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How to Speak 19th Century
Early 19th Century Vocabulary

by Eric Ferguson, permission granted

This article was originally published in The Historic Interpreter, newsletter of the Minnesota Historical Society Interpreters Caucus. Portions were published in the magazine of the Midwest Outdoor Museum Coordinating Council (MOMCC)

Those of us who work at living history museums have always worked to purge modern words and expressions from our vocabularies. However, the people we portray had a richer language than just modern English without "okay" and "have a nice day". By finding some of their words and phrases, we can add an extra dimension to our interpretation of their time that simply can't be found in facts, costumes, or artifacts.

To this end, I have chosen a book written in 1830 and combed it for its vocabulary. The book has been titled by modern editors Private Yankee Doodle. It is the memoirs of Joseph Plumb Martin, who fought in the Revolution as an enlisted man. I used Martin's memoirs because he has a natural writing style that breaks through the formalism so pervasive in authors of this period. He has a way with words and a knack for telling stories that leaves readers feeling like he is talking rather than writing. Most important, this is the man himself, not a professional writer's caricature of common speech. I feel this is the closest I will ever come to actually hearing people of this period talk.

What I have provided herein is a list of words and phrases Martin used. Some are words that are in modern dictionaries but not in common usage. There are words that have disappeared, words that have changed meanings, and a few that haven't changed but could be mistakenly thought too modern to use. In some instances Martin himself stopped to explain a word he thought would be unfamiliar. After each word, I give a definition, a quote from the book to show the context, and the page number for those who want to look it up. Some may "cavil" with some of my choices of words and think I left some things out or got definitions wrong, but, as long as I am not the victim of any "obloquy", such are welcome to go and look for themselves.

Private Yankee Doodle, by Joseph Plumb Martin, edited by George F. Scheer. Originally published in 1830. Little, Brown & Co, 1962. Eastern Acorn Press, 1988.

By the by; same meaning as today. "...who, by the by, will, I hope, none of them be beyond the pale of my own neighborhood..." P.xxiii

Beyond the pale; same meaning as today, perhaps more strictly geographical. Originally referred to the area around Dublin, Ireland under English control. see above

Grandsire; grandfather. Martin always used this word instead of "grandfather". P.4

The French War; how the French and Indian War was known during the Revolution, but seems to have been known by current name when the memoirs were published. P.5

The pinch of the game; the determining moment, the crucial point. "But the pinch of the game had not arrived yet..." P.6

Be it what it would; in any case, be it as it may, whatever the case. A phrase to stop going off on a tangent. "...I know not, unless it was to see how the people would stand affected; be it what it would, it caused me a terrible fright." P.6

Considerate; informed, thinking "Expectation of some fatal event seemed to fill the minds of most of the considerate people throughout the country." P.6

Smelt the rat; knew something bad was happening. When his grandfather heard the commotion from people hearing news of the war's beginning---"My grandsire sighed, he 'smelt the rat.'" P.7

Graveled; perplexed. "And now I was completely graveled; my parents were too far off to obtain their consent...". P.8

Set; sit. Same as used by modern Southerners. P.8

Grandma'am; grandmother P.9

Affront; a verb which means "insult". "...should they affront me grossly..." P.9

Hallo; hello. An expression of mock surprise, as the English use it today. "Hallo, where are you going?" P.11

Hammer and Tongs; having a serious intent, angry, acting energetically. "The old gentleman came at me, hammer and tongs, with his six-feet cart whip." P.12

Cavil; nitpick, quibble."...you would have done just as I did. What reason have you then to cavil?" P.13, 200

As warm a patriot; to be as patriotic. "I thought I was as warm a patriot as the best of them;" P.14

Mauger; despite. Appears to be a strong term. "I saw a simple incident which excited my risibility, mauger my fatigue." P.16,68

Risibility; sense of humor, ability to laugh. See above P.68

Pipe of wine; a large cask of about two hogsheads or 126 gallons. P.20

For aught I know; for all I know. P.22

Cogitations; unpleasant thought. After being assigned to an unpleasant fatigue, "However, I kept my cogitations to myself." P.22

Warrant; guarantee. Used like the modern expression "You bet." "...'he is not thirsty. I will warrant it.'" P.24

Pray; ask. "...praying each one if he had aught against him,..." P.24

Aught; anything. See above

Tight scratch; difficult fight. "...we had a considerable tight scratch with about an equal number of the British..." P.27

Withal; and all that, besides "...we lay still and showed our good breeding by not interfering with them, as they were strangers, and we knew not but they were bashful withal." Seems typically used at the end of a sentence. P.33

Langrage; like grapeshot, except irregular in shape "The grapeshot and langrage flew merrily..." P.35

Covert; used as a noun, means a hiding place "I then came out of my covert and went on..." P.37

In close neighborhood; close by "...and being in close neighborhood with the enemy we were necessitated to be pretty alert." P.48

Pretty; used as today to mean "very". See above.

Necessitated; required See above

Going on command; scouting party, patrol "...and met our orderly sergeant who immediately warned me to prepare for a two-days command. What is termed going on command is what is generally called going on a scouting party or something similar." P.51

Cold; used in place of "catarrh". Martin never used the word "catarrh", always "cold". P.55

Recruit; rest or restore strength, both noun and verb. "The spring of 1777 arrived. I had got recruited during the winter, and begun to think again about the army." P.59 "There was no going home...and procuring a new recruit of strength and spirits." P.107

At length; at last. "At length he so far overcame my resolution..." P.60

Elbow relation; distant relation, like a cousin-in-law. P.60

Hampered; caught, trapped "...there I put my name to enlisting indentures for the last time. And now I was hampered again." P.61

Enlisting indentures; document enlisting a soldier. See above

Favorably; strongly, badly "I had the smallpox favorably as did the rest, generally." P.66

The Pock; smallpox P.66

Relish; both a verb meaning enjoy and a noun meaning taste. "I could never before relish buttermilk, but extreme hunger at this time gave it a new relish." P.67

Messmates; Martin referred to the other men as his "messmates", not as his "squad" or "bunkies". P.70

Vexation; annoyance, frustration. When the British were avoiding battle--"But perhaps they thought that, as we had undergone so much fatigue and vexation on our journey, we might feel cross and peevish, and perchance some unlucky accidents might have happened. The British were politic, and it is good to be cautious and discreet." P.78

Peevish; irritable. See above

Perchance; perhaps. See above

Politic; careful in the sense of human relations. See above

Plash; puddle "...we entered a lane fenced on either side with rails, in which was a water plash, or puddle." P.79

Belly timber; food. "...we began to contrive how we were to behave in our present circumstances, as it regarded belly timber." P.83

Hissian; slang for "goose". "Accordingly two of the club went out and shortly after returned with a Hissian, a cant word with the soldiers, for a goose." P.83

Cant; slang. See above

Hence; from here. "We marched from hence..." P.97

Sea bread; hardtack. P.97

Slapjack; pancake P.98

Back and forward; back and forth. "...we left this place and after marching and countermarching back and forward some days..." P.99

Apropos; used same as today, appropriate. "The preacher ought to have added the remainder of the sentence to make it complete, 'And be content with your wages.' But that would not do, it would be too apropos." P.101

Overreached; gulled, conned, tricked. After a soldier sold a shirt and then stole it back--"We marched off early...consequently did not know or see the woman's chagrin at having been overreached by the soldiers." P.105

Betokens; indicates. "A serene and cloudless atmosphere/ betokens that a storm is near;" P.107

Comely; pretty, cute. Describing three women--"They were all comely, particularly one of them; she was handsome." P.108

Handsome; applied to women. See above

Tattle; gossip. "...we felt we had done wrong in listening to the tattle of malicious neighbors..." P.109

Animalcule; microbe. "Had the animalcule of the itch been endowed with reason they would have quit their entrenchments..." P.111

Neat; ox or steer. Martin makes reference to consuming a dried neat's tongue. P.116

