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Georgette Heyer, zaftig, and the Oxford English Dictionary

“My name is Claire Etty. And I am a reader of historical novels.”

Apologies for the AA-style confession. But every time my boyfriend spots a Georgette Heyer open on the coffee table he sneers (from behind his New Statesman): “Exercising the grey cells again?”

It usually is Georgette Heyer. I’m aux anges over her books, and it’s partly because of the period detail. Her Regency slang, in particular, is regularly tip-top – you’d have to be a nodcock, or have a maggot in your head, not to see it.

And that’s no rapper. In over 100 Heyer quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary, I’ve only been able to find one possible anachronism (In Devil’s Cub, Lady Fanny wears a negligée made of polonaise, a material which the OED first records at the end of the 19th century).

Heyer often establishes her heroines’ impeccable taste by depicting them enjoying the publications of such ‘new’ authors as Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen (incidentally, the 3rd and 252nd most frequently quoted sources in the OED). But Heyer also uses language (particularly slang and ‘vulgar’ words) to ‘place’ her characters.

There’s Mr Shifnal (a singularly unsuccessful blackmailer) with his Yellow Georges. . .

 Jason, a London street thief-turned-groom, who has decided opinions of his own (especially when it comes to gentry-morts). . . 

And Mr Leek, a valet whose language suggests that he, too, may well have had some former acquaintance with prigs. . .

How to create an OED Advanced search

Search for ‘Georgette Heyer’ as Quotation Author, and you’ll see that a lot of her quotations are for this kind of language.

There’s a good reason for this. The OED aims to provide a full history of every word and its usage – but slang tends to have a pretty short lifespan. And unlike more formal obsolete words, slang doesn’t often make it into the history books – so the historical novel is one of the few places where Regency colloquialisms are now found.

How to search OED Categories

One particular type of slang Heyer uses is cant (a distinctive vocabulary associated with rogues and vagabonds) – generally to indicate that her character has a somewhat shady past or profession. A quick browse through the words which the OED classifies as cant throws up terms I’ve only ever encountered in Heyer – borde (a shilling), bridle-cull (a highwayman), the Nubbing cheat (the gallows) – as well as many more I’ve never come across in my life (do you know what a bugaboo is?).

How to search the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

I don’t know how Heyer did it, but those writing historical fiction today (Georgette Heyer fan fiction, perhaps?) have a secret weapon – the OED’s Historical Thesaurus.

Suppose you want your character to be fat (as, in, er, well, not slim). The Thesaurus provides a wonderful long list of synonyms for fat or plump, arranged in order of the date of the earliest citation given for them in the OED.

Is your not-slim character a child? If your story is set after 1808, then he could be a roly-poly.

Opening up the entry for embonpoint. . .

. . . may suggest that this is the word to go for if you want to be euphemistic about a lady’s fuller figure.

And looking at the Thesaurus ‘tree’ can be pretty revealing about a word’s usage too.

You’ll notice there’s a separate category for ‘of a woman’, but not ‘of a man’ (why does that not surprise me?). However, the adjectives listed are all positive.

So, at least until fairly recently, plumpness associated with femininity was pleasing.

My favourite word in this category has to be zaftig, which (somewhat disturbingly) comes from the German for ‘juicy’.

 

Most UK public libraries offer free access to OED Online.