Jilly: Dialect, Slang and Cant

Daft Apeth. Does the slogan on one of my favorite mugs (see picture, left) mean anything to you?

The internet (yourdictionary.com) defines it thus:
apeth. Noun. (plural apeths) A halfpennyworth. (Northern England, informal) An affectionate term for a silly or foolish person.

My mug was made by a company called Dialectable. I saw it in a shop window in rural Derbyshire and knew I had to buy it, because daft apeth was one of my dad’s go-to descriptions. It’s definitely English, unmistakably Northern, and while you might occasionally hear it today, it’s dated. The half-penny in question is pre-decimal, a coin that was de-monetized almost fifty years ago.

Told you that to tell you this: if I read the phrase daft apeth in a novel, I’d be immediately transported to 1960’s Derbyshire. For me, those two small words would be more effective than a page of description. For you? I’m guessing not so much.

I’ve been mulling this over since Elizabeth said in her Wednesday post (What Have You Been Reading?) of Georgette Heyer’s Frederica:
the vast amount of slang, cant, and unfamiliar phraseology made it a little more challenging for the modern reader than some of her other stories.

Word choice is an important part of world-building. The picture drawn by the author feels more natural and vivid if the characters use words and phrases that match their worldview and the story’s time and place. So, for example, my heroine Alexis grew up in a monastery. She’s educated but not sophisticated. She knows plenty of words for prayers, and manuscripts, and fighting, but she wouldn’t have any vocabulary to describe hairstyles or jewelry or fashionable clothing.

Dialect, slang, and cant take a step deeper into the language of a world. They are insider choices that can evoke a particular time, place, social status or other grouping.

Dialect is regional: language peculiar to a specific region or social group.
Slang is informal: words and phrases more commonly spoken than written, typically restricted to a particular context or group of people; and
Cant is pejorative: language specific to a particular group or profession and regarded with disparagement.

The upside of using them is that they are particular. If they resonate with the reader, they can provide a quick entry deep into a world.

The downside is the problem described by Elizabeth. They’re narrow in scope and less likely to be familiar to the casual reader, who risks being thrown out of the story and may decide not to return.

My WIP is set in a vaguely sixteenth-century, loosely British landscape, and I find myself dithering over word selection on a fairly frequent basis. There are some choice phrases in Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue that I’ve enjoyed but rejected (here’s a good one–gravy-eyed: bleary-eyed, one whose eyes have a running humor). I want my world to be authentic, but not incomprehensible.

My current thinking is as follows:

  • I prefer dialect, slang and cant to accents. In general, authors who mis-spell words to indicate accents distract and annoy me.
  • Like herbs and spices, they should be used sparingly. The trick is to add flavor without overpowering the main dish.
  • If you’re building on the word choices of other well-known authors (like writers of Regency romances after Heyer), you’ll probably enjoy a little more leeway.
  • If the meaning is obvious, that’s a good word choice. In my WIP I have the petulant Crown Prince Darryl describe Alexis as a pickpurse rather than a thief.
  • If the meaning isn’t obvious, it’s probably a good idea to use the context to make it clear or have another character elucidate somehow, at least the first time.
  • If you’re using a lot of unfamiliar language, consider providing a glossary. I believe Peter Temple did this in the international editions of his Melbourne-based murder mysteries (black Aspro for a cola-based soft drink as a hangover remedy).

What do you think?

Is there a particular word or phrase that would drag you deep into a place or time?

Do you like a little dialect, slang or cant to add flavor to your reading material? How much will you tolerate before it becomes too tiresome to continue?

Edited to add:

Thanks, Kay, and Anne, for adding to my vocabulary. I saw this drinking fountain in Kuala Lumpur a couple of weeks ago and immediately thought ha! bubbler!

12 thoughts on “Jilly: Dialect, Slang and Cant

  1. My vocabulary has two words that if anyone used them, would tell me that the speaker was from a narrow geographical band running from NE Wisconsin possibly as far as SW Wisconsin. The first word is “bubbler,” which is an appliance, often anchored to a wall but in earlier times free-standing, from which potable water spouts if you press a button. Elsewhere in the US this is called a “water fountain” or “drinking fountain” or just “fountain.” From NE Wis to SW Wis, however, any kind of fountain is a large stone embellishment that sits outdoors and provides recreational opportunities for ducks. Bubblers are the things you drink from. As everyone should know!

