When I was working on my mashup novel of Persuasion and Much Ado About Nothing, I learned a neat little factoid. You know the line in Persuasion where it says of Mrs. Clay that she “had returned, after an unprosperous marriage, to her father’s house, with the additional burthen of two children”? I always thought that “burthen” was just an archaic spelling of “burden,” like “ancle” for “ankle.” It turns out, though, that burthen is an obsolete nautical term for the tonnage of a ship based on the number of tuns of wine that it could carry in its holds. There’s an extra little nod to ships in Persuasion that I had never noticed before!
No doubt I find this more interesting than the average person does. I’m afraid I’m a word-lover—a logophile. One of my favorite college classes was “The History of the English Language,” and I annoyed my roommates and even mere acquaintances by constantly saying things like, “Do you know where the word ‘farthing’ comes from? It was worth a fourth of a penny and was called a ‘fourthling’ which then morphed into ‘farthing.’” Of course since half my friends were math or engineering majors and probably didn’t even know farthings existed, you have to be impressed by their patience and continued friendship.
Jane Austen’s novels are full of fun words that I would love to see brought back into common use. When Northanger Abbey states that Catherine “had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead,” we get a great picture of someone who is full of empty talk. I would love to be able to say “That politician is nothing but a rattle” and have everyone know what I meant.
Another word that has fallen out of usage in America is “dressed” in the sense of preparing food. Kitty and Lydia Bennet “dressed” a salad and Mr. Woodhouse talked about “dressing a leg of pork.” The term is still used sometimes in Britian and Ireland. There is a saying people use when talking about an old person trying to appear young: “mutton dressed as lamb.” I was surprised (but delighted) about twenty years ago when I went to a McDonald’s in Ireland and ordered a hamburger that had optional toppings: I was asked, “Would you like it dressed?” My Irish husband had to prompt me: “She means, do you want the lettuce and bacon on it?” Of course, Americans do talk about “dressed crab” and “salad dressing” and an old word for stuffing is “dressing,” so there’s a remnant of that meaning still in our dialect.
Jane Austen did coin a few words herself: do-nothing-ness hasn’t really caught on, nor imaginist, but in-betweens and grown-ups certainly did! Another word she seems to have invented, used in one of her letters, is nidgetty: “I have been enabled to give a considerable improvement of dignity to my Cap, which was before too nidgetty to please me.”
I could go on and on, but anyone who really finds this fascinating should get a copy of Jane Austen’s English by K.C. Phillips and get lost in the amazingly detailed analysis of her vocabulary, word choices, and grammar.
What words did Jane Austen introduce you to?