Test Your 19th-Century Slang

Header Image - 19th Ctry Slang

When it comes to nineteenth-century slang, are you a ninny or smart as a steel trap? Keep reading to find out!

Did you know, that if you called me a Kate, I would give you Jesse? I might even plant a sockdollager on your snout and knock you into a cocked hat. You’ll probably wind up in Job’s dock when I’m through. After all, I’ve been known to whip my weight in wild cats when I get wrathy. Now, don’t wake snakes. Any varmint what’s too much of a ninny to shut pan when he’s fuddled deserves what comes to him.

That reminds me: If you’re poor as Job’s turkey, I reckon you’d best steer clear of the groggery. Don’t think that you can pass the old orchard and pull foot. You can’t hornswoggle him and I hear-tell that owner’s savage as a meat axe when he’s in a pucker. He’ll exfluncticate you if you don’t pony-up before you absquatulate.

Cutting up didoes may be all the go among natty kids but it’ll land you in the block-house.

What’s that? You say you’ve got your own bucket shop? Well, ain’t you a huckleberry above a persimmon? Do-tell! And while you’re at it, let me know how much of this made sense to you and how much sounded like bunkum.

Need a dictionary? Here you go:

ninny = coot/idiot/simpleton

smart as a steel trap = particularly intelligent and quick

Kate = smart, brazen-faced woman

Jesse = hell

sockdollager = powerful punch or blow

cock your hat = knock someone senseless

Job’s dock = hospital

whip one’s weight in wild cats = defeat a powerful opponent

wrathy = angry

wake snakes = make a fuss

varmint = wild animal or objectionable person

shut pan = close one’s mouth

fuddled = drunk

poor as Job’s turkey = very poor

reckon = to think or guess

groggery = drinking establishment

old orchard = whiskey

pull foot = leave quickly

hornswoggle = to cheat; to pull the wool over one’s eyes

savage as a meat axe = extremely savage

pucker = in a state of anger

exfluncticate = to utterly destroy

pony-up = pay up

absquatulate = to take leave, to disappear

cutting up didoes = getting into mischief

all the go = in fashion

natty kids = young thieves

block-house = jail

bucket shop = gin mill; distillery

huckleberry above a persimmon = a cut above

Do-tell = express fascination in a way that encourages the speaker to continue

bunkum = nonsense

acknowledge the corn = to admit the truth; to confess

Which of these terms had you the most befuddled? Let me know in the comments below!

(NOTE: While these are true nineteenth-century terms, the above was written in good fun and should not be taken seriously.)

To learn more fun nineteenth-century terms, check out these sources:

19th Century Slang Dictionary (PDF)

Dictionary of Americanisms

Vocabulum – The Rogue’s Lexicon

Why I Want To Hi-Five Clara Barton


Clara Barton

I am in the midst of another round of research, this time looking into certain aspects of the Civil War, when I stumble across a letter written by Clara Barton that makes me wish I could go back in time and hi-five her.

I am sure many of you recognize the name of Clara Barton. Additionally, I would say most of you associate her name with nursing. What you may not know is that she also founded and ran an office which searched for the missing soldiers of the Civil War. Today the building where the office was located is a museum and the museum has made several valuable pieces of history available online for public viewing. Included in these are several primary sources, such as letters written by family members requesting Ms. Barton’s help in locating their loved ones.

This may sound quite sad to read, and I would imagine most are, however, one particular set of correspondence left me with a huge grin on my face and (as I mentioned before) wanting to give Clara Barton a very 21st-century hi-five.

The letters to which I am referring include:

  • a letter from a Eugenica Hitchins, who is searching for her brother (April 17, 1865),
  • a letter from the “missing” brother (Oct. 16, 1865), and
  • Clara’s retort (Oct. 23, 1865).

Yes, retort. It seems this particular brother wasn’t overly bothered with letting his family know that he was still alive and felt quite mortified by having his name “blazoned all over the county.” He callously demands to know “what he has done” to deserve this. He goes so far as to say that those concerned for his welfare should simply “wait until I see fit to write them.” I kid you not. Oh, and did I mention, his mother had also been looking for him until she died and his sister made a deathbed promise to their mother that she would find him?

The beauty, the glorious, fantastic part of this story, however, comes in Clara’s retort. You absolutely have to read it in full to truly appreciate it, but here’s a highlight for you:

“‘What you have done’ to render this necessary I certainly do not know. It seems to have been the misfortune of your family to think more of you than you do of them and probably more than you deserve from the manner in which you treat them.”

Oh, and it goes on from there. You can practically feel the heat of her righteous fury simmering on the page (or screen as it may be).

I am telling you, this is a lady I want to be friends with!

Originally published: February 4, 2016


Let’s chat!  Did you know about Clara Barton’s post-war efforts? If you had to guess, what would you say was this man’s reason for not contacting his family? What do you suppose happened after he received Clara’s letter? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Did You Know? – Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

Did You Know Chalk Board w Rustic Wood Frame & Daisy

Mission Model Photo
Part of a model of how the mission once looked which is on display in the Father Serra room at the mission.

According to its website, the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was “the first Franciscan mission in the Las Californias Province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.” I recently had the opportunity to visit this beautiful, if controversial, and historic location.

Inside SD Mission Sanctuary

This is a view from inside the mission’s sanctuary, facing the entry. I chose this angle because the choir balcony helps me visualize a part of its history many people are unaware of.

Following the Mexican-American War, in which the U.S. won control of California and other lands, the mission was occupied by the U.S. Army from 1848 to 1858. The interesting/sad part is how they used the grounds.

The Army converted this beautiful sanctuary into a two-story building. I’ve read that the downstairs was used as a stable and a docent at the mission told me the upstairs was used as an infirmary.

Mission San Diego Bell Tower
The rear view of the bell tower from inside the garden.

Though a cemetery already existed at the mission, the Army created their own military cemetery. It is rumored that they used the original cemetery as a place to conduct their drills, though I’ve been unable to confirm this.

Indian Cemetery Cross at Mission San Diego

The lovely garden picture above is located in a small courtyard just outside the sanctuary. The reddish object in the center of this photograph is the side view of one of the brick crosses symbolizing those buried on the mission grounds.

In 1862 President Lincoln “signed a document returning church buildings and some mission lands to Bishop Joseph E. Alemany, in trust ‘for religious purposes and uses.'”* Today, the mission serves as an active Catholic Church and cultural center. There are several historical displays, including an active archaeological dig and a small museum showcasing the history of the mission and the people who have lived there. If you are able, I highly recommend a visit to this incredible historical location. If time, money, or laziness are an issue for you, you can click on this link and scroll to the bottom for a virtual tour that can be enjoyed from the comforts of your own couch while lounging in your pajama bottoms.

Now you know.

Let’s Chat!

Have you visited Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala? Did you know any of these things about its history? Do you know what the round gray objects are in the last picture? Which California mission is your favorite?


Most people don’t know this part of Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala’s history! 

*Winifred Davidson in Carl Heilbron’s History of San Diego, 1936

(NOTE: If you’re a long-time reader and think this post looks familiar, you are correct.  A stomach bug visited my family this week. So I decided that rather than leave y’all hanging, I’d repost one of my oldest and most popular history posts. I hope you enjoyed it! Originally published October 23, 2015. )

Did You Know? – Ultimo & Instant

Did You Know Chalk Board w Rustic Wood Frame & Daisy

As a historical researcher, I still occasionally come across a word which I don’t recognize, but in the beginning, there were two words I saw repeatedly in the newspapers which absolutely drove me bonkers. I could not, just from the context, figure out exactly what they meant. I could guess. But guessing in this business isn’t ideal and hardly satisfying.

The two words were “instant” and “ultimo.” Now, of course, I was familiar with the word “instant” as we commonly use it today. However, the way it was being used in the articles didn’t appear to have anything to do with speed or immediacy.

For example, an article might say: “Mrs. Fancypants departed for town at precisely ten minutes past noon on the 6th ultimo and arrived in town at 3pm on the 18th instant.”

Say what now?

I asked the librarian in charge of the archives, but even she didn’t know what those words meant in that context.

However, a quick Google search easily solved my confusion.