    The other word that signals membership in my tribe is “fresserei,” a wonderful German word. In German, the word for “eat” is “essen,” but the Germans, nitpickers as they can be, have another word for “eat too much.” That verb is “fressen.” The noun form—the word for an occasion at which there is an over-abundance of food, or people over-indulge—is fresserei. So, how was your Thanksgiving? Just one big fresserei. Just TYPING fresserei makes me smile.

  2. When I was much younger, in my early teens or even younger, I did like accents written out. I liked figuring out what they were saying, and they made me feel smart. And once I’d gotten the hang of the accent, it did bring a lot of depth to the reading.

    But one big problem was one that I ran into with Thurber’s housekeepers. Did Thurber accurately reflect their speech patterns, or did he use a crutch of mocking, racist depictions that were in common currency at the time? I’m not sure.

    Anyway, as I got older, I didn’t want to slog through so much deciphering. If it’s annotated on the page, I’m more patient, but it sounds like annotations and footnotes are not looked upon fondly by most fiction editors.

    One thing about Heyer is that in almost every case, the slang she uses is supported by the text. We know where the word is going, and we don’t have to stop to look it up. (-: However, she uses some real doozies, like ape-leader. If I were reading her books in the 1970s, say, I wouldn’t have much choice except to absorb the word. She uses it enough in her novels that I can catch the idea. But after 1999? I have the internet; I need to stop and look it up.

    What drives me nuts is stuff like Dorothy Sayers, when she uses French slang. *Now* it’s pretty easy to find, but even a decade ago, it was a lot harder to find what some obscure French phrase meant.

    I think to some extent, a lot of authors use their slang as flavoring — if they removed the slang and added a different word, the meaning wouldn’t change so much. But Sayers was a very economical author, and a lot of times, you needed to know that French to catch the full flavor of the scene. Her audience would have known it, and apparently she didn’t care about American peasants . . . .

    (-: My word? I have to say, I’m awfully fond of “druthers” as in, “If I had my druthers, I would choose the chicken.” Younger co-workers have no idea what I’m talking about, but I like the wistful feeling of the word.

    • I’ve been reading Heyer for so long, I’ve forgotten there must have been a time when I didn’t know all that Regency slang. We had Chaucer, Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, etc at school from quite early on, so I expect I just took it in my stride

      Funny you should mention the French in Dorothy Sayers. When I was chatting about this post with my husband, that was the first example that sprang to his mind.

      I don’t like stopping to look things up. I enjoy reading different and interesting phrases I can guess at. Otherwise I’ll skip, or skim, or save it to check later. And–just checking–druthers: does that mean you don’t get the choice, so even though you’d have preferred chicken, you have to eat steak? 😉

      • I actually don’t mind looking things up, but it can distract me from the main book if I get caught up dictionary surfing. The online Merriam-Webster is designed to trap and keep the word-lover there for awhile.

        Druthers is a friendly sort of word; it’s kind of a softening agent to your desires. “If I had my druthers, I’d take the chicken (but I don’t want to put you out or anything).” “Oh, no, darlin’. Go ahead and take the chicken. I wanted to try the roast rattlesnake, anyway.”

        I almost always use it like this: “So, what are your druthers? Chicken, or steak?” And if you choose chicken, I’ll do my best to make sure you get the chicken.

        The other way is, “Well, if I had my druthers, I’d take vacation on the 23rd.” There is room for refusal on the part of my conversation partner, but the refusal probably should come with a good excuse, because we are being kind and considerate of each other’s wants and needs. B: “Oh, the 23rd is the Kolache Festival. We’re going to be packed.” “OK, then I’ll take off on the 24th.”

  3. Pingback: Elizabeth: The Power of Silence – Eight Ladies Writing

  4. Pingback: Jilly: History on a Plate – Eight Ladies Writing

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