WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Mort

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Mort

That moment when the French and Latin word for death becomes Thieves’ Cant slang for woman.



Woman or wench; also a yeoman’s daughter; when used by itself, denotes a girl or woman of loose morals; canting jargon of unknown origin from at least 1560s.

Maybe the connection to the word for death has something to do with the morality, or lack thereof, associated with this slang. Loose morals usually meant a worker in the sex trade, which usually meant an unfortunate association with mortality – early death. No matter the derivation, it’s not a flattering term in the least.

Well, just as we discovered with cove for gentlemen, when you add the right adjective, the character of women called mort becomes more apparent:

autem mort ~ a married woman; also a female beggar who hired or borrowed children for larger gain

Jane Gibbs – Mrs Gibbs the Notorious Street Walker and Extorter by James Gillray, 1799, National Portrait Gallery.

bingo mort ~ a female dram drinker; one who spirituous liquors in small amounts

bleached mort ~ a fair complexioned wench

dimber mort ~ a pretty wench

The Graces in High Wind – a Scene taken from Nature in Kensington Gardens by James Gillray, 1810, British Museum.

filching mort ~ a woman thief

gentry mort ~ a gentlewoman

Following the Fashion – St James’s giving the TON a Soul without a Body – Cheapside aping the MODE, a Body without a Soul by James Gillray, 1794, British Museum.

kinchin mort ~ a young girl, usually an orphan, trained as a thief

nazy mort ~ a drunken woman

DIDO, in Despair! by James Gillray, 1801, British Museum.

queer mort ~ a diseased strumpet; also queere mort

rome or rum mort ~ a queen or great lady

Launching a Frigate by James Gillray, 1790s, Public Domain.

strolling mort ~ beggar or peddler pretending to be a widow

mort wap-apace ~ a woman of experience, or very expert at the sport of copulation

Female Curiosity by James Gillray, 1778, National Portrait Gallery.


Words and definitions taken from the Online Etymological DictionaryCant: A Gentleman’s Guide, and the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Prime Article

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Prime Article

Last week it was handsome gents. It’s only fair that the ladies get their turn. And just like last week, it’s Sir Thomas Lawrence whose brush was busy with flattering feminine portraiture.

Prime Article

A handsome woman. From whip slang, meaning she is quite the thing, well done, and an excellent and bang up woman; a hell of a goer.

Honestly, I hope my gravestone reads “She was a hell of a goer.”

Portrait of Elizabeth, Mrs. Horsley Palmer, date unknown, Sotheby’s.

Portrait of Elizabeth Farren by Sir Thomas Lawrence, before 1791, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Conyngham by Sir Thomas Lawrence, between 1821-1824, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.

Portrait of Lady Jane Long by Sir Thomas Lawrence, unknown date, Public Domain.

Portrait of Lady Emily, Lady Berkeley by Sir Thomas Lawrence, before 1791, location unknown.

Portrait of Miss Caroline Fry by Sir Thomas Lawrence, between 1820-1830, Brooklyn Museum.

Louisa Montagu, Viscountess Hinchingbrook by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1804, Christie’s.

Portrait of a Lady by Sir Thomas Lawrence, early 1790s, Denver Art Museum.

One of Sir Thomas’s most famous works:

Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1794, Huntington Library.

And one not by Sir Thomas, but in his style. And yet another Elizabeth.

Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Leveson-Gower by Henry T. Greenhead in the style of Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1891, Private Collection.


Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Green Sickness

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Green Sickness

This week’s word is one of those that make you laugh and roll your eyes at the same time. Oh, the taint of virginity on one’s health – the concept implied physical affliction but reality revealed true financial miseries to be the main component. Back in the day, a woman married to survive. Literally.

Perhaps that thought would make one ill.

A girl fainting and collapsing into the arms of a woman, engraving by W. Sedgwick after E. Penny, Wellcome Images (alternative title, Apparent Dissolution).

Green Sickness

The disease of maids occasioned by celibacy.

William Savage, who writes historical mystery novels and blogs at Pen and Pension, has a thorough post on this topic that I encourage you to visit ~ The Cure for Green Sickness. He hooks interest with the first few sentences:

‘Green sickness’ was described as a condition ‘peculiar to virgins’, which was said to turn the skin a greenish colour and leave the sufferer weak and melancholic. It was also believed to be common throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in girls approaching puberty and in thin and languid young women.

Perhaps she’s dressed in a smart green pelisse to ward off the vile Green Sickness. Walking Dress, fashion plate from La Belle Assemblée, April 1817, public domain.

Are your eyes rolling yet?

Barbara W. Swords wrote an essay comparing the actual status of women during Jane Austen’s time versus the Lady’s representation of women in her works. It’s a historically-rich read for any connoisseur of the era and Austen, but for this week’s purposes of adding sardonic laughter and a groan or two, I adore this quote from a 1770 parliamentary statute (purloined from Ms. Swords’ treatise A Woman’s Economic Opportunities During the Regency Era).

Here we go:

All women of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgin maid or widow, that shall from and after such Act impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, ironstays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanors, and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.

It is amazing that parliament omitted those ladies of a greenish hue that were desperate to obtain the marriage cure for their sickness. The beautiful lady above scoffs at the notion of Green Sickness, although perhaps she’ll regret such an in-your-face skewering when she reads about the deadly Regency pigments of Emerald Green and Paris Green at Jane Austen’s Regency World.

But that’s a post for another week.

Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. The rest of the links are highlighted in the post. Read and enjoy!

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Fice

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Fice

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


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:

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Long Meg

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Long Meg

I happen to adore this week’s Word of the Week. I’ve been taller than average since my eight-week, well-baby checkup. I’ve been asked how the weather is up there, to put things up or take things down from high shelves, and I wore flats when I married.

But from whence did this week’s slang arise?

Well … it’s a sobriquet that has no definitive origin, but plenty of definitive documentation. It first appeared in a play, but it’s unclear whether the term was the creation of the writer, or an allusion to a real person. So unlike other words I’ve chosen, this slang term has always been slang. It’s merely been moved from the realm of the written into the physical.

Long Meg (noun)

A very tall Woman [sic]. Also a jeering name for a very tall woman: from one famous in story, called Long Meg of Westminster.

The Admiral’s players (actors Alleyn, Jones, and Singer, supported by Lord Admiral, Charles Howard) premiered “Long Meg of Westminster” on 14 February 1595. Performances spanned the spring and fall seasons and, according to Henslowe’s thorough record-keeping, we know the returned receipts avereaged more than 34s. “Long Meg” returned to the stage sporadically over the next several years before fading into obscurity.

Performance records of the play Long Meg of Westminster from Henslowe's Diary 14 of febreary 1594

Performance records of the play Long Meg of Westminster, from Henslowe’s Diary, 14 of Febreary 1594

The next incarnation of Long Meg turned narrative: The Life of Long Meg of Westminster (1635) is the oldest extant copy of literary Long Meg. The book features eighteen adventures of Meg, “a woman … of late memory, and well beloued, spoken on of all, and knowne of many. This tome is valuable in itself for the fantastic subtitle alone:

“The life of Long Meg of Westminster: containing the mad merry pranks she played in her life time, not onely in performing sundry quarrels with divers ruffians about London, but also how valiantly she behaued her selfe in the warres of Bolloingne”

The Life of Long Meg of Westminster by an Unknown Author, 1635.

The Life of Long Meg of Westminster by an Unknown Author, 1635.

Our next visit from Meg sounds thorough: The Whole Life and Death of Long Meg of Westminster (1750). Ironically enough, while this edition brings terrific illustrations, there are actually fewer “mad merry pranks.”

Long Meg of Westministe rplay: Meg with her Laundry Paddle.

Long Meg of Westminister, play: Meg with her Laundry Paddle.

Long Meg of Westminster play: Meg beats Willis the Carrier

Long Meg of Westminster, play: Meg beats Willis the Carrier

This incarnation does include the stories from the original stage play, but omits five of her adventures.

The Whole Life and Death of Long Meg of Westminster, 1750.

The Whole Life and Death of Long Meg of Westminster, 1750.

So we have Long Meg of the written world, but what of the physical?

According to 17th Century English historian Thomas Fuller, the term “Long Meg” is applicable to anything “of hop-pole height, wanting breadth proportionable thereunto.”

Thomas Fuller on the attributive "Long Meg" in The History of the Worthies of England, 1662.

Thomas Fuller on the attributive “Long Meg” in The History of the Worthies of England, 1662.

The large, blue-black marble over the grave of Gervase de Blois is known as the “Long Meg of Westminster Abbey.” According to the site’s searchable database, Gervase de Blois was the natural (i.e., illegitimate) son of King Stephen, and served as abbot of Westminster from about 1137 until he was deposed in 1157. He has no effigy, so I could not find this allegedly tall drink of marble.

The Mons Meg of Scotland, that mightiest of medieval bombard cannons, sits proudly outside St. Mary’s Chapel at Edinburgh Castle. “Mons” from the city in Belgium where it was forged; “Meg” from the vertically blessed Long Meg. This siege cannon dates from 1449, when Phillip III, Duke of Burgandy, ordered its manufacture. It has fantastic associated folklore:

When James the Second arrived with an army at Carlingwark, to besiege the Castle of Threave, the McLellans presented him with the piece of ordnance now called ‘Mons Meg.’ The first discharge of this great gun is said to have consisted of a peck of powder and a granite ball nearly as heavy as a Galloway cow. This ball is believed, in its course through the Castle of Threave, to have carried away the hand of Margaret de Douglas, commonly called the Fair Maid of Galloway, as she sat at table with her lord, and was in the act of raising the wine-cup to her lips. Old people still maintain that the vengeance of God was thereby evidently manifested, in destroying the hand which had been given in wedlock to two brothers, and that even while the lawful spouse of the first was alive. (from The True Story of the Mons Meg; link below)

In The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the September 1769 Edinburgh Antiquarian Magazine writes of “Peter Branan, aged 104, who was six feet six inches high, and was commonly called Long Meg of Westminster.” Now that’s and insult!

The Edinburgh Antiquarian Magazine

Finally, in Penrith, Cumbria, we find a circle of 67-77 stones (depending on what year you count them), some up to six feet in height. Off to the southern side, by itself, is a single stone some seventeen feet tall. For the purposes of this post, I won’t speculate on origin, purpose, or potential alien involvement. I’ll simply mention the arrangement has been dubbed Long Meg and Her Daughters.

Long Meg and Her Daughters: Little Salkeld, Penrith, Cumbria.

Long Meg and Her Daughters: Little Salkeld, Penrith, Cumbria.

Long Meg. Little Salkeld, Penright, Cumbria.

Long Meg. Little Salkeld, Penright, Cumbria.

Stand tall, Long Megs! (Pun intended)


We’re Beautiful.

Beautiful.  What does that word even mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines beautiful as “excelling in grace of form, charm of colouring, and other qualities which delight the eye, and call forth admiration.”  Yikes.

look great see no one

The most popular definition at Urban Dictionary says, “Beautiful is a woman who has a distinctive personality, one who can laugh at anything, including themselves, who is especially kind and caring to others.”  Now this definition, I love.

sweat pants cheerleader

Different cultures have different standards of beauty, and those standards have evolved over hundreds of years under the such diverse influences as economics, norms, fashion, and even religious beliefs.

Author, historian, researcher, and all-around Wonder Woman, Geri Walton, blogged this week about Ideas of Female Beauty in the 1700s and 1800s.  It’s a fascinatingly specific essay on what people – and especially men – considered beautiful two and three hundred years ago.  Some ideals seem a touch odd today, like round knees, white shoulders, an unaffected air, or a smooth, high forehead.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the characteristics called beautiful are still used as measures today: youth, smooth skin, straight teeth, and plenty of bosom.

If there’s one thing history can teach us about beauty, it’s that someone will always be around to judge who they think is or isn’t qualified to wear the adjective.  So it’s up to us to set our own standards, create our own definitions, and find what fits for us.

It’s just like Mr. Knightly said: “Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us perfect for one another.”  (For the purists: I know it was 1996 movie Mr. Knightly, or rather screenwriter Douglas McGrath, and not Jane Austen who gave us these words . . . but I’ll take them.  And Jeremy Northam.)

Do the clicky thingy and head over to read Geri’s post at 2Romance, and check out the beauty standards of yesteryear.  You might be surprised to see that a  few of the things we search for in our mirrors were the same things searched for in a foggy pier glass in a Georgian town house.

beauty isnt perfect