Baby Cake to Patty Cake


If you want to learn about a different culture, learn its language. Even if the language is the same, the time and context of otherwise familiar words can change their meaning. At least, this has been my experience when studying French and German, as well as in my investigation of the late Victorian era. That being said, some people will tell you that if you want to learn about a different culture, you have to eat its food.

Victorians loved their cake. The word cake has Scandinavian roots and, in Middle English, described a flat bread roll. The first thing I find, when searching the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for 19th-century words containing “cake,” is ash-cake, which first appeared in English in 1809 and refers to a cake that is cooked in the ashes of a fire. This recipe was popular in English colonies, where resources were scarce. Looking over that recipe, I think it needs more butter, and then, I want a scone!

Through colonizing the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek People, English-speakers learned to make corn cake, a cake often associated with the American South, which actually belonged to its indigenous people.

“Baby-cake” doesn’t mean what you think it means, but is a seventeenth-century word that was still popular in the nineteenth century and used to describe cakes with a prize baked inside. The prize might be a bean, though I can’t imagine being pleased to find a bean in my cake, but coins were popular hidden treasures as well. I remember my mom baked me a birthday cake like this once when I was a child.

Sponge cake recipes date back to the seventeenth century, but they weren’t called such until one was named after Queen Victoria, who ate them every day! Saturate that cake in alcohol, or cordial, for a chance to use another Victorian word: “tipsy-cake.” If it’s saturated in booze, you’d think it would be properly drunk, but “tipsy” is a more delicate word by a mile.


In 1801, Coenraad Johannes van Houten was born in Amsterdam. He would grow up to be a chemist, who would make chocolate cheaper, saltier, sweeter, and easier to use, introducing Dutch Chocolate to the world and allowing the creation of modern conceptions of chocolate, like chocolate-, or “cocoa-cake,” an 1883 word.

The OED places the coining of the term “pat-a-cake” back to 1883, but, if you view the term as a variation of “Patty Cake,” it goes back to Thomas D’Urfey’s The Campaigners (1698).

Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man, Bake me a cake as fast as you can; Pat it and prick it, and mark it with a B, Put it in the oven for baby and me.

In nineteenth-century American slang, however, “patty cake” referred to the pastry, while “pat-a-cake” described the game played with clapping hands. “Patty cake” might have been used to describe one of America’s greatest inventions, until the term “cupcake” was invented. The first American cookbook writer, Amelia Simmons invented the cupcake with her publication of American Cookery (1796), but Eliza Leslie (also American) coined the term in 1828.

Now, if you will excuse me, I might just go and bake a cake with one of, my friend, Lili’s amazing recipes!

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Catwampous is a hysterical word. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first places it in an 1840 printing of the Spirit of the Times, which was a New York publication. However, lexicographers guess that the word came about as a British lampoon of the way Americans spoke. It has two alternative spellings: ‘cattywampus’ and ‘catawampus,’ which is chiefly American.

There’s something poetic about Americans taking a word that the British used to make fun of them and spelling it differently.

In the OED, the catawampus (with the American spelling) became a fierce imaginary animal, like a crocodile that could fly. If my imagination could magnify the no-see-ums in Florida, they would look like catawampuses.


American dictionaries define the word as askew, awry. Catawampus is messed up. With an O and a British accent it becomes fierce. I recommend it as an intensifier.

Intensifier. a word, especially an adverb, or other linguistic element that indicates, and usually increases, the degree of emphasis or force to be given to the element it modifies, as very or somewhat; intensive adverb.

However, in this case, I still feel it understates how horrible those tiny invisible bugs in Florida are.

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Serenity through the ambiguity of language


Serenity‘ is an old word –  even for this dictionary. It dates back to 1525. It’s been spelled ‘serenyte,’ ‘serenitie,’ and ‘serenity.’ Someone once told me that they thought it meant peace. I think of it as a decadent kind of peacefulness, in which you can read and really listen to the words in your head.

“How can one be a quietist in London? I never get a moment’s real quiet. This morning I went to St Barnabas and thought I should be quiet there but carpenters came in and sawed wood until I went away.” – Constance Wilde, quoted in Frany Moyle, “Constance: the Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde,” (2014).

Typical of her time, Constance Wilde explored spirituality and meditation with a passion, she was looking for peace of mind to ease her poor health. Quietism seemed to me the greatest quest for serenity.

Quietism is a form of Christian worship, in which one seeks to become one with the divine. It is a form of meditation, thought to bring you closer to God.

Quietist philosophers view the discipline as broadly therapeutic or remedial, and feel that philosophy’s value is in resolving logical problems in other subjects, including other branches of philosophy. Intellectual quietude can be attained by resolving confusion of thought. Much of this confusion can be resolved through ascertaining the meaning of words, and the use of language. Quietist philosophers sought to attain a state of intellectual enlightenment by resolving thought and language problems.

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951) was an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language.

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951) was an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language.

This lead to Ordinary Language Philosophy, which sought to make language unambiguous. If only language could be clear and straightforward, they thought, then so many philosophical problems would be resolved. To them, philosophical problems were created when we forget what words mean.

This phenomenon of forgetting the meaning of words is one I am familiar with, but it is one of the greatest sources of serenity in my life. I deeply empathize with Constance Wilde’s quest for quiet, and share in many of her physical challenges, but I seek something very different. I adore ambiguous words, like ‘twitterly,’ a mid-nineteenth century synonym for feebly that implies that you have all the strength to offer of a weak little bird. Few people reading that word today will understand what it meant in 1846. It recalls tweets, girlishness, chatter, and fluttering about.

As a reader, I love finding a well-crafted sentence that provides so many layers of meaning. I’ve also spent entirely too much time thinking and writing about the etymology of a dunce to not finish this project.

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A Fancypants Fancy Cat

I’ve started getting my store ready for Valentine’s day. Any requests or product suggestions?

This first card started out as an image of my cat, Timmy. The term, “fancy-man” first appeared in print in 1811. It was followed by the noun and adjective “fancypants,” a term used to refer to anything or anyone that is really fine, or pleasing, to behold.

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 1.35.42 PM

A fancy cat for my fancy man; this card is now for sale.

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Falling in Love with Words


Generally speaking, the word shows up in print after it is coined, not before, though we cannot discount the existence of a band of time-traveling linguistic trolls who have an inexplicable love of Lionel Barrymore. – Kory Stamper

I’m browsing other blogs today, as per the instructions of Blogging 101, while I wait for texts from my beloved 21 year-old only child, who is travelling back to Vancouver by air. It’s a pleasant way to pass the time, while I excessively worry about someone who is old enough and responsible enough to take care of themselves. The writers on WordPress have some wonderful things to say about words, and I think harm-less drudg-ery will quickly become one of my favourites. Stamper has a concise way of saying things I’ve been thinking about for a while.

But language is not a political system you can overthrow; it’s personal. Slur reclamation is risky business for both the oppressed, the oppressor, and the lexicographer. – Kory Stamper

That is exactly why I won’t be able to leave the offensive words out of the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties, though I’ve always thought of myself as more of a lexophile. After I began my other blog, I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only one obsessed with Writers in London in the 1890s. I feel that is finally beginning to happen with the Dictionary Project.

Look at the blog. Sequiotica. I love what she has to say about thimbles.

The word thimble is also useful for making puns; in particular, thimble-minded suggests itself readily, though you probably won’t get to use it too often. It also has a taste of nimble (thimble-fingered?) and humble (thimblebrag?) and of course symbol (sex thimble?). – Sequiotica

And people who love words like talking about bad words because, in that context, we get to use them without the terrible consequences. Just look at the video for the Dictionary Project. Now look at this post on so long as it’s words.

At that time fuck was a word used to describe sex. It wasn’t used as a swearword as we’d use it today. So the ‘fucking’ here is probably being used literally: ‘Oh, that abbot who fucks a lot’. (Someone has tried to find evidence of this but the worst they could find was one pregnant nun nearby who may, or may not, have been shagged by the Abbot. If he WAS trying for Casanova’s record, he kept it quiet). – Kate Wiles

I love the naughty playful tone lexophiles take when discussing dirty words, love, love, love, love it!

So I’ve followed at least five of these today. I’ll be checking my Reader more often now. Thank you Blogging 101.

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I am a Crutcha Crackerjack

10612638_10154527398360574_6075079706575648719_nMy 2015 New Year’s Resolution is to finish the Dictionary Project. With my novel, I’ve found blogging to be a supportive tool for the process, and am participating in Blogging 101 to bring the some of the success that I’ve had with Writers in London in the 1890s to my Dictionary Project. That’s what I’m doing, not who I am.

I am a disabled scholar and writer. Doctors recommend that I don’t drive or go anywhere by myself because I have memory lapses and get lost. Some days are harder than others. I get bored easily. Boredom is my biggest fear, and memory lapses contribute to boredom by making it harder for me to read a novel. It was, at one time, difficult for me to admit that I was having trouble reading stories. My educational background is in history and literature, so reading stories used to be one of the things that I did best. Now, I often get bored going backwards through books to find the last thing I remember reading.

Some days are harder than others. I had a particularly bad spell some time ago. It wasn’t just difficult to read; it was difficult to write. I couldn’t hold on to complex ideas long enough to capture them in words. Thankfully, I’m married to the best man in the world, and only had to worry about being bored at this time. Even in the fog of my own brain, I know he is there for me.

To keep from going mad with boredom, I decided to read and write about individual words that could help me with my larger project later. My work at that time was crutcha

crutcha adj. (1834), imperfect and put together quickly

I was developing a long list of useful words, and was visiting message boards, where writers were asking about Victorian slang, and I began to realize that I was building something bigger than the little pieces of time that my memory could cobble together. What I was doing was crackerjack and so was I

crackerjack n. and v. (1895) something that is exceptionally fine or splendid. Also, a person who is exceptionally skillful or expert.

I wanted to know if this was something I should share with the world. @rshepherd1964 took time out of his busy far away life to proofread everything, and encouraged me to proceed with the project. He had lots of suggestions. I still have lots of work to do. With help, I will I finish in 2015.

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Politically Correct Words in History, Historical Fiction, and the Dictionary Project

From a Duke University 2012 Campