When to Call a Spade a Shovel


One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is getting the words right. How did they say goodbye in the 1700s? Or greet each other after the Civil War? And when did the guard on a train engine change from  horse catcher to cow catcher?

bookThese are just a couple of the treasures that can be found in my favorite research books I Hear America Talking and Listening to America Talk by Stuart Berg Flexner. The books not only give a fascinating peek into the past, but keep me from using a word before its time.

And  You Thought You Knew

Your Cowboys

Word meanings have changed through the years, sometimes dramatically. The word cowboy is a good example. Today, it might conjure up an image of a romantic hero, but it was originally a disparaging term for colonial settlers who let their cows roam rather than plow the land. Wait. It gets worse. During the Revolutionary War cowboy was a term for loyalist guerrillas who used cowbells to ambush patriotic farmers.




Fooling Around Victorian Style

I write romance so I’m especially interested in courting terms. Oddly enough—terms changed every decade starting with the 17th century when couples billed and cooed. I find this interesting since TV and other media wasn’t around to influence language.


Skipping forward to the 1860s the word lollygag meant to kiss and caress. (Ten years later the word meant to waste time.) During the 1870s couples were said to be lovey dovey, but by the end of the decade couples walked out together.   By 1890 couples favored sitting in the parlor to walking. That’s because they were too busy making goo-goo eyes to watch where they were going.

Tush Matters

bearI recently had a heroine fall on her patootie.  That word has only been around since the 1920s and originally meant girl. So I knew I couldn’t use it. Oddly enough the backside seems to be the body part with the most synonyms. Much to my surprise I discovered that the word fanny has been around since the 1860s, though no one knows for sure who Fanny was and why her name was used in such an odd way. Back porch was used in the 1880s and the modern sounding butt appeared in writing as early as 1859.


With all this talk about rear ends, it’s surprising that Victorians considered the word legs crude. If they admitted to owning such things they always referred to them as limbs or stems. As for bosoms, they hardly seemed to exist much before World War II, at least in print.


cowboyjpgOh Perdition!

I’m careful not to use objectionable language, but there are times that “oh, darn” just doesn’t cut it. My characters tend to be a passionate lot. Fortunately for me, so were the Victorians as their many euphemisms for swear words attests. George, ginger, Godfrey, golly, gosh, gracious and gravy it are just a few of the ways annoyance or anger was expressed in polite society.


There was also gee willikens and gee wiz and of course doggone.   Surprisingly the term blankety blank has been around since the 1880s.


As for when to call a spade a shovel, we can all relax. Both words have been around since 900 A.D.


Thinking back to my childhood I realize some terms I grew up with no longer exist. A couch in our house was called a davenport back then–don’t ask me why. My husband still insists upon calling the ‘fridge an icebox. What about you? Any words or phrases in your past that are no longer relevant?


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26 thoughts on “When to Call a Spade a Shovel”

  1. Margaret, I love learning about words! This is a great post. The only word I can think of right off hand (and it’s not one I use but my husband does) is ‘poke’. He means a sack of some kind to carry something in but I have no idea how that word can mean anything other than to poke someone with something. Of course, he is from the hills of NC, so I’m sure there is a logical explanation. When he does use it in the sack context, our kids just kind of stare at him with a blank look 🙂

    I’m excited about reading your new series! You’re one of my favs.

    • Hi Anne, lovely to hear from you. I guess I’m not the only one up at three a.m.

      I know about poke but that’s only because I once looked up the phrase “pig in a poke” to see what it meant. It turns out that the term refers to a pig in a paper bag or sack.

      I’m thinking that maybe the pig would “poke” his head out of the sack. Or maybe customers would “poke” the sack to see what they were buying.

      Poke used this way dates back to 14th century England. Fun stuff!

