Regency Glossary: A - B - C
abbey - an abbey is a monastery ruled by an abbot or a convent ruled by an abbess. When an English property has “Abbey” in its name, (as in Lord Byron’s home, Newstead Abbey) it means that there used to be an abbey there in medieval times. When Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, he confiscated most of the abbeys, evicted the monks and nuns, and gave the land to his top supporters. This historical event was known as “The Dissolution of the Abbeys.” Some of the new owners knocked down the structures and built on them anew, but others converted the abbeys into private homes, but the word oftentimes remains in the name.
In slang terms, this reference had a very different meaning. Recall Hamlet's words to Ophelia: "Get thee to a nunnery." He was not talking about her joining a convent, of course, but was calling her a whore, ie. telling her to go to a brothel. "Abbess" was the term used for a madam, i.e. an older woman who managed a brothel, of which there were many in 19th c. England.
abigail - another term for a lady’s maid.
accomplishments - in keeping with the ornamental status of upper class women, an “accomplished” young lady was expected to have cultivated talents such as playing the pianoforte, painting watercolors, speaking French, fancy sewing, etc.
accoucheur - an obstetrician. These were male physicians, and it was considered more prestigious to have an accoucheur attend one’s childbirth rather than the traditional midwife. Accoucheurs were the first to use forceps to extract babies from the womb.
Adam style - Robert Adam, along with his slightly less influential brother, James, were late-Georgian architects better known as innovators in interior design. Though they had both died by 1794, they had spread their influence far and wide. The Adam style is light, delicate, raceful, and airy—a toned-down rococo. According to John Morley in Regency Style (Abrams, 1993) the Adam brothers prided themselves on having brought back a sense of “movement” into the frozen grandeur of Palladianism, and increasing the variety of room shapes (such as octagonal rooms). (p. 106)
Almack's - assembly rooms in King Street, London, where the most exclusive private subscription balls of the ton were held each Wednesday night of the Season. To be found worthy of the privilege of buying a subscription to the Wednesday night balls, (a ticket known as a “voucher”) you had to be personally known to one of the seven powerful Society hostesses who organized it. These ladies were the so-called Patronesses of Almack’s, and fashionable society lived in fear of getting on the bad side of any of them. Only the creme de la creme of Society were permitted to come.
ape-leader - derogatory term for an unmarried woman. Her "failure” to produce children was thought to result in the punishment after death of leading apes around in Hell.
apoplexy or apoplectic fit - a stroke.
apothecary - health practitioner who specialized in herbal (and often quack) remedies.
Ascot - England’s most prestigious horse-racing track.
assembly rooms – ballrooms that could be rented for private gatherings or subscriptions balls.
bam - to fool or trick someone.
Banbury story - you could bam someone by telling them a Banbury story, an unbelievable tall tale. The English equivalent of “blarney.” Otherwise known as a cock-and-bull tale.
banns - public announcement in church of a proposed marriage. The banns were supposed to be read aloud during church for three Sundays in a row in the parish/parishes where the engaged people lived, so that anyone who might know a reason why they should not be wed could come forward.
barouche - a fancy carriage with a folding hood that seated four. Two, four, or six horses could be used to pull it. Like a convertible today, the hood could be put down for the passengers to enjoy nice weather. It was an elegant but not a particularly manly carriage.
Bath - city in the western county of Somerset, England, which became wildly popular in the mid-1700's for the healing properties of its natural hot springs and mineral waters. (Thus the name!) Given the craze for classical antiquity, the archeological discovery of an ancient Roman bath in the center of the city kicked off a huge fad for going to Bath “to take the waters.” Supervised by medical experts, people went there hoping to be cured of everything from gout to infertility. As England’s first true planned city established during an architectural golden age, Bath is a World Heritage site and a must-see destination for tourists today! The city and its genteel social life are featured in many of Jane Austen’s novels. By the Regency, it had lost popularity among the younger set due to the rise of Brighton on the southern coast. Instead of taking the spa waters, the hot new health craze that replaced it was sea-bathing. Bath came to be associated with sickly, elderly people.
beaver hat - black top hat, made of beaver-skin because it was waterproof.
blue ruin - gin. (It had reputation similar to street drugs like crack in today’s world.)
bluestocking - an educated female with opinions on intellectual matters with which demure young ladies were not supposed to worry their pretty heads!
blunt - slang term for money.
Boney - Napoleon Bonaparte.
bottom - courage, pluck.
Bow Street - location of the justice offices where the London detectives known as the Bow Street Runners were based.
Brighton - seaside town about forty-five miles away from London, where people went to improve their health in the craze for sea-bathing—and to party! Brighton had a festive reputation, which was why it loved Prinny and Prinny loved it. It was here in his favorite getaway spot that he built his fantastic Pavilion. Brighton was annually the next stop on the social whirl for high society following the Season in London.
