Living in the Past @JMmystery

Jeanne Matthews is happy to announce the arrival of a new historical mystery, Devil by the Tail, released in July 2021.  Jeanne has a yen for travel and a passion for mythology, which she works into her novels whenever she can.  Originally from Georgia, Jeanne lives in Washington State with her husband, a law professor, and a Norwich terrier named Jack Reacher.  Information about her books, including the Dinah Pelerin international series, can be found on her website.  

Since launching my new historical series, I’ve been living with characters born in the 19th Century and formed by the events that took place then.  They’re American.  They speak standard English.  But when it comes to societal attitudes and language, the past is a foreign country.  Some ways of thinking regarded as customary and conventional back then seem benighted today – the law of coverture that denied married women their rights, for example.  And it’s amazing how many expressions used in everyday conversation 150 years ago can sound puzzling to modern ears.  I’ve written a previous blog about some of the fanciful words invented in 19th Century America.  (Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln).  But there was a more somber, down-to-earth slang originated by the soldiers who fought in the Civil War.  That war was the most polarized period in American history, and yet men on both sides of the conflict would have known and understood the same figures of speech.

The urgency of battle gave rise to new idioms that encompassed sights and situations too brutal to describe and created names for things not previously encountered.  “To see the elephant” was a metaphor for going into battle for the first time, for gaining combat experience – usually at terrible personal cost.  “To open the ball” meant to begin the battle.  The “forlorn hope” was the individual or company chosen to lead the charge.  And as in every war, there were “skedaddlers” who deserted and “coffee boilers” who fled to the rear to make coffee, reappearing only when the danger had passed.

The war lasted longer than most men had thought when they joined up to fight, so they coined the ironic saying “all in three years.”  It came to mean anything that disappointed or went awry.  For many who fought, their whole lives went awry.  Severe injury, pain, disability, lingering nightmares, and profound grief led to a drug epidemic.  Morphine, laudanum, and opium addiction were common.  The symptoms diagnosed today as “post-traumatic stress syndrome” were generalized back then as “soldier’s heart.”  And those who watched their loved ones suffer had to “keep a stiff upper lip.”  Although the expression is associated with British stoicism in the face of adversity, it originated in America in the 19th Century.

Some lingo is regional or specific to a particular place.  The characters I’ve been writing about run a detective agency in Chicago, a city with a history of crime and political corruption that dates back to its incorporation in 1833.  By the time of the Republican Convention in 1860, its reputation for bribery and skullduggery was so entrenched that “Chicago” became a verb.  “Lincoln will be Chicagoed!” predicted the Weekly Democrat, meaning that he would be beaten by his Democratic opponent as a result of back-room, underhanded “shenanigans” – another florid, faux-educated word of the era.  But in the seamier parts of town, to be Chicagoed meant to be literally beaten.  Most likely to a pulp.  As the newspaper reported, “The city is infested with a horde of thieves, burglars, and cut-throats bent on plunder, men who will not hesitate to burn, pillage, and even murder.”

Chicago was home to a large number of Peace Democrats, a faction of Northerners who opposed war with the South.  These so-called “Copperheads” were disparaged in the Northern, Republican newspapers as traitors and cowards.  Copperhead was a dirty word. There was even a song written about the Chicago Copperheads.

There is a band of copperhead snakes,

crawling along the northern lakes.

The snakes are filled with fear and woe,

Up Salt River they’re bound to go.

To be rowed up Salt River was another colloquial phrase that could mean, depending on the context, that either you’d lost an election or someone had beaten you within an inch of your life.

The same obscenities we hear today were no doubt in use during the 1860s.  But in spite of the coarsening influence of war and rough conditions on the docks and in the stockyards, people didn’t swear as freely as they do today – with the notable exception of a Michigan copper miner named Samuel W. Hill.  Notorious for his filthy language, Sam Hill evolved into a mild synonym for “hell.”  People avoided outright blasphemy with minced oaths.  They substituted “by George” and “by golly” for “by God” and ladies could exclaim “Land sakes” without being accused of taking the deity’s name in vain.

Writers of historical fiction strive to immerse their readers in a bygone era, but the bubble of belief can be burst by a single out-of-its-time word or detail.  In Devil By The Tail, I did my best to stick to the lingua franca and social mores of the period.  But I also tried to bring a modern sensibility to my main character.  Her frame of reference and mine could not have been more different, but the desire for personal and professional freedom is timeless.

2 thoughts on “Living in the Past @JMmystery

  1. Thanks Jeanne for these great eye openers – idioms say so much about the times we live in. Who knew that “‘To see the elephant’ was a metaphor for going into battle for the first time, for gaining combat experience – usually at terrible personal cost.”
    And so many more.
    Your beautiful use of period language was just one of the reasons I enjoyed Devil by the Tail so much!


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