It turns out that, when used this way, “ultimo” means “of last month” and “instant” means “of the current month.”

So the example sentence above could be rewritten as: “Mrs. Fancypants departed for town at precisely ten minutes past noon on the 6th of last month and arrived in town on the at 3pm the 18th of the current month.”

So there you go.

The next time you’re digging through old newspapers, you’ll know exactly what the reporter is trying to convey.


Let’s chat!

Have you ever come across old-fashioned words you didn’t recognize or didn’t understand the way they were being used?


Ultimo & Instant – These words may not mean what you think they do. 

Name That Decade

Name That Decade

I love pretty much anything to do with history, but it’s no secret that my favorite part of history is nineteenth-century American history. Today, we’re going to play a game to see how much you know about the different decades of the nineteenth century in America. I’m going to give you a clue and you have to decide whether that clue belongs to the 1800s, 1810s, 1820s, 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, or 1890s.


The cage crinoline or hoop grew to widespread use by the middle of this decade, relieving women of numerous petticoats and expanding skirts to their maximum size. Also, the steel hooped crinoline was patented.

Cultural Trends

These three decades encompassed phrenology’s first heyday, during which employers could demand a character reference from a local phrenologist to ensure that a prospective employee was honest and hard-working.


In this decade, William Blackstone of Indiana built his wife a washing machine as a birthday present. It was the first washing machine designed for convenient use in the home.

Major Events

This decade saw the rise and fall of The Great Rebellion.

Historical Figures

Mary Dixon Kies became the first American woman to be granted a patent in this decade.


In this decade, Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” (originally titled:  “Defense of Fort McHenry”) and set it to the tune of Anacreon in Heaven.


In this decade, American painter John Singer Sargent’s portrait of “Madame X” (also an American) caused a scandal upon its debut in Paris.


Colorado officially became a state in this decade.


The golden spike was driven to join the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States, connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in the final year of this decade.

Mail Service

The U.S. Post Office issued its first postage stamps in this decade. One (5 cents) depicted Benjamin Franklin. The other (10 cents), depicted George Washington.


Recipes for a cake named “angel food” began appearing in cookbooks during this decade. Also, printed references to desiccated eggs (dried eggs) began to appear.


Fashion – 1850s (Learn more.)

Cultural Trends – 1820s-1840s (Learn more.)

Inventions –  1870s (Learn more.) (Check out this fascinating video!)

Major Events – 1860s (Learn more about the final battle.)

Historical Figures – 1800s  (Learn more.)

Music –  1810s  (Learn more.)

Art –  1880s (Learn more.)

Statehood –  1870s  (Learn why it took so long.)

Travel –  1860s (Learn more.)

Mail Service – 1840s  (Learn more.)

Food –   1880s (Learn more about the history of angel food cake or dried eggs.)

How did you do? Did you have fun? If you’d like to see more posts like this, let me know!


Test your knowledge of nineteenth-century American history with this fun quiz! (CLICK TO TWEET!)

Can you Name That Decade? #AmericanHistory

Did You Know? – When Girls Become Women

Did You Know Chalk Board w Rustic Wood Frame & Daisy

“[Researchers] found that in 1860, the average age of the onset of puberty in girls was 16.6 years. In 1920, it was 14.6; in 1950, 13.1; 1980, 12.5; and in 2010, it had dropped to 10.5. Similar sets of figures have been reported for boys, albeit with a delay of around a year.” – McKie, Robin. “Onset of puberty in girls has fallen by five years since 1920.” TheGuardian.com. 20 Oct. 2012. Web. 9 Sept. 2017

Additionally, studies have shown that malnutrition can cause a delay in the age of puberty onset.

Why am I sharing this? Well, because it directly affects my novel set in the gold rush era of Northern California.

I never directly state my heroine’s age in the novel. However, events near the beginning of the book are (more or less) triggered by visible signs of puberty in my heroine. This necessarily dictates her approximate age for the rest of the book. (Take the approximate age of puberty, use the current chapter date to calculate the time elapsed since she reached puberty in the first chapter and you have her approximate age).