Brooke's - top gentlemen’s club of the Whigs in St. James’s Street, London.
butler - more than merely answered doors, the butler was responsible for directing the male portion of the indoor household staff (except those under direct authority of the male chef, if the house had one). The butler had extensive duties, including overseeing the correct service of meals, protecting the (pure silver) silverware from thieves, and being in charge of household security.
cabriolet - a light, two-wheeled carriage for one horse. It seated two, was usually driven by the gentleman himself, and had a folding leather hood. There was a perch in the back for the “tiger.”
canals - before trains, cargo was moved through England on narrow-boats that traversed quaint man-made canals. A vast network of canals crisscrossed England. (This was a common mode of transportation in Europe and America, too.) The narrow-boat would be hitched by ropes to a horse that walked alongside the canal on the “tow-path.” An attendant would walk the horse up the path while the animal towed the narrow-boat quietly along the canal. Many investors made great fortunes building canals during the Regency, but the trains soon made them obsolete. Today many narrow-boats have been turned into passenger vessels and offer tourists a relaxing way to view the English countryside.
cavaliere serviente - literally, “servant knight.” There came from a tradition dating back to medieval times, when a gallant young knight might dedicate himself to a married woman in supposedly chaste idolatry. He would serve as her escort when her usually powerful husband was too busy to bother with her. In the Georgian era, when arranged marriages based on power and property abounded, too much fraternization between husbands and wives was considered vulgar, unsophisticated. Adultery was something of a national sport among the upper classes. The lords had their mistresses and ladies had their cavalieres servientes. Supposedly, these attachments were as chaste as their medieval counterparts. I’m sure the husbands liked to think so. As long as the wife had produced the heir and the spare, and was reasonably discreet, usually no one complained. (Marriage based on love was a dangerous new-fangled idea in the Regency!)
chaperon - a respectable female in charge of an unmarried young lady in public, especially responsible for making sure she behaves herself around the opposite sex.
cheroot or cigarillo - a small, thin cigar. Smoking was not as popular as the use of snuff. Most Englishmen who smoked picked up the habit in Spain while fighting the Peninsular War.
chinoiserie - decoration “in the Chinese style.” You could have chinoiserie furniture or wall-paper, for instance, with an exotic bird or bamboo motif. Plates depicting Chinese scenes and figurines of Chinese people were also wildly popular. People also built miniature “pagodas” as garden follies. Of course, the port of Canton was closed to foreigners at this time, so the designers using these patterns knew almost nothing about China. As a result, most chinoiserie bears no resemblance to real Chinese people or culture, but having some around made you look sophisticated and fashionable. (Regency people were crazy about all sorts of exotic lands and cultures.)
chocolate - usually refers to the drink, hot chocolate, though cocoa was also used in desserts. Awful to imagine, but chocolate bars/candy had not yet been invented!
clerk or “clark” – a male secretary.
coach - a large, sturdy, four-wheeled closed carriage pulled by four to six horses. It seated four, and might have the family’s coat of arms painted on the door. The coach was driven by the coachman who sat on the elevated, exterior “driver’s box” at the front of the vehicle, perhaps with a groom by his side and a pair of liveried footmen stationed in the back.
coaching inn - a hotel/pub/restaurant posted along major roadways that serviced the stagecoaches. All those hungry travelers had to sleep somewhere! At a coaching inn, you could have a meal, rent fresh horses for the next leg of your journey, or stay overnight.
coffee houses - though tea may be the quintessential British beverage, coffee preceded it in popularity by several decades and later became eclipsed by it.
coffeehouses - from the 1700's, men went to their Regency Starbucks to drink coffee, read the newspapers, and enter into lively debates over things like art and politics. Also served food.
confinement - in the latter stages of pregnancy, women withdrew from the social scene, entering, as it was discreetly called, their “confinement.”
console table - a table designed to fit against a wall, sometimes anchored into the wall.
corn - refers to all the major cereal crops produced in England, such as wheat, rye, oats, and barley, but NOT corn-on-the-cob, which was known as maize.
corset - the French (and therefore “fancier” term) for “stays,” a body-shaping garment for women intended to hold in the waist and lift the bosom, tightened by laces in the back.
costermonger - street vendor of fruits and vegetables.
country house - mansion in the countryside. The more ostentatious you could make it, the bigger the status symbol. Country houses are associated with huge landscape gardens.
country house party - guests would be invited to stay for weeks at a time. A favorite venue for eligible bachelors and bachelorettes to get to know each other, with the proper chaperonage, of course!
Covent Garden - an Italian-style piazza built in the early 1600's by Inigo Jones, overlooked by a church, Covent Garden offered fashionable housing to the rich for a while, but when they moved away, drifting towards Mayfair, it became the main fruit and vegetable market of London by day; at night it became what we’d call a “red light district,” the most reliable place to pick up prostitutes. Today it is part of London’s theatre district.
cravat - gentleman’s neckcloth, the correct starching and tying of which was crucial to the wearer’s fashionable appearance.
crim-con - when adultery had taken place, the wronged husband could sue the man who had seduced his wife for in a civil (not criminal) suit, and could be awarded financial damages. The legal term for the charges that would be brought against the seducer were “criminal conversation.” For rakes and roues of the Regency, “crim-con” charges were a real danger!
curricle - two-wheeled carriage for two horses. Seat in back for the tiger or groom. Like the cabriolet (which came a few years after the curricle) it was an expensive gentleman’s toy, like the modern sports-car.
cut - a social snub. To look straight at someone and then coldly look away without acknowledging him or her was considered giving that person “the cut direct.”
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