How accurate was the sitcom Blackadder?
Blackadder is a character from a BBC TV period sitcom series which ran from 1983 to 1989, also named Blackadder. Each of the four series was set in a different historical period: the Middle Ages, Elizabethan age, Restoration, and First World War. Rumours of a fifth series have recently resurfaced in an interview with Tony Robinson in The Guardian.
Blackadder and the First World War
Just as the scenery and costumes needed to be carefully chosen to evoke the fashions of the time, so the language spoken by the characters had to sound authentic. This is most apparent in the fourth series, where the dialogue is peppered with genuine First World War slang. When recounting the fate of the famous Cambridge Tiddlers – his university tiddlywinks team, Captain George (played by Hugh Laurie) recalls how one of its members – nicknamed Bumfluff – ‘copped a packet at Gallipoli with the Ozzies’. A packet was a slang term for a bullet; phrases like cop, catch, or stop a packet, were First World War military slang expressions for being killed.
Another term coined during the war is conchie, a contracted form of conscientious objector, first recorded in 1917. The word is used by George when he cuts short Private Baldrick’s poignant questioning of the rationale for the war – ‘Why can’t we just stop, sir? Why can’t we just say, “No more killing; let’s all go home?”’ – accusing him of ‘conchie talk’. Throughout the series, the German army is referred to using the First-World War terms Fritz or Fritzie (a shortened form of the German personal name Friedrich).
Drinking and rogering
Despite their modern ring, slang terms used in earlier episodes are often surprisingly appropriate, as in Blackadder’s use of rogering for ‘sexual intercourse’, when trying to encourage Prince George to get married: ‘And don’t forget, sir, that the modern church smiles upon roaring and gorging within wedlock and, indeed, rogering is keenly encouraged’. This series was set in the Regency period; rogering was first recorded in Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788), as a definition for the synonymous term quiffing.
In the second series, Blackadder challenges the queen’s advisor, Lord Melchett (played by Stephen Fry), to a drinking competition: ‘last one under the table gets 10,000 florins from the loser’. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the phrase under the table, meaning ‘drunk to the point of insensibility’, and the challenge to drink someone under the table, back as far as the 16th century.
In the Elizabethan Blackadder II, self-consciously pseudo-historical usages are employed to comic effect. When Blackadder instructs his ridiculous sidekick Percy to look after his wealthy aunt, Percy greets her with the salutation: ‘Good-morrow to thee, gorgeousness’. While the use of good morrow and the archaic second person singular pronoun thee mark this out as Elizabethan dialogue, Percy’s attempt to flirt with an elderly aunt with strongly puritanical beliefs highlights the absurdity of the greeting.
In another episode, Percy responds to Edmund’s desperate need for money by offering him the savings that he has set aside for his dotage: ‘By lucky hap, it’s just over a thousand methinks, and has for years been hidden beyond the wit of any thief’. Here we find the Shakespearean phrases by lucky hap, methinks, and beyond the wit of. These might look like genuine attempts at historical verisimilitude, until we recall that they are all placed in the mouth of the ludicrous clown figure, and immediately undercut by straight-talking Blackadder. Responding to Blackadder’s criticism of his use of Tush and Hey Nonny Nonny, Percy exclaims ‘Beshrew me, Edmund! You’re in good fooling this morning!’ ‘Don’t say “beshrew me”, Percy,’ Edmund replies tartly, ‘only stupid actors say “beshrew me” – a dig at Shakespearean actors of the period, and presumably also the actor playing Percy.
Slang that misses the mark
Not all the slang used in the Blackadder scripts is so authentic. In the first series, set in 15th-century England, racy letters written by the queen to her lover are described as hot stuff – a phrase meaning ‘sexually explicit’, and first recorded in OED four hundred years later in 19th-century America. In the Elizabethan Blackadder II, we meet the word totty, originally a diminutive form of tot ‘child’, not used as a slang term for a group of sexually-desirable women until the late 19th century.
There’s a fair amount of British slang made popular in the 1960s (the generation to which the show’s writers, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, belong) which anachronistically finds itself in Blackadder. In Blackadder I the queen is referred to as the king’s ‘bit of rumpy pumpy’: a euphemism for sexual intercourse which originates in British slang of the swinging ’60s. In Blackadder III, Mrs Miggins calls the poet Lord Byron ‘a big girl’s blouse’, a 1960s phrase to describe someone who is emotionally over-sensitive. The writers also draw upon public school slang, and its predilection for clipped forms, especially in the speech of the aristocratic George in Blackadder IV. In a rare moment of introspection George becomes a bit mis (a clipped form of miserable), though he is cheered by the prospect of going over the top (another First Word War coinage) the following day.
Dr Johnson’s Dictionary and invented words
Undoubtedly the most linguistically self-conscious episode concerns the completion of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, in which the eminent lexicographer attempts to win Prince George’s patronage for his magnum opus (‘great work’, or magnificient octopus according to Baldrick). Driven by a personal grudge, Blackadder sets out to undermine Johnson’s claim to have catalogued all the words in the English language by making up some of his own. He offers Dr Johnson his ‘most enthusiastic contrafibularities’, prompting the irate lexicographer to pencil the word into his dictionary. Blackadder apologizes for causing this inconvenience: ‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I’m anaspeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericobobulation’. Dr Johnson storms out in a fit of pique – not even staying to enjoy a pendigestatory interludicule – leaving a gleeful Blackadder offering to help facilitate his velocitous extramuralisation.
What is so clever about these invented words is that they sound entirely plausible. Extramural is a genuine adjective, from Latin extra ‘outside’ + muros ‘walls’, used to refer to activities additional to a course of study; here it is used as noun to refer more literally to the process of leaving a house. Velocitous is clearly derived from velocity (from Latin velox ‘speed’); although it is not recorded in OED it is an entirely plausible formation. Pendigestatory is related to digestion, or rather the 18th-century equivalent digestation, with the pen- prefix from Latin paene ‘almost’; interludicule is simply the word interlude with the diminutive suffix -cule. A pendigestatory interludicule is therefore a rather long-winded way of referring to a short break for a small snack. Just the kind of word you could imagine Dr Johnson himself using.
Sadly, none of these words has made it into the revised version of the OED; but, since this revision is still underway, there is still time. Other revisions suggest that the editors of the third edition are fans of the programme – or at least recognize its influence. The updated entry for ill-deserved adds a classic Blackadder put-down in anticipation of yet another of Baldrick’s fatally-flawed cunning plans: ‘Are the words “I have a cunning plan” marching with ill-deserved confidence in the direction of this conversation?’