Them are Stumbling Words

dictionariesEnglish is not a static language. It’s constantly changing, whether we like it or not.

Twenty years ago, “mouse” meant a rodent we hoped never to find in our houses. Now, it’s a friendly little gizmo we’ve grown quite attached to and use every day. In old black-and-white musicals, a guy might have sung about “making love” to a girl and simply meant he wanted to hold her hand and maybe steal a kiss. Today, it would mean he wants a whole lot more than that.

These are fairly recent examples of change. So it shouldn’t surprise us when some of the language in Jane Austen’s novels, written two hundred years ago, doesn’t sound quite right to our modern ears.

saloonActually, her language is one of the aspects of her books I enjoy the most. But emulating it as faithfully as possible has gotten me into some trouble. For instance, one reviewer on Amazon severely berated me for more than once using the word “saloon” in The Darcys of Pemberley, assuming it was a typo and that I surely meant “salon” instead. According to the definitions given in my 2004 Webster’s Encarta Dictionary (and every American western movie ever made), she would be right.

Saloon: commercial establishment serving alcoholic drinks to the general public. Salon: grand sitting room in a large house where guest are received and entertained.

formal sitting roomHowever, my higher authority was Pride and Prejudice (which possibly the outspoken reviewer had never actually read???). In this excerpt from chapter 45, Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner have just arrived at Pemberley at the invitation of Miss Darcy:

On reaching the house, they were shown through the hall into the saloon, whose northern aspect rendered it delightful for summer. Its windows opening to the ground, admitted a most refreshing view of the high woody hills behind the house, and of the beautiful oaks and Spanish chestnuts which were scattered over the intermediate lawn.

Austen repeated “saloon” a second time shortly thereafter, confirming it was no mistake. So when in The Darcys of Pemberley (and later in Miss Georgiana Darcy of Pemberley) I called the same room the same thing, I was technically correct. Nevertheless, I had stumbled my reader and that’s not a good thing. She (and perhaps others) had come to that unexpected word and tripped over it, pulling her out of the story and giving her a negative impression of my work.

Elizabeth and WickhamAt least in this example my use of a troublesome word, whose meaning had changed over time, was only regarded as a typographical error. I got into more serious trouble with “intimate.” Austen used it 100+ times in her writings, and as far as I can tell, not once did she mean anything sexual by it. Yet, when in TDOP I have Darcy telling Elizabeth that it’s unfortunate she once had a rather “intimate” association with Wickham, noisy protests arose from more than one quarter. “Elizabeth would never!” “Darcy wouldn’t believed her capable of such a thing!” Obviously, some readers thought the word inferred a sexual relationship not intended by the author or by Mr. Darcy either. Yikes!

The word “intercourse,” used dozens of times by Austen to mean any type of exchange between people, usually conversation, must also be handled with care for the same reason. Even an innocent word like “nice” can be misunderstood. As often as not, Austen meant subtle/careful/fastidious/fussy rather than pleasant/kind. And “wonderful” was intended to describe something exciting particular admiration, surprise, or amazement (full-of-wonder), not simply good or great.

…and it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books – or at least books of information – for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all. (Northanger Abbey, chapter 1)

Hopefully, the modern reader reading Jane Austen isn’t led too far astray by the differences in her language and our everyday meanings. As for me, I’ve learned to steer clear of using potential stumbling words in my writing whenever I can, or at least to clarify what I mean through context. But it’s not always possible.

scrubbing floorsA case in point. The lady in charge of a manor house in those days was the estate’s “housekeeper.”  That’s what she was called; there’s no other word I can use for her. As the highest ranking position to which any female employee could aspire, the title carried with it a great deal of respect among the staff and also from the family they served. But unless the reader understands that, they will likely think of someone down on her knees scrubbing floors instead of what she really was: an important member of the household’s management team. I guess there’s nothing I can do about that.

It’s a continual balancing act: trying to use period-correct language while at the same time writing for the modern reader. I can get into trouble if I stray too far on one side or the other – using right words that now convey wrong meanings, or making the language sound too contemporary. Either error can detract from the reader’s enjoyment of the story.

Has this happened to you? In your reading, have you sometimes stumbled over a clunky word that didn’t seem to belong? Did you misunderstand Austen-style language when you first began reading Regency fiction? Any other related pet peeves?

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About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
This entry was posted in English Regency culture, Jane Austen, Jane Austen Quotes, Shannon Winslow, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Them are Stumbling Words

  1. Vicki says:

    I love when you stay true to the English used during the time. Seriously if people have studied English or have read JA’s or other authors during that period they should know better! We’re these folks not questioning the meanings…not doing just a little research? If a person has read many historical novels you really should do a little research on word meanings or you can be at a total loss. Another of my favorite authors, Amanda Scott, who writes historical novels mainly in Scotland Ireland locations usually has a glossary at the end explaining words and how to pronounce them.

    • Yes, Vicki, I would hope most people would check their facts before criticizing or at least be willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt. I try hard to be accurate, but I know I’ve made mistakes, just not necessarily the ones I’ve been accused of! Haha!

  2. Randi says:

    I remember stumbling over the word “nice” in Mansfield Park when I first read it. Two examples: When Edmund objects to the salacious aspects of the play “Lovers’ Vows,” one of the other characters comments, “If we are to be so very nice, we will never find a play to act at all” (not an exact quote). Later, Edmund explains that the sisters of his friend Mr. Owens did not impress him in comparison to the women whose company he was used to: “You and Miss Crawford have made me too nice.” The word just made no sense to me in these sentences!

    I first read MP long before there was an Internet, so I don’t remember how I figured out the Regency meaning of this word!

    • Good examples, Randi. My giant Webster’s still lists the older, more obscure meanings, but they appear down the list a ways: 6) subtle, involving delicacy or fine discrimination. 7) fastidious and fussy, very concerned and careful about choosing or being seen to do the the right thing.

  3. Maine York says:

    I too would have been tricked by some of these old English word definitions if not for the PBS House series program mainly the”manor house” which took people from the modern day and made them serve in the Edwardian period. It accurately portrayed the hierarchy of all the servants in a grand house from the housekeeper Butler down to the scullery maid and of course the master and mistress of the estate very educational program manor house.

  4. Regina says:

    Shannon, have you come across distinctions in the ways commas were used in Austen’s time? I do some line editing for JAFF writers and wonder at the inordinate number of unnecessary commas (setting off non restrictive clauses, for example) ocurring as often as they do. As an English teacher and self confessed grammar nerd, I find it distracting, but maybe it was something particular to that time period. Any thoughts?

    • Hi, Regina! I can’t say that I know any specific rules that have changed, but I’m quite sure you’ll find more commas in JA’s writing than a modern author’s. The super-long, complex sentences she often used account for some of difference. Essentially, commas and semicolons were employed where we might have used periods instead to make shorter sentences. The Northanger Abbey quote above is an good example. It’s all one sentence and I’ve only shown about half of it! Even allowing for that, though, I’d edit out two commas in the first quote and the one after “fourteen” in the second.

      I tend to err on the side of putting commas in for clarity rather than leaving them out. I don’t care for the current minimalist trend. With no commas, I often find I have to reread a sentence to figure out what it means, which is another way of stumbling the reader!

  5. suzanlauder says:

    I’m so embarrassed to admit this, but when I first read P&P, I misunderstood when Aunt Gardiner went to Lambton and “the evening was spent in the satisfactions of an intercourse renewed after many years discontinuance.” I thought she was having an affair and was terribly disappointed. I should have known better even then, before I got the bug of fascination with Regency language and developed a list of over 300 words that we use comfortably today that would not be used in the same way in the Regency.

    Another word that has a different meaning today is “disgusting.” According to Chapman, it held much milder connotations in the Regency, closer to “distasteful” or “displeasing” than today’s “revolting” or “nauseating.” So when Elizabeth tells Wickham her views on Mr. Darcy’s manners–well, she claims it’s the whole town’s opinion!–she’s not saying they want to hurl at the very mention of his name!

    On the flip side, the adjective “fine” meant not coarse, pretty, or high quality, but wasn’t used as a substitute for “well,” as in satisfactory condition. I have no date for the change, just that it’s not in Johnson’s dictionary in 1839.

    • I wrote a short post on the subject; sounds like with 300 words, you could write a book, Suzan. Thanks for adding “disgusting” and “fine” to the list.

      Another I could have mentioned is “condescending.” It was a compliment back then, indicating a gracious lowering by someone to give attention to one beneath them. But since we revolt at the thought of class separations, the word now implies an insult.

    • Randi says:

      Suzan, your clarification of the Regency connotation of “digusting” clears up a very slight stumble I’ve always had in P & P at the opening of Mr. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth. (Especially when listening to Colin Firth narrate the letter in the 1995 miniseries version!) “Be not alarmed, madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments…which were…so disgusting to you.” I always thought Darcy was overstating the case a bit with the choice of the word “disgusting.” You have cleared that up for me!

      • I’ve always rather enjoyed that line, Randi, partly because it does sound a little over the top. But if it stumbled you, I’m glad it’s cleared up now. Good job, Suzan!

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