London language in 19th century novels

I pricked up my ears (figuratively speaking) at this intriguing post by Roger Pocock of the Windows into History blog, in which he discusses a list of local words from late 18th and early 19th-century London.

This fascinating list was first published in 1803, in Samuel Pegge’s book Anecdotes of the English Language: Chiefly Regarding the Local Dialect of London and its Environs.  It  includes a few items which have since become common terms, including “disgruntled”, which was then highly unusual and odd-sounding!  (According to Pegge, disgruntled is “a strange word, carrying with it an exaggeration of the term disconcerted.  It seems to be a metaphor taken from a hog; which I cannot account for, unless naturalists say hogs grunt from some pleasurable sensation.”)

on the domesticated animals - saimese breed pig
Pictured: a gruntled individual

Many of the novels in the Nation, Genre and Gender corpus date to around this time or a few years later, and quite a few are based in London, so you would expect to see at least some of these words appearing in our texts.  However, I was certain just from my own recollection that one or two of these words had a particularly Irish ring to them.  Was there some crossover between the dialects of London and various parts of Ireland, in the 1800s?  So I did a (very brief) dig into our corpus, to find out where these terms occur, and found one or two interesting results.  Here are some of them:

Luxurious” and “humorous” are, of course, standard in many modern varieties of English, and they appear respectively in 39 and 18 chapters of various works within our corpus.  “Towards” seems to have really come into its own across the 19th century, even if it wasn’t common  in 1803 – it appears an astonishing 971 times!  Perhaps all of these words were on the rise over the course of the century?

Chimley” (or rather, its variant spelling “chimbley”) is found right where Pegge situates it, in London: it occurs twice in our corpus, both times in Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

You might expect potatoes to be an Irish preoccupation, but “taters” is only found in our corpus in the English countryside, in 1890s West Sussex:

She [Mrs. Hall] turned round, as one who suddenly remembers. “Bless my soul alive!” she said, going off at a tangent; “ain’t you done them taters  yet , Millie?”

The Invisible Man, H. G. Wells, 1897

Aggravate“, which is obviously a familiar word nowadays, can interestingly be found in three chapters in the corpus, and these are scattered around the British Isles.  Its earliest appearance is in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Scotland, in the historical novel Waverley, set in 1745 (but published in 1814).  Next, we find it in darkest rural Ireland, in William Carleton’s The Black Prophet (set in 1815).  Finally, it appears in London after all, but rather late in the century, in Richard Marsh’s 1897 thriller The Beetle.

waverley less interesting than poetry
Plenty of aggravation can be found in Waverley.

For the other terms on the list that appear in the novels, we find quite a few examples that would seem to locate them in Ireland rather than in London.  “Curous“, for example, takes us to Maria Edgeworth’s Bray, County Wicklow, in 1812:

Brian came in very hot, out of breath, with his hat full of stones. ‘Good morrow to your honour. I was in bed last night; and sorry they did not call me up to be of SARVICE.  (Larry Brady) was telling us, this morning, your honour’s from Wales, and looking for mines in Ireland, and I heard talk that there was one on our mountain-maybe, you’d be CUROUS to see, and so I brought the best I could, but I’m no judge.’

The Absentee, chapter 11

Argufy” is found both in Irish children’s literature of the 1840s, and in 1890s weird literature set in England:

But then the child my little sister was but five years old; so I could not reason nor argufy any more upon that, sir.

Orlandino, Maria Edgeworth, 1848


“You don’t go outside the farm to-day, and that’s flat,” he said. “We won’t argufy on that point any more; you stop at ‘ome to-day. Ef you’re a good girl and try to please me I’ll harness the horse to the gig this evening, and take yer for a bit of a drive.”

Dr. Rumsey’s Patient, L. T. Meade, 1896

Interestingly, both of these authors are Irish, and in both cases they are trying to represent rural rather than urban speech.

Finally, “drownded” and “sot” (in its meaning of “sat”, rather than the insulting meaning of “habitually drunk person”) are both again predominantly found in works by Irish authors.   “Drownded” appears in seven chapters in our corpus: twice in The House By The Church-Yard (1863), twice in Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man (1916), and once in The Nun’s Curse (1888), all of which are Irish-authored and set in Ireland.  (It also appears in urban, working class English contexts in North and South and Great Expectations, although in North and South it’s found in the great Northern industrial city of “Millcote”, rather than in London.)

Sot“, meanwhile, is used by a working-class Dubliner of the 1750s, a “fat fellow” from Smithfield, telling ghost stories in an inn:

‘With that, on he walks to the town o’ Drumgoole, And sot by the fire in an inn was there; And sittin’ beside him, says the ghost–“You fool! ‘Tis myself’s beside ye, shamus, everywhere.”‘

The House by the Church-Yard, Sheridan Le Fanu

It’s also found in The Nun’s Curse in relation to a county in the north of Ireland – but as a quote from Brer Rabbit:

Thus Donegal consoled itself. Like Brere Rabbit it “sot up and said nothing,” but it thought a vast deal.

The Nun’s Curse, Charlotte Riddell, chapter 26

Finally, we once again find “sot” back where it belongs, in the words of the lovable Joe Gargery from Great Expectations, chapter 2:

“She sot down,” said Joe Gargery, “and she got up, and she made a grab at Tickler, and she Ram-paged out. That’s what she did,” said Joe Gargery, slowly clearing the fire between the lower bars with the poker, and looking at it; “she Ram-paged out, Pip.”

Our corpus currently comprises only 46 novels and novellas (with equal numbers by British and Irish authors), so this is a very small sample to work from, and this is by no means a serious study of dialects.  Still, it’s interesting to see that there seems to be a good bit of crossover between elements of London dialect that were current at the very beginning of the 19th century, and representations of speech in later novels from all over the British Isles – but particularly Ireland!  I’ll be keeping an eye out for more curous and humoursome language in our novels in the future…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s