Jack-o-lantern; lights seen over marshes, undetermined origin. "...and for several hours during the night there was a jack-o-lantern cruising in the eddying air." Martin added a footnote disputing with a scholar who said jack-o-lanterns don't move, saying he has seen them other times. P.119

Exceeding; used as an adverb. "The weather was exceeding warm..." P.120

Booth; some sort of temporary shelter. "It was uncommonly hot weather and we put up booths to protect us from the heat of the sun..." P.125

Defile; noun, a narrow area where few can pass at a time. P.127

Sawney; slang for Scots. "We gave it to poor Sawney (for they were Scotch troops) so hot that he was forced to fall back and leave the ground they occupied." P.130

Buckskins; maybe men in the fur trade or Westerners in general. Martin described the men in the light infantry regiments--"It was a motley group---Yankees, Irishmen, Buckskins and what not." P.135

Pretty well over the bay; drunk? Writing about a couple Irishmen at a sutler's tent---"...I observed one who was, to appearances, 'pretty well over the bay.'" P.145

Seasoning; drunkenness. "...some of our gentlemen officers, happening to stop at a tavern, or rather a sort of grogshop, took such a seasoning that two or three of them became "quite frisky"..." P.146

Gull; fool, trick. "...and the men seeing they could no longer gull the officers, gave up the business likewise." P.152

Skirts; outskirts of a town. "I was quartered for the night in a house in the skirts of the town." P.157

Gripe; noun, meaning a grasp, perhaps literally a pain in the bowels. Describing a bout of nightmares---"I recovered partly from the first attack, but before I could fully overcome it, it took a second gripe upon me more serious than the first." P.160

Ragamuffin; dirty, ragged individual. Used same as today, though perhaps with a less quaint connotation. "He had, somewhere, procured a ragamuffin fellow for an executioner, to preserve his own immaculate reputation from defilement." P.165

Complaisant; cooperative, obliging. Martin writing sarcastically of the British being prepared for a battle---"He was always complaisant, especially when his own honor or credit was concerned." P.171

Insipid; bland, tasteless; used by Martin in a literal sense. "The Indian flour was...as clammy as glue, and as insipid as starch." P.175

Shy; wary. "Be that as it would, we were shy of trusting them." P.176

Indian meal; corn meal. P.181

Sensible; aware. Regarding a mutiny---"...when the men...began to make him sensible that they had something in train." P.183

Something in train; something being considered or planned. See above

Demency; wrath. Again about the mutiny---"We did not wish to have anyone in particular to command, lest he might be singled out for a court-martial to exercise its demency upon." P.183

Hatchel; a tool for combing wool, flax etc. "...but the bayonets of the men pointing at their breasts as thick as hatchel teeth, compelled them quickly to relinquish their hold of him." P.184

Palaver; useless talking. "After a good deal of palaver, he ordered them to shoulder their arms, but the men taking no notice of him..." P.185

Venting our gall; expressing anger, getting things off their chest. "While we were thus venting our gall against we knew not who..." P.186

Pusillanimity; cowardice. "...we had borne till we had considered further forbearance pusillanimity;" P.186

Wanton; disloyal, uncontrolled. "The case was much like that of a loyal and faithful husband, and a light-heeled wanton of a wife." P.196

Habiliments; clothing. "...it was truly amusing to see the number and habiliments of those attending it;" P.197

Raised his ideas; made him angry, aggressive. "This officer was a very mild man, but the old man had 'raised his ideas' by abusing the soldiers, which he would not hear from anyone." P.202

Caparisoned; ornamented, equipped; refers to horses. "...I observed several horses standing under it, caparisoned like dragoon horses." P.207

Passport; document granting permission to travel. "Accordingly, I soon received a passport, signed by the colonel, in these terms, 'Permit the bearer,_______ ______, to pass into the country after some deserters, and to come back.'" P.210

Harrowed up; brought to the surface. "When I arrived within sight or hearing of the army...it again harrowed up my melancholy feelings that had...subsided on my journey." P.212

Quondam; former. Martin referred to a former schoolmate as a "quondam schoolmate". P.212

Harridan; shrewish old woman. Martin writing about a friend who deserted--"...sometime before this, had deserted to the enemy, having been coaxed off by an old harridan, to whose daughter he had taken a fancy. The old hag of a mother, living in the vicinity of the British, easily inveigled him away." P.221

Inveigled; lured, cajoled. see above

Tow shirt; coarse linen shirt. "While we stayed here we drew a few articles of clothing, consisting of a few tow shirts, some overalls and a few pairs of silk-and-oakum stockings." P.222

Overalls; loose fitting trousers. See above

Oakum; hemp fiber. See above

Under weigh; used in reference to a ship moving. Note that it is two words and the spelling is "weigh", not "way". P.223

Haslet; liver, maybe other organs also. "We therefore bought a beef's haslet of the butchers..." P.226

Shoat; young pig. Martin described them as weighing 50-100 lbs. P.230

Countenanced; approved, or perhaps more not denying approval. "Our officers countenanced us, and that was all the permission we wanted..." P.230

Surtout; loose fitting overcoat. Martin described Gen. Washington as wearing one. P.231

Warm/warmly; difficult, quick-paced. Describing a battle that went badly for the British--"This was a warm day to the British." and "The siege was carried on warmly for several days..." P.234

Abatis; barricades made of treetops with the branches sharpened and set with the branches facing outside. Full description on P.234.

Football; something like a soccer ball. "I happened to get but little personal injury, but I bounded like a football." P.237

Dilatory; tardy, stalling. "We waited two or three hours before the British made their appearance. They were not always so dilatory, but they were compelled at last, by necessity, to appear..." P.240

Dishabille; partial clothing, night clothes. "When I entered the house, I saw a young woman in decent morning dishabille." P.245

Verdant; lush, fertile. "...for it yet seems to my fancy...like one of those little verdant plats of ground between the burning sands of Arabia so often described by travelers." P.250

Discommode; annoy. "Our captain, who we always took pains to discommode, had placed himself on the top of an old rail fence,...we kept wriggling about till we broke the rail and let the captain take his chance down the bank..." P.253

Irish hoist; the term Martin used to describe the captain's tumble in the above quote, appears to be a common expression. P.254

Viands; food, probably choice dishes. "Here we again regaled ourselves on Thanksgiving viands..." P.254

Hobble; literally a rope used to hobble a horse or ox, used here to mean a difficult situation. When trapped after climbing a mountain---"...I came to the resolution to make a trial to free myself from the preposterous hobble I had so foolishly poked my unthinking skull into for nothing." P.269

Scrape; difficult situation, used as today. After finishing the above story---"Another scrape of a similar complexion I got into about this time..." P.270

Complexion; circumstances. See above.

Chafe; argument, dispute. "When we returned we found the poor prisoner in a terrible chafe with the sentinel for detaining him..." P.277

Nor; than. "...cheaper nor all that." P.281

Punctilio; fine point, precise to a "T". "The country was rigorous in exacting my compliance to my engagements to a punctilio..." P.287

Exigency; instance, event. "Upon every exigency they would have been to be collected..." P.290

Wiseacres; wiseguys, know-it-alls; used same as today. Martin describing a point of view he strongly disagrees with---"...according to the reckoning of those wiseacres..." P.291

Fag end; last years, final part. "...many of the poor men who had spent their youthful...days in the hard service of their country, have been enabled to eke out the fag end of their lives too high for the groveling hand of envy..." P.292

Rectitude; honesty, morality, honor. "...it is as cruel as the grave to any man, when he knows his own rectitude of conduct, to have his hard services not only debased and underrated...But the Revolutionary soldiers are not the only people that endure obloquy..." P.293

Obloquy; false accusation, malicious gossip. See above.

©Eric Ferguson
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Minneapolis, MN 55417
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Years ago, sent this to our reenacting group of 1000 strong Civil War reenactors in Southern California. We emailed Eric Ferguson to ask permission to put it on LivingHistorySites.com and he gracious granted that request on Thursday, August 9, 2012.