A Molly in the Dogtrot: 18th Century English in Striking Balance – A Word Nerd Mashup

A powder head eating pottage? Not likely! And what the hell did I just say anyway? Language is alive. It shifts, changes, follows trends, evolves around wars, invention, and desperation because if it doesn’t it dies. (No? Everyone meet Latin. Latin, everyone.) So how does the English language’s ever-changing status affect an 18th-century historical novel published in 2020? Well, if the writing is worth its salt then both the prose and dialogue reflect the language of the era. No, not entirely; this is 2020 after all and no one, okay, almost no one wants to read Fennimore Cooper-style descriptions of trees. There must be a palatable mix, the best of both worlds in my opinion, and this is what I have attempted to do in Striking Balance.

But let’s get back to that Molly in the dogtrot, shall we?

In the late 18th century, a molly was a lazy male and a dogtrot was and still is a common form of frontier housing where close-set cabins are joined by a breezeway, space where a dog can trot through, hence dogtrot. So a Molly in a dogtrot… a lazy man in a double cabin with a breezeway.

And a powder head eating pottage? A powder head was a man of means who wore a powdered wig while pottage was a stew made from whatever was available at the time, often kept near the fire and added to for days on end. Yum. So a wealthy man gorging on vintage leftovers? Not happening.

Yeah, I’m a word nerd but the sort who plugs the choicest words and phrases into their historical novel.

But first, why do so many historical novels written by modern authors not use contractions in any form? I believe the authors are trying to reflect the formal writing of whatever time period they’ve set their story in. Yes, earlier formal writings did not include contractions, but journals and letters of the time did, and people have used contractions in their speech since… forever. That said, contractions inside fiction didn’t come into wide usage until the latter 19th to early 20th century, so… Let’s just say that I choose not to do as authors have. Let the characters’ speech be realistic and the narrative reflects the setting so that it’s accessible to the modern reader but still representative of the time period.

Now here are a handful of the Word Nerd selections from my #Rainbowsnippets from early in Striking Balance.

Apartment: during this novel’s time period apartment refers to a private room or set of private rooms,  not a separate residence. Your bedroom would be called your apartment.

Learned versus learnt: While learnt is archaic in the modern U.S. (even Grammarly tells me it’s wrong), I have seen it used in contemporary British English, which I find very interesting considering it’s still commonly used in Appalachia, the probable result of our strong Scots-Irish roots (We’re most certainly not exclusively Scots-Irish blood. No, we’re much more complicated). We hold tightly to our dialect even when people tell us how ignorant we sound. Yes, ignorant… even those of us with multiple degrees including PhDs. It’s disheartening.

Journeyed: to work at a journeyman’s status. The main character in Striking Balance, Ben’s, father spent time as a journeyman baker.

Mutti: Informal German for mom. Ben’s parents are German, his father from the North Carolina German-speaking Moravian Protestant colony that settled in what’s now the Raleigh-Durham area and his mother, a German Palatine through England like my own family though via a different route. As you might guess, you’ll come across bits of German via Ben throughout the novel since we’re in his POV.

Baited: fed (generally used when referring to animals)

And here are a few of my choices from elsewhere in the novel.

  • Arsey-varsey – face-first
  • Beau nasty – well dressed but dirty beneath one’s clothing
  • Flicker/ flickering – grin/grinning
  • High ropes – really upset, highly distressed
  • Jimmy john – a green corn liquor, also called demi-john
  • Marriage yoke – wedding band
  • Rurnt – ruined (more dialect than anything, but I grew up hearing it and am fairly certain it was spoken in the 18th century as well.)
  • Sick with the idles – with no will to work, very lazy
  • Wrapped in warm flannel – tipsy

Fun? I thought so, but then again I’m a word nerd. All told, there are 158 terms/phrases in the Striking Balance Glossary, which is why I suggest readers bookmark the glossary before they read. It isn’t that the novel will be difficult to read without knowing the terms, rather, it’s more fun knowing what each insult or phrase means in context.

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