“Regency” is the era in England when the Prince of Wales was Regent, or the ruler, in place of his father, King George III who was declared legal unfit to rule due to madness. Because he was the Prince Regent, the period is called the Regency. The true Regency officially began in 1811 and ended in 1820 when George III died, and his son, Prince George became King George IV.
However, there is also an expanded Regency era which spanned from the late 18th century until Queen Victorian took the throne. This expanded Regency era is marked by classical influences and elegant designs. Books written by Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen made it famous. When people think of Regency, they often think of books and movies such as Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and most of all, Pride and Prejudice. The Regency has its own terminology with which the modern reader may not be familiar.
The following are a few terms I often use in my books, or that you may find in other Regencies, that bear explanation:
Abigail: A term for a lady’s maid. A coveted position within a household among servants, she cared for her lady’s needs including grooming, dressing, and personal care, as well as her lady’s clothing.
Almack’s: Assembly rooms on King Street in London which held exclusive subscription balls each Wednesday night of the Season. Only those deemed worthy by the fastidious patronesses were awarded vouchers to enter. Said patronesses could be fussy about which ladies were allowed to attend, but reportedly weren’t quite as discriminating about the gentlemen allowed to enter such hallowed halls.
Apoplexy: A stroke.
Banns: Public announcement in church of a proposed marriage. The banns were posted on the outside of the church and read aloud during church service for three consecutive Sundays, accompanied with a query as to whether anyone knew of any reason why the couple should not wed. This was done in the parishes of both the bride and groom. Once the banns were read three times, without objection, the cleric issued a certificate allowing the couple to marry at one of their parish churches. People could marry by banns without having to purchase a marriage license, or they could purchase a marriage license and skip the reading of the banns.
Bluestocking: A girl or woman with an unfashionable interest in intellectual and literary pursuits, often with a scientific bent.
Bow Street Runner: The forerunner of Scotland Yard, the Bow Street Runners were established in the mid-18th century by the magistrate of the Bow Street court, Henry Fielding which revolutionized police work.
Chit: an unflattering term for a young woman or a girl.
Chilblains: a painful inflammation of small blood vessels brought on from exposure to cold.
Cit: an insulting term for someone who make his money as a member of the merchant class, especially in London.
Cravat: a neckcloth, usually with an elaborate knot.
Cut direct: A deliberate, public snub.
Demi-monde: A term which referred to courtesans, prostitutes, etc. Literally the meaning is “half world.”
Dowager: The widow of a peer, i.e. the “Dowager Duchess of York.” The term was added to a widow’s title when she received the dower and the new heir married. It was seldom used in speech unless it was to differentiated her from the wife of the new peer. Normally, the term only appeared in writing such as letters and legal documents.
Corinthian: A stylist, athletic man whose favorite pasttimes were racing, hunting, fencing, etc. Some Corinthians even wore a specific knot in their cravats to signify their preferences.
Coxcomb: A pretentious, conceited fop or ridiculous dandy.
Crush: A large crowd attending a party.
Dandy: a gentleman who is fastidious about fashion.
Entail: An inheritance of real estate or property which cannot be sold by the owner. Upon the owner’s death, the entailed property passes to the owner’s heir–the first born son if there is one. If the owner has no son, the property goes to the late owner’s brother’s first born son if one exists, and so forth. An entail kept the land intact in the main line of succession.
Fop: an ostentatiously dressed gentleman who spends too much time and money on his looks, often thought of as excessive and even effeminate.
Frockcoat: the coat or jacket a gentleman wore over his shirt and waistcoat, rather like today’s suit coat. I recently learned that it was worn during the Georgian and Victorian Eras, but not during the Regency.
Footman: a male servant, usually wearing a special uniform called “livery” who worked in the home and waited on the family. Often they were the fetch-and-carry kind of servant who might be sent to deliver a message, or follow the lady as she shopped to protect her and to carry her packages, and so forth. A well-mannered young man who was tall with a muscular build was often chosen for this coveted position. It was fashionable to have very attractive footmen.
Gaol: jail, prison, often a sentence akin to death since typhus, known as gaol-fever killed so many before they ever stood trial or finished their sentences.
Guinea: A gold coin worth 21 shillings.
Hell (i.e. gaming hell): A gambling establishment, less respectable than the elite gentlemen’s clubs, providing opportunities for gambling and betting.
Jarvey: The driver of a hackney coach or cab.
Jointure: A financial provision for a widow. Typically the amount is negotiated based on the portion she brought to the marriage, and is generally established as part of the marriage settlement.
Laudanum: A mixture of brandy and opium used to treat pain or to aid sleep.
Mayfair: A desirable and expensive residential neighborhood.
Missish: an adjective for a girl who is naive and inexperienced in society and tends to be silly or easily cowed.
Modiste: A lady’s dressmaker, often either French or pretending to be.
On the Shelf: a term referring to a spinster no longer in her first blush of youth and not considered a likely candidate for marriage due to her age.
Outrider: an armed rider who accompanies a carriage, sort of like an advance guard, to keep an eye out for highwaymen. Sometimes they used forward and rearward outriders.
Pianoforte: An early version of the piano developed about 1730. Unlike the harpsichord, the pianoforte could be played softly (piano) or loudly (forte). The full Italian term is gravicèmbalo col piano e forte (the literal translation is “harpsichord with soft and loud”).
Pelisse: a lightweight overcoat worn to protect ladies’ gowns from dust, smoke, and mud.
Rake: A dissolute libertine who indulges in excessive drinking, gambling, and debauchery. In romance novels, most often rake is incorrectly used interchangeably with “playboy” or “womanizer.”
Rout: A crowded party with no music or dancing or places to sit but people went because it was a place to see and be seen.
Season: The social “Season” began in early spring and lasted until the end of June. The Season typically followed the sitting of Parliament to amuse the families of the men who served in the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
Special license: A license obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury that granted the right to marry at any convenient time or place. Only people of influence could obtain one. People with special licenses often married in their homes but they could also marry in churches or anywhere else they chose to tie the knot. Special licenses were valid for 3 months. Without a special license, the banns had to be read and posted at the parish churches and marriages could only take place between 8:00 a.m. and noon in a parish in which one of the parties has resided for a minimum of 4 weeks.
Tailcoat: the fashionable coat gentlemen wore over their shirts and waistcoats every day. They could be square cut around the waist for formal attire, or sloped to the back for riding or more casual occasions.
Tiger: A small, young groom who wore an orange-and-black-striped waistcoat. His duty was to hold the horses’ reins when his master got into and out of the carriage. He also exercised the horses while his master was away from the carriage making business or social calls. Because of the location of his seat, he needed to be light so as not to throw off the balance of the carriage. It was considered fashionable to have very young tigers.
Ton (in italics): Fashionable Society, or the elite classes. Ton comes from the French word bon ton, which means good form, i.e. good manners, good breeding, etc. According to Candice Hern, “A person could be a member of the ton, attend ton events, or be said to have good ton (or bad ton).”
Vowels: Literally, they are I.O.U.s which could be written informally as a debt of honor or vowels could be a legal document. According to Regency Researcher Nancy Mayer, vowels were not enforceable by law if they were merely handwritten by the debtor. However, “Many gambling clubs had rooms they called ‘Jerusalem rooms’ where money lenders had agents write out legal debts. They were only issued to people of higher classes. An I.O.U. signed, witnessed and had a stamp attached to it was treated as a legal debt.”
Waistcoat (also spelled weskit because that’s how it’s pronounced): a vest that a gentleman wore over his shirt, often elaborately embroidered or striped in bright colors. This is similar to the vest men of today wear with a three-piece suit.