Sunday, February 26, 2006

Regency Cant or Modern Parlance?

As a relatively new author of Regency-based fiction I often find myself agonizing over just how much langage of the time to introduce into my work. Should I go for authenticity, aided and abetted by the extensive dictionary of 'Regency-speak' which I've built up over the years? Could the use of obscure terms slow the pace of the plot and would I be better advised to leave the Regency dictionary gathering dust on its shelf and express myself in a manner that's more likely to be familiar to the modern-day reader?

For instance, most aficionados of the Regency period would have no difficulty in understanding me if I were to refer to a gentleman becoming 'leg-shackled' or 'falling prey to the parson's mousetrap', since they would immediately realize that he was about to be married. And if I were to refer to a charactger that had 'pockets to let' or indicated that he was 'on a repairing lease' then few readers would doubt that said unfortunate individual was short of funds.

On the other hand, supposing I accused someone of telling 'crammers', 'bamming' or becoming involved in a 'brangle', would those expressions be as easily understood and, morer to the point, would they slow the story down or, worse, cause the reader to lose interest?

I'd be interested to know what you think.



Anonymous said...

One can usually work them out from context. If they're ones used by Georgette Heyer, then it seems likely that more people will have heard them before. But you have to be careful to get it right, and 'right' doesn't necessarily mean just 'right' according to your dictionary. Something might just not sound 'right' to the reader if that's not the form they're used to from reading Heyer and other authors.
I think you can manage quite well without most of them, though. I have a feeling that most M&B regencies have fairly little regency cant. It works well (after all, it's not as though Jane Austen characters use such expressions very much).
I think it's much more important to avoid glaring anachronisms.

Stephen said...

At risk of being accused of heresy, I have to say that I am not a huge fan of Heyer's use of cant. It's not the words themselves - I can usually understand them without any real difficulty from the context if nothing else. My dissatisfaction is with her tendency to suddenly start trowelling it on for a page or two, and then dropping it completely. She also tends to put cant into reported speech while all around is in direct speech. This has a distancing effect which is not, I think, always intended.

While it sometimes works reasonably well as a POV trick (eg the opening passage of The Unknown Ajax, where we are introduced to the Darracott family from the perspective of the footman, Charles) it is less effective when used by the upper classes - see Felix Hethersett's speech to Nell Cardross while they are standing around in Ryder Street towards the end of April Lady.

And while Heyer gets her cant mostly right, she does occasionally come up with oddities, like "fat as a flawn" used in The Unknown Ajax and at least one other book. The normal usage is "flat as a flawn" (a flawn being a custard tart).

My advice would not be to avoid cant altogether, but to be judicious with it.

Wendy Soliman said...

Interesting and intelligent comments from both Laura and Stephen. My own inclination is to use cant sparingly, ensuring that it's in the correct context, which seems to be what you are both suggesting.

Wendy Soliman

Rob said...

Do not be so quick to condemn excellent authors like Ms. Heyer for a difference of one letter. First, what year were the books printed? For at least three decades, I have observed a steady decline in the quality of published and printed books! I have been a voracious reader of many subjects for over 55 years, so I have seen many changes in the publishing and printing industries products.

Unfortunately, many of the formerly reliable publishing companies seem to have abandoned the practice of hiring reliable editors and proofreaders! I say this because I am even seeing increases in the number of typos and errors in books published from established, excellent authors whose previous works very rarely, if ever, contained any errors!

On the other hand, younger authors — especially those who graduated from high school, or not, since 1995 in Canada and the US — tend to muddle standard English by:
• inventing homonyms that do not exist — unless words are grossly mispronounced and misused — e.g., where/were, then/than, quite/quiet/quit, and many more!
• grossly misusing real homonyms — e.g., lead (n) as led (v)
• omitting needed words — especially articles, but others, as well
• rendering sentences virtually unreadable by changing word order and dropping words until the reader must guess at the meaning
• using inappropriate tense or voice

These authors do not often attempt to write any type of historic fiction, but when they do, it is usually quite abominable and, if they have it printed by one of the standard book printers, their own errors are compounded by the errors of someone within the printing company.

Mary Ashton said...

That expression was actually used by Sir Barnaby in False Colours, not The Unknown Ajax
Mary Ashton

diz said...

I love the usage Heyer makes of Regency words and phrases, because it adds so much more colour and atmosphere to a story. I tend to disagree with Rob re 'fat as a flawn' being a typo, because it is quite obvious from the stories that Heyer meant fat, and I don't care that it is incorrect, because it is such a great-sounding description. I neither knew, nor cared, what a flawn was when I read the books, and it didn't matter, because I understood what she meant to infer. Rob is, unfortunately, only too correct as to the state of editing and proofreading these days.
Don't stop using cant, just be sure not to lay it on with a trowel

Anonymous said...

A "flawn" is defined as a maker of custard and pancakes. One could easily imagine that such a specialist could or would be fat. Georgette Heyer was a meticulous researcher and may have found exactly that phrase in journals from the period.
I enjoy the use of these old words. One of the earlier comments (which I cannot find now) mentioned a few words that may not be understood by modern readers. At least two of the words mentioned are still used, though perhaps not widely. Expand your vocabulary.

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Unknown said...

In reply to Mary Ashton, "fat as a flawn" appears in The Unknown Ajax, near the end of Chapter two: Lord Darracott's description of his son, Matthew.
I think the use of cant helps to set the atmosphere of the age.

Anonymous said...

The “modern” word snuck shows up a lot in historical came from the US and only came into use in the latter oart of the 19th century. The correct past tense of sneak is sneaked. It never would have appeared in British speech til perhaps sometime in the first quarter of the 20th century. It wasn’t the in the Oxford Dictionary until a couple of decades ago. It drives me bonkers to see or even hear it spoken.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting debate here. I like anything that accurately conveys the period and hate anachronisms. Fat as a flawn occurs in False Colors but the character is Sir Bonamy and it clearly means fat as the characters describes himself as “much fatter than that!” I think some use of period dialect is good, but should not be overdone. I am a retired history teacher and used to have my students write using slang terms from the roaring 20s, for example, letters describing some event of the day. Some were always better than others at this—some just wanted to grab a word because it sounded fun to them without thinking about how it really would have been used and what type of person would have used it. I would guess that a group of young sporting types in Regency England would be more inclined to use “cant” terms with each other than they would in a formal party setting with their elders and women present. I do like the way authors like Ms HEYER, always the gold standard for me, gets the dinner parties of the upper class right. All too often in a book I get frustrated when they describe a banquet with courses of the modern era—the soup, entree, salad, dessert courses, for example. Thanks for bringing up this interesting topic.

Hilary Andre said...

I’m reading Ajax at the moment. Fat as a flawn *is* in it, fairly near the beginning.