  2. Good morning, Margaret! I loved your post! I find it so interesting to read about different words of days gone by. Words are wonderful!!!! I, for some reason, still use the word britches. Whether I referred to changing my granddaughter’s diaper or telling my grandson his pants were dirty……britches just works for me!

    • Hi Melanie, I love the word britches and have used it myself in place of the word diapers. It’s a funny word and always makes me laugh.

      What’s interesting is that the original form of the word breeches meant trousers and that’s the current dictionary definition for the word britches. Yet I’ve heard many people use the word for diapers and even underpants.

  3. I remember my dad always saying “good gravy” as an exclamation. I grew up with my grandmother always calling the couch a davenport and I loved that word. I use it today just for fun. My kids like it too. 🙂 I wonder where that one came from??

    • Hi Susan, yes “gravy” was an euphemism for God and used quite freely.

      I love that someone else knows what a davenport is. I just looked up the word in “Listening to America” and found out that Davenport might have been the name of the manufacturing company. It’s a great word and so much more colorful than sofa or couch.

    • Hi Sherri, ah, yes. I have some British readers which is why I don’t use the word fanny in my stories.

      It reminds me of the time my daughter was attending the Cordon Bleu school of cooking in York. The instructor asked her to go to the office for rubbers. My red-faced daughter had no idea that rubbers was the British word for erasers.

  4. Gee nothing is coming to mind at the moment, but I know I heard things through the years… especially sayings. Sometimes I look at my mom with a what did you say face, lol.

  5. I’ve always enjoyed words and where they came from and why they are used. I do remember my two girls saying “going out” meant going steady for them where for me it just meant you were going somewhere lol.

  6. In reading Sherri’s entry about “rubbers” I was reminded that when I was little and it was snowing out my grandmother told us kids to put on our rubbers or in today’s words…. our rubber snowboots. That way we wouldn’t get our feet wet. If I remember that far back I think mine were red.

  7. Really enjoyed reading the comments. I recall several words we used way back when. The one that recently tripped me up was when I was at the post office and I said “I need 4 penny-post cards.” The clerk just looked at me as if I was not all there and said “Ma’am they are more than a penny” and I said “Well, I still need 4 of them.” I can remember when my parents called them “Penny postcards”
    Also, we NEVER said feminine products- they were always quietly referred to as Kotex or Those Things.

    • Shay, that makes me laugh. But it also makes me a nostalgic for the good old days. At least back then you knew what to call things and everyone spoke the same language. I don’t even know what to call a music listening system or device today. Ipod? CD player? Music player? Ireceiver? MP3 Player?

  8. I will have to look for those two books. They are just the type of thing I would pick up and enjoy.
    I have heard long thing you sit on in the living room called the sofa, a couch, and a davenport.
    I can’t think of any term I used for things that isn’t in use right now. I know my kids give me a hard time about phrases or terms I use like persnickety.

    I look forward to your new series. Always enjoy your books.

  9. Hi Margaret, so sorry to be so late getting here. We’ve had the grandbaby all week and as amazing as he is, I was clearly reminded why motherhood is for the young LOL. Anyway, this post is terrific. I don’t think I’d be so annoying as to check if an author has used a term correctly within a DECADE, but I sure don’t like it when the “voice” of a historical book is way too modern. Thanks for all your hard work getting it correct.
    I just remember my mom saying brassiere (sp.) instead of, simply, bra, and actually using the “M” word instead of your period. Sheesh. Oh, and she loved galoshes.

  10. Thanks for all this information. I really enjoyed learning about it. So I interesting! The funny things we do with our language. I grew up with my mom always asking me to give her some sugar, she still says it and my daughter’s look at me strangely wondering what she wants sometimes. I interpret. It means give her a kiss. We use dinner for supper now.

  11. Tanya, I know what you mean about babies being for the young (the very young).

    I remember hearing the word brassiere. I think it became bra during the Women’s Liberation Movement. It just shows how quickly language can change.

    88 (term used on telegraphs for hugs and kisses)

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