they are trying to dive into than those that merely feel that a quick peek behind the curtain is enough. While I don’t feel that omitting all cant or terms is possible at this point (especially terms like Barouche), because its become expected of writers to include such things by readers (or publishers), it shouldn’t take over the story. We should use such things to only enhance the tale, to help define a character, or to help move a story along as Oscar Wilde did. We should never rely on it to the point that if one were to remove the cant, the story literally wouldn’t exist. And we should also question why such stories even exist as they cheapen us as writers and as readers.

Now, the best source for Regency Cant is the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. You should not have to pay for this as it’s available for free, in its entirety, via the Gutenburg Project. Regency Assembly Press has an impressive lexicon containing both slang and words of the era with their meanings. They don’t always distinguish between the two, but for the most part, they have done a very good job. Georgette Heyer’s website has a printable slang list containing all the slang that she used in all of her books. It’s a good list, but be aware that a majority of the so-called slang on the list are really terms like Barouche and not true cant.

Flash Lingo=slang, cant