In initial critiques, I got a lot of pushback that my heroine was too young because readers were associating her physical changes with the ages at which girls experience those changes today. Most people, it seems, are unaware (or don’t make the connection) that girls of the past were so much older when these changes occurred for them.  Nor were they aware that the poverty-induced malnutrition my heroine suffered might have delayed the onset of her puberty.

It’s amazing how such small pieces of information can dramatically change our perspective on a story.

#nowyouknow 😉

Did You Know? – Lt. George Horatio Derby

Did You Know Chalk Board w Rustic Wood Frame & Daisy

If you visit the McCoy House located in Old Town San Diego and wander through its museum exhibits toward the back, you will discover a hidden gem. This is where I first encountered Lt. George Horatio Derby and his humorous writings. Later, I came across his name again in doing the research for my novel, WWM, in which my main character spends some time in 1854 San Diego.

It turns out Lt. Derby went by many names including:  John Phoenix, Squibob, & Professor John Phoenixiana.  These were pen names which he used for writing humorous articles enjoyed by readers throughout the country. Why so many? Well in one case a competing writer had assumed Derby’s pen name without permission and as a result, Lt. Derby decided to change his pen name altogether. In true Derby form, he did so by writing an obituary for his previous pen name.

In reading about Lt. Derby I discovered that he had something of a naughty sense of humor and was rather well known for his practical jokes. One of his most famous is the time he wrote and illustrated several tongue-in-cheek suggestions regarding the new design of the army’s uniform.

My favorite of his suggestions was this:


Part of the idea was that if a soldier attempted to desert during battle, the captain could merely use a long rope to lasso the soldier by the hook on his pants and drag him back to the front line! In the meantime, it was suggested, the hook could also be used to hang a pair of boots during a march or hang a pot over a fire at mealtimes. The story goes that the Secretary Jefferson did not appreciate Derby’s sense of humor and were it not for other officials pleading Derby’s case, he might have found himself in a heap of trouble!

The story of Lt. George Horatio Derby connects with the history of San Diego in 1853. Apparently, the river which is so nicely contained today once had the nerve to wander all over the land, sometimes emptying into San Diego Bay and other times ending in False Bay (now known as Mission Bay). Occasionally it even threatened the Old Town settlement. Worst of all, however, was the fear that it would drop so much silt into the San Diego Bay the bay would no longer be usable as a major harbor. So the government decided to do something about it and sent for Lt. Derby, whose day job was a soldier and engineer in the U.S. Army, to come oversee the building of a dike which would permanently divert the river into False Bay.

Lt. Derby employed local Native Americans to do the labor and spent his off time writing and playing jokes – including the time a Miss Whaley was dared into climbing into a cask which, once she was in, somehow managed to find itself rolling downhill with her inside. His humorous stories about San Diego during this time were extremely popular throughout the country. Unfortunately, his dike was not as successful, washing out in a storm just two years later. There would be several more attempts made by the government before the river was truly contained in the 1950’s.

The dike was not Derby’s only job here in San Diego. In fact, there was a time when the editor of the San Diego Herald, Judge J.J. Ames, had to go to San Francisco for a while on business and left Lt. Derby in charge. It will probably come as no surprise that all did not continue as usual in the Judge’s absence. Derby took the opportunity to essentially revamp the conservative paper into one full of wit, satire, and political articles opposed to the paper’s usual stance. Several of the local citizens took issue with Derby’s handling of political topics, though Judge Ames, upon his return, commented only, “Phoenix has played the ‘devil’ during our absence, but he has done it in such a good humored manner, that we have not a word to say.” Derby’s role as interim paper editor was rather short lived, though it did garner him national infamy (including catching the attention of Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln).

Derby eventually moved away from San Diego in 1855. Fortunately for my story, however, he was still in San Diego at the beginning of 1854 and if you get the chance to read my novel, you’ll see he makes a significant cameo appearance or two.

So now you know a little something about Lt. George Horatio Derby and his connection with San Diego.

What do you think of Lt. Derby’s suggestions for the army’s uniform?

Has anyone ever played a practical joke on you? Or have you played a joke on someone else?

I’d love to read about your stories in the comments below!