Historical Fiction: 20 words and phrases that sound old but aren’t

Historical Fiction tool ngram

I always thought historical fiction was a pretty mainstream genre. It was all I read when I was a kid, and growing up as an Enid Blyton fan, I associated books with everything ancient and wonderful. You know – midnight feasts, pirates stashing treasure chests in caves and setting out across the fields with a bottle of ginger beer. (Whatever that was).

As an adult and a writer of historical fiction, I’ve found that many consider it a niche genre and that plenty of readers would never consider reading a book set in the past. They’re the same people who turn off Downton Abbey and yawn when anything comes on the screen that looks a bit old.

I get it. We are all different. We like different things. It’s FINE!

So too, this blog post will not apply to you if you don’t read or write historical fiction. But I wanted to write it anyway. And it’s always nice to know things isn’t it?

I’ve just finished my second novel, a story of a mysterious nanny who arrives in Drogheda 1880 to look after a motherless child. I loved every minute writing it and because it was my second book, I tried to improve my approach in writing it and took a lot longer to edit it. Apparently it’s all in the rewriting where the magic happens.

During this time I was in touch with a lovely editor called Sally – you can check out her services here. She told me of a tool called ngram – a google search that allows you to check the use of words in books over time. She’d pointed out some words I was using in my writing that weren’t of their time and despite having finished the script completely, I knew I’d need to go back over it line by line to try and hunt out these words.

And so I started. Now, I consider myself fairly averse with the 19th century. I watch everything set then, read everything about the time, absorb letters and correspondence and get into the whole hundred years ago form, just by closing my eyes and thinking. Still, my script was littered with words that sound old but aren’t old. Little feckers.

I thought I’d have one or two slip through – I didn’t think it would take me that long to find them. What I did find was masses of words all through my text, but particularly in speech, that were modern day words and did not belong in a story set in 1880. I was a bit embarrassed to be honest.

While some were obvious (as I point out below) many were not and so I’ve gathered them up here mostly for the craic, but also for other writers and readers of historical fiction, because it might be of interest. Sure why not, I’m finished writing the novel now and am at a bit of a loose end to be honest.

Without further ado (totally acceptable 19th C phrase) here are 20 words and phrases I pulled from my script and a bit about their use in the books over time. (Please bear in mind I’m basing this research completely on ngram search, and it’s set to British English).

1. Grand scheme of things

Despite sounding very old fashioned this phrase did not come into popular use until the 1980s and has steadily risen since then. I really would have thought it was invented around the time of the pyramids, when people were plopping off the sides of rocks on ropes and their masters with whips in their hands were saying – ah sure what’s a few slaves in the grand scheme of things. Well they weren’t. It seems to be a yuppy phrase. Speaking of plopping…

2. Plopped

While ‘plop’ did exist, the word plopped did not come into use really until the 1920s and waited again until the 1980s to take off. I reckon it has something to do with Solpadeine or other such wonderful codeine addictive painkillers. That’s what I think of when I hear the word plopped!

3. Shenanigans

Aw come on. How can this not be ancient? I have visions of masses of Irish immigrants bouncing around New York shouting ‘will you stop with your shenanigans or I’ll give you a whack of me shillelagh!’ Well, according to ngram, the word first came into use in the 1940s and steadily rose from there. Hang on there till I check the use of ‘St Patty’. (I would rather die first).

4. Edgy

I know ‘edgy’ can mean cool or sophisticated. In my manuscript however, I used it as someone who was feeling a bit edgy. While it wasn’t completely unheard of at the turn of the century, the word didn’t really take off until the 1960s. You’re right – irascible is a much better word.

5. Gawkers

Sounds thoroughly old, but it didn’t come into use the 1950s on. Maybe I was mixing it up sightly with ‘hawkers’ which was very much in use, I’m no sure. Anyway, I will continue to use it from now on. My exact line which has to be deleted was ‘gawkers, the whole lot of them’. Which would be you, wouldn’t it, gawking at this blog?!

6. Feckin’

Seriously, what the feck? How? How was this not around in the late 1800s? Bearing in mind that the ngram I’m using checks British English, and there are the one or two noted, fecking is a thoroughly modern word which dramatically takes off in the 2000s. No doubt, wholly, to the success and genius of Father Ted. Feck this . Feck that. You couldn’t move for the fecks in that book. Ride me sideways was another one! Sigh.

7. Frickin’

I thought I’d get away with this too but it just wasn’t around. Neither was ‘friggin’ which is a real Irish Mammy phrase. Oh well, just have to stick with the proper ‘ f**kin’ to keep it real.

8. Scrapbook

I would have thought this was an oldie, considering the prevalence of newspaper clippings and the world of paper people would have lived in. While the word was around, its use didn’t really take off until the 1940s. So the scrapbooks in my story became ‘journals’. (Very much around).

9. International

Slightly in use, but it was from 1900 on before it started to take off. I’m sure it had something to do with a war or politics or some other such highfalutin’ endeavour. You would have thought ‘international waters’ was a big thing with all the sailing in the past, but no, it was a 1920s thing, rising from 1940s on.

10. Replayed

Ok, this is a bit of a stupid one on my part, but I had a character who ‘replayed’ a scene in her mind. We’re so used to this as a word, we forget what it really means – and I don’t mean a draw match in GAA that needed to be played again. How could someone ‘replay’ something in their mind, if there were no video players, DVD players or TV pause and rewind around? Idiot!

11. Angsty

Along with edgy, I thought angsty would be grand. (My characters were all feeling a little ruffled!) Even angst is quite a new word and doesn’t really appear in use until the 1920s, from where it gradually increases until the 1980s where it then takes off, most likely due to the phrase ‘teenage angst’.

12. Cute hoor

One of my favourite phrases ever! But unfortunately, a phrase that only appears from the mid-1980s on and so had to be chopped from my script. I don’t know if this is a phrase used in your part of the world, but where I’m from in Louth, older generations pronounced the word – hoor (like bure) – and it’s not that big of an insult, more an admiration for a woman’s intelligence or a nod to her wiliness.

13. Flashback

Up there with ‘replayed’, I had to remove this word from my script as it only started appearing from the 1940s onwards. I’m not sure if it was specifically used within the film industry (for flashback scenes) but no matter, it has no place in a story set in 1880!

14. Unemployable / Unemployment

Employment has been around for donkeys, but the word unemployment only started to come into use from 1900 on. I’m not sure what the masses who had no work were called before that – but maybe that’s the thing – perhaps due to the industrial revolution, there was no unemployment – only masses of work for everybody to do!

15. Relationship

I used this word as we would in a modern way – to refer to a love relationship between two people. The word wasn’t particularly used in that way throughout the 1800s, although it did exist. You can see from its use in ngram, that it steadily rose, taking off from 1960 on. So I removed it, because I knew it wasn’t fully authentic.

16. Obsessive

Speaking of relationships, the word obsessive / obsessed wasn’t in use either. It first appeared in 1910 and rapidly took off.

17. Cheating bastard

And while we’re on the topic of relationships, there were no cheating bastards around in the 19th century either! They only appeared in the late 1950s! I’m sure the phrase had more to do with gambling debts than love rats, but it had to go from my script, even though it fit lovely in a diatribe I had penned.

18. Rock bottom price

Rock bottom was around, but the use of the phrase ‘rock bottom price’ soared in the 1920s, fell off completely by the 1940s and went up and down like a yo yo in the ngram graph. It looks at though its use is directly affected by the economy, booms and busts, which would of course make sense –  I just couldn’t use it in my script at the end of the 19th century, as it didn’t exist then.

19. Fusspot

Doesn’t appear in literature until around the time of the first world war. I mean what had people to be complaining about then, huh?

20. Hairstyle

Despite women fashioning their hair for centuries, the word hairstyle is a modern invention, really only coming into popular use in the 1960s.

So there you have it, my guide, completely led by own second novel to wheedling out all the words and phrases that don’t fit in a 19th century book. (Wheedling is a thoroughly ancient word of course).

Are there any here that surprise you? I love using this tool now to check my historical fiction writing and I’m so glad Sally put me onto it. It shows how language evolves over time and it’s a bit of fun too.

I didn’t use the tool while writing December Girl, so I can’t be sure that there aren’t a few out of time phrases slipped through, but if you’d like to try and spot any, go ahead! You can download from Amazon here : )

And now, that’s enough messing about blogging, back to being an author I guess. Hmmm blogging… when did that come into use? Ngramming, every, damn, word.


You can follow me on Instagram where I’ve been most active lately, on Facebook, and on Twitter, all @LadyNicci.




December Girl is now available on Audio. Visit Amazon or Audible or click on the cover below to download.

December Girl audiobook

1 Comment on Historical Fiction: 20 words and phrases that sound old but aren’t

  1. Oh oh! I know the answer to number 14! Servant or service and the relationship “master and servant” was used in common law in the 1800s ???? Doesn’t matter what the job was.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: