Swearing in history; or, Avaunt, you beslubbering flock-pate!

 Ah, swearing, cursing, abuse. Where would we be without it? I’d probably lose half of my scintillating conversation.

But as writer of historical dirty stories  romances, it’s not always easy. I’m not the kind of writer who likes to use clinical words like penis or vagina, but words like dick haven’t been around that long. Well, they have, but their meaning has changed over the years

For example, the word ‘fuck’ has been around since 1502, according to the OED Historical Thesaurus of English.  But it was nothing more than a vulgar word for, um, fucking until 1874. Telling someone ‘don’t fuck with me’ literally meant ‘don’t have sexual intercourse with me’, which doesn’t have quite the same punchy implication.

Dick didn’t mean penis until the nineteenth century, and even then it had crossover with other slang terms, like detective. I’m sure we’ve all sniggered at vintage writers like Enid Blyton naming characters ‘Dick’. (I had a bit of a chortle recently when I read The Black Moth and Richard’s wife constantly calls him ‘Dickie’—I’m sure it was adorable when it was written, in the 1920s.)

So what’s a poor historical writer to do?

Well, you could ignore it, and let your characters bump dicks and bang pussies with abandon, as well as tell every cocksucker to get fucked or sod off. I love the dialogue in Deadwood and Black Sails where modern curses danced cheek to cheek with ye olde speak.

But I find it really tough to do something I know is so far out of period. I do hate being pedantic sometimes. Not that I’m that pedantic; if the thesaurus tells me a word was first recorded in use at 1720, I might push it back to the mid 1600s. My reasoning is that in the days when language changes took years to spread rather than becoming instant memes, vulgar words were likely to have been in common usage for some time before anyone bothered to write it down. Maybe I’m reaching, but whatever.

And while I’m on the pedantic topic, I’ll segue to something almost related. I find it staggering how few words there were for oral sex prior to the nineteenth century when you compare them to the number of words for shagging. Some historians have hypothesised that oral sex is a relatively modern phenomenon (ie from the nineteenth century). After it fell out of favour with the fall of the Roman Empire, that is. They give various reasons—lack of hygiene being a big one, but I figure if everyone smells as bad as you do, and your street is an open sewer, would you really notice? Another reason given is that oral sex was considered sodomy and therefore a criminal act. I doubt criminality stops anyone from doing anything pleasurable, and I have previously waxed lyrical on the overt and covert existence of sodomy in society for the last two thousand years despite it being criminalised. In any case, whether or not it was rampant among our forebears, I’m not going to deny my characters the awesomeness that is a good spigot-sucking.

Oral sex in the nineteenth century
Darling, I have a yen to go larking in your thatched cottage

One of my favourite sources for historical sexual euphemisms is timeglider, which has a series of timelines showing when vulgar words and phrases for sex etc came into use. These are based on the work of the awesome Jonathon Green, the famed slang lexicographer. Here are links for:

Wads of words for boy bits
Lashings of terms for lady parts
A plethora of phrases for rogering

It’s a fine line between historical accuracy and modern appeal. Use too much modern terminology and phrasing, and you lose the historical feel. Use too little, and a modern audience won’t be able to connect with it. While colourful, ‘Avaunt, you beslubbering flock-pate’ doesn’t quite have the manly impact of ‘fuck off, arsehole’; and ‘Begad, Lizzie, let me diddle your lady-ware and you may ride my rantipole’ may not encourage readers feel that heaven’s in the backseat of Mr Darcy’s barouche.

Obsessed with bathing


As my friends could tell you, I’m not particularly obsessed with bathing and cleanliness.  I shower daily but I don’t linger, and I’m not fond of baths. So why are my characters so bloody obsessed with bathing? It’s a question I started to ask myself when I finished my fifth book (not yet edited, coming in August). Okay, I am fond of a good scene in a bath, et voila…

Romantic couple in the bath together
I love writing historical fiction. I love finding a new era that fascinates me, and creating characters that fit into the setting. I love delving into the era and making my story fit into it.

I hate the smells.

Yep, back in the day there was none of the plumbing luxury we enjoy today. You know, you turn on the tap and presto, out comes water fit to drink! You jump into a glass box and way hey, out comes steamy hot water which combines so beautifully with sudsy grapefruit scented shower gel! You sit on a polymer resin seat with a hole in it and whoosh, away flushes unmentionable body waste!

Pears soap
Daily washing – just the face and hands. Uh huh.

In the Olden Dayz (until reasonably late in the nineteenth century for poor folks), bathing was irregular. A daily wash, which probably only meant your face and hands, came out of a jug of water. If you were lucky enough to be rich you didn’t have to haul your own hot water up two flights of stairs, or share a weekly bath with every member of your family.  If you were poor and lucky, you lived near a bathhouse that was reasonably priced for your once-a-week ablutionary pleasures, and you got to share a bath with your neighbours as well.

Drinking water came from the river contaminated with… God only knows. Check your local river and shudder—and remember our rivers, nuclear waste aside, are a lot cleaner than they were in, say, 1781, when corpses and skin flakes were possibly the least nasty things to be found. Sewers were street gutters, and flushing the loo meant emptying the poo pot out of the window into the street.

Blackadder II
Mrs. Pants: But what about the privies?
Blackadder: Um, well, what we are talking about in privy terms is the latest in front wall fresh air orifices combined with a wide capacity gutter installation below.
Mrs. Pants: You mean you crap out the window?
Blackadder: Yes.
Mrs. Pants: Well in that case we’ll definitely take it. I can’t stand those dirty indoor things.

And speaking of streets, in reality they were often knee deep in rubbish, dead dogs, and horse poop. I do recall reading a passage where Benjamin Franklin* complains about treading in people poop while walking the streets of Philadelphia at night (from memory he used the word ‘turds’ and paints a vivid image of them squashing underfoot). In my world, there is no ever-present smell of urine or dead animals, and rubbish is regularly taken away. In reality it would have been from the richer neighbourhoods, but I imagine the smells would have lingered.

New York street
It looks more than knee deep in places…. New York street 1850s

Which brings me to smells.

None of my characters smells bad**. They are clean clean clean people who never have stinky armpits, smelly groins, or stained pants**. They do have bodily functions, but there is ALWAYS a toilet available and it’s off screen. I never mention it, but they also have toilet paper (it is referred to by Rabelais in the sixteenth century which is good enough for me, even if he does recommend the neck of a goose over paper wipes). And last but not least, THEY ALWAYS TAKE BATHS. REGULARLY. NO EXCEPTIONS***.

Hot guys in the bath
Oh, keep cleaning yourselves, boys. Don’t mind me…

So, dear reader, when you come to the sweaty scenes, rest assured the boys and girls are squeaky clean and utterly lickable!

*I think it was Benjamin Franklin. It might have been some other 18th century Philadelphia resident. I’m not going to cite, I’m not at university now, hurrah!
**Except when they are meant to for the purposes of the plot.
***Except when they can’t for the purposes of the plot.