24 February 2007

Bellyaching a Bunch of Bilgewater

I must be soaked by a right smart mess of caper-juice, but I'd like to talk about my favorite subject, the etymology of slang. I tend to put a lot of it into my novels, perhaps too much for some's liking. When I'm studying a hero, and he's always American, the first thing I figure out is where he's from.

In my first novel, he was from Alabama. I then chose my year -- in this case, 1896 -- and set to buying comedic novels written by Alabama authors in that year. I say "comedic novels" because those authors are the most likely to utilize colloquial slang. I collect books, as all of you probably do, so when researching I try to buy an online version or something I can print out, so's I can highlight it. Sometimes I'm stuck with an original first edition, or borrowing it from a library, and there's no way I'd highlight that. Then I xerox it, and put the original on the shelf. (Of course I send the library book back to the library, you out-and-out dough-heads!)

This is the fun part of researching. For my 1896 book set in Nigeria, I discovered that my merchant trader hero (based on Bono of U2, but that’s another subject entirely) was able to jazz things up while waiting on some beefeaters coming to do him harm. He was never afeard, and kept his shirt on.

I loathe anachronisms and can spot them a mile away, but lately I've been playing fast and loose by allowing slang where the first incidence of use was about two years after the year of my story, on the assumption that vernacular might've been kicking around the jerkwaters. How in the name of Zeus' bunghole do midieval authors do it? When I set to writing a pirate novel, I probably should have set it in the "Golden Age of Piracy," 1690-1730. Instead, I set it in 1827, as far back as I was willing to go, because I was afraid of losing a shitload of slang. (I can't look up "shitload" because Random House hasn't put out The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume III [P-Z]). What I mean to say is, one can't exactly imagine Edward Teach or Black Bart bleating that the heroine is nothing but a squirrel covering her back with her tail, a public ledger and receiver general open to everyone, a hedge whore, a laced mutton as common as a barber's chair-all phrases from Grose's wonderful 1811 Vulgar Tongue. Tell it to the Marines!

A difficult one is finding a slang term that approximates our modern "bullshit" (1915), as in "crap" or "stuff." Like "What's this bullshit doing here?" The closest thing, and one of my current faves, is "bilgewater."

He was gump enough to believe that bilgewater.

My people are also fond of calling stupid idiots "bilgeys" which are, of course, bilge-rats. Blather, gas, claptrap, hogwash, and flapdoodle are all more euphemistic ways of saying "bullshit." Please chime in with any more that might strike your fancy.

For the pirate book, I was given permission, instead of concocting the usual glossary of "foreign" terms and phrases, to devise a glossary of nautical slang. I'll go to town on that glossary. I was hoping most of the terms would be obvious from the dialogue in context, to wit:

"Are you poking Charlie at my mates?" piped Bellingham, who had evidently been standing in the open doorway. He gave a stiff bow to Tomaj, but continued braying, "Zaleski's been my sea daddy since I came up through the hawse pipe! He'd go through the hoop for Cap'n Balásházy!"

However, I imagine anyone interested enough in reading a glossary in the first place might make a regular husking frolic of reading a nautical slang glossary.

Oh man, oh manischewitz, as my mother used to say, for no apparent reason. (She just told me it was from a 1950s radio ad for wine, but I prefer their matzo balls.)

Karen Mercury


carrie_lofty said...

My medieval research has turned up bugles (balls), harlot (scurrilous fellow), bitch (bitch), pricker and prauncer (philanderer), ramskit (f*cker), and all manner of exclamations: by the saints, by the best, etc. But none of them have the same ring as good ole bullshit. I learned Dutch curses for Serenade, but the best they translate to is "damn me" and "by God." Apparently they're not big on native curses -- tend to import English ones!

Jacquie said...

Written documentation of word usage, most especially slang usage, has historically had such a long lag time that I don't worry too terribly much about common slang terms. Bulls have been around a long time, and they've evacuated their bowels from the very beginning--with humans doing their best to avoid stepping in it. Bullshit is a natural for a slang term.

When I was writing a book set in an 1872 Wyoming brothel, I researched the origin of "blow job." The librarians could only find written usage in 1926 (I think, can't remember the year), but it was from Josephine Earp, who some say was a prostitute (besides being an actress) in the 1880s. She'd be speaking in the same terms she used in her twenties, they pointed out.

Also, I have a letter that my g-g-grandfather wrote to his mother in 1871 (Nebraska). It begins, "Dear Mom." Someone should have told him that he couldn't use that term until the OED declared it official in 1894. Shame on him for being 23 years ahead of his time. While I'm sure he was a clever man, I seriously doubt he coined and was the only one to use that word. Of course, I replaced all the "mom's" with "ma's" because I was afraid someone would have read the OED and believed it.

As a reader, what makes me falter is when the overall feel of the piece seems out of touch with the time. And this is where the fun terms like flapdoodle and hedge whore can lend the flavor to take me into the story.


Karen Mercury said...

Carrie, those are excellent words!It would give me the horrors trying to research words that far back.

I only allow a two year lag time because I want my writing to be justifiable to an editor. Any longer than that and they could rightfully bust me. But Jacquie, in the case of your g-g-grandfather, you could make a pdf of his leter to show an editor. Then I'd just worry about some reviewer "busting" me, because as we all know, we can't talk back to them!

Blood and thunder!

DeborahBrent said...

I write stories set in the 1920's. I go online and look for magazine covers from the time period. Usually there are articles and short stories promoted on the cover. I take down the titles and authors.

Then I Google. I've found some wonderful slang and popular culture in these stories and articles.

Deborah Brent