WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Pluck

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Pluck

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, the day we remember and honor those who died in active service to our country. Lives that were given to safeguard freedoms and protect those who stayed behind.

Without detracting from or denigrating the sacredness of this special day, I still wanted to use a slang term appropriate for today’s observation. I also found quotes from perhaps England’s most celebrated military general, the Duke of Wellington. Please indulge me as I use the words from the early 19th Century to illustrate the timelessness of the effects of war.

Pluck

Courage, boldness, (1785). Perhaps influenced by figurative use of the verb in pluck up (one’s courage, etc.), attested from c. 1300.

“Up, Guards, and at them again.”

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, at the Battle of Waterloo, as quoted in a letter from Captain Robert Batty, 1st Foot Guards (22 June 1815).

The Battle of Waterloo: The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Cuirassiers, oil on canvas, Henri Félis Emmanuel Philippoteaux, 1874, Victoria and Albert Museum

“It has been a damned serious business… Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.… By God! I don’t think it would have been done if I had not been there.”

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington; quote documented by Thomas Creevey, from a series of interviews he had with the Duke of Wellington at his headquarters after the Battle of Waterloo. From Chapter X of his book Creevey Papers.

La Bataille de Waterloo 18 Juin 1815 (The Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815), oil on canvas, Clément Auguste Andrieux, 1852

“The history of a battle,” says the greatest of living generals, “is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance…. It is impossible to say when each important occurrence took place, or in what order.”

From Wellington Papers, Aug. 8, and 17, 1815, as documented in The History of England from the Accession of James II (1848) by Thomas Babington Macaulay, Volume I Chapter 5.

Am Morgen nach der Schlacht von Waterloo (The Morning After the Battle of Waterloo), John Heaviside Clarke, 1816

Sir Walter Scott documented these observations of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815), in Paul’s Letters to His Kinsfolk (1815):

On another occasion, when many of the best and bravest men had fallen, and the event of the action seemed doubtful, even to those who remained, he said, with the coolness of a spectator, who was beholding some well contested sport, “Never mind, we’ll win this battle yet.” To another regent, then closely engaged, he used a common sporting expression; ” Hard pounding this, gentlemen; let’s see who will pound longest.”

All who heard him issue orders took confidence from his quick and decisive intellect, all who saw him caught metal from his undaunted composure. His staff, who had shared so many glories and dangers by his side, fell man by man around him, yet seemed in their own agony only to regard his safety.

Sir William Delancy, struck by a spent ball, fell from his horse—”Leave me to die,” he said to those who came to assist him. Also, the lamented Sir Alexander Gordon, whose early experience and high talents had already rendered him the object of so much hope and expectation, received his mortal wound while expostulating with the General on the personal danger to which he was exposing himself.

Lieutenant-Colonel Canning, and many of our lost heroes, died with the Duke’s name on their expiring lips. Amid the havoc which had been made among his immediate attendants, his Grace sent off a young gentleman, acting as aid-de-camp, to a general of brigade in another part of the field, with a message of importance. In returning he was shot through the lungs, but, as if supported by the resolution to do his duty, he rode up to the Duke of Wellington, delivered the answer to his message, and then dropped from his horse, to all appearance a dying man. In a word, if the most devoted attachment on the part of all who approached him, can add to the honours of a hero, never did a general receive so many and such affecting proofs of it; and their devotion was repaid by bis sense of its value and sorrow for their loss.

“Believe me,” he afterwards said, “that nothing, excepting a battle lost, can be half so melancholy as a battle won. The bravery of my troops has hitherto saved me from that great evil; but, I win even such a battle as this of Waterloo at the expense of the lives of so many gallant friends, it could only be termed a heavy misfortune were it not for its results to the public benefit.”

 

Over all our happy country – over all our Nation spread,
Is a band of noble heroes – is our Army of the Dead.
~ Will Carleton

 

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Fice

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Fice

Three cheers for feisty heroines in Regency Romance, right?!

Umm…well….

You go, grrl. A woman driving a high perch phaeton by Thomas Rowlandson.

You go, grrl. A woman driving a high perch phaeton by Thomas Rowlandson.

Feisty is one of those potentially pesky anachronisms that look good on paper but don’t stand up to etymological scrutiny. Authors mean for their heroines to be courageous, spirited, lively, and bold, yet still cut a proper figure in society. They aren’t intimating their leading ladies are, in fact, late-Victorian era Americans who are “aggressive, exuberant, or touchy” lasses with a whiff of “stinking cur dog” who’ve time traveled back to Georgian England.

But that’s exactly what feisty means.

Elizabeth Stokes, Lady Bareknuckles

Elizabeth Stokes, Lady Bareknuckles

It’s an adjective from 1896 American English, and it’s not at all attractive or empowering when applied to a lady. In fact, feisty hails from fysting curre (stinking cur) from the 1520s, which in turns hails from the mid-15th Century Middle English fysten/fisten, meaning to break wind. It’s goes fully vulgar in both Danish (fise) and German (fistiz): a fart.

So that feisty heroine is a she-dog with room-clearing digestive issues.

Mary Read, lady pirate

Mary Read, lady pirate

But what about the argument that modern readers will apply the modern definition and admire that spunky daughter of an Earl who won’t bend to the will of man, mother, or Society? If the word really fits, and readers won’t be tripped up, should we chance it?

Consider the current, modern definition of feisty:

  1. Full of nervous energy; fidgety; touchy, quarrelsome; exuberantly frisky
  2. Having or showing a lively aggressiveness

Obstinate Headstrong Girl author Renée Reynolds

Despite the definition still being a bit unflattering, I think most people assume and associate feisty with positive connotations – the woman who won’t take no for an answer, fights for what she wants or those she loves, and won’t give up until all options are exhausted. Is feisty an auto-antonym (also known as contranym, antagonym, enantiodrome, or antilogy)? Does feisty have multiple meanings, with one defined as the opposite of its other meanings?

It seems likely. But Dame Helen Mirren DBE still says just say no.

Two phrases I hate in reference to female characters are ‘strong’ and ‘feisty.’ They really annoy me. It’s the most condescending thing. You say that about a three-year-old. It infantilises women.

I’m not completely sold that I ever want to be described as feisty, but I’m a wordy girl, so I’ll take plucky, intrepid, cheeky, or even mettlesome instead.

To be on the safe, historically correct side, here’s a contemporaneous Word of the Week with connections to feisty. Although a noun rather than adjective, it would be a comically-inspired addition to a plot line about the lady-of-a-certain-age character (but not so much the bold rosebud of a heroine). I’m looking at you, Lady Bertram.

Aunt Norris gives her opinion while Lady Bertram and her pug receive it, in Mansfield Park by the Indianapolis Opera.

Aunt Norris, Lady Bertram, and Pug, in Mansfield Park by the Indianapolis Opera.

Fice (noun)

A small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies and charged to their lap-dogs. See also, fizzle.

Ye olde silent-but-deadly, by jove.

So what’s the moral of this post? I love a strong heroine, and they are not an historical anachronism. I believe every generation is full of women who know the rules and how to work them, or break them to build better ones, without causing utter chaos nor bringing degradation to all who know her. However, the next time you read a Regency Romance with a feisty heroine, I recommend using your best judgment when deciding if it’s an unforgiveable anachronism or misunderstood modern definition.

Just try not to picture her breaking wind.

Want some proof that history is positively rife with modern-in-any-age women (as well as bust a few myths about sexual mores and gender roles in the Georgian era)? Have a gander: