Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Time for some Jacobean slang!

Peter Ackroyd's multi-volume History of England series has reached the English Civil War, a period I know primarily through the not-always-reliable lenses of John Aubrey and John Milton. Like nearly of Ackroyd's histories, it's a book for a reader rather than a scholar--trying to trace Ackroyd's sources, in the absence of notes or a proper bibliography, would be all but impossible. But for a lay reader, his rich fund of anecdote and quotation is, as always, a great pleasure.

My two favorite individual details thus far are, first, the fact that the people used to call Lord Buckingham, Charles I's much-loathed right hand, Lord Fuckingham, and, second, that James I, sick with gout and a "shrewd case of the stone," having heard that deer's blood was good for the health, would sit with his feet stuffed inside the bloody carcass of a newly killed deer. (To which I say, respectively, Of course they did, and, shades of Luke Skywalker and the tauntaun there.)

Tonight, though, I'll share some Jacobean slang that Ackroyd has harvested from Ben Jonson's "teeming" play of London life, Bartholomew Fair:
A "hobby-horse" was a prostitute. An "undermeal" was a light snack. To "stale" was to urinate. When one character discloses that "we were all a little stained last night," he means that they were drunk. "Whimsies" were the female genitalia. A "diet-drink" was medicine. A Catholic recusant was derided as "a seminary."
Some words ripe for revival there, methinks! You could use "stained" in that context today without, I expect, having to explain. "Whimsies," too, if set in a reasonably clear context. "Stale" would require more groundwork, however, while I doubt "undermeal" would ever take--it sounds too much like one of those terms one might innocently search for on the Internet only to discover some thriving and graphically depicted sexual subculture.

So there's your assignment: let's get the usable ones from that list out there in the world, folks. Report back with your successes!


  1. "Undermeal" should become de rigueur for describing the food given on commercial airlines.

  2. That's a very good idea. Here's to making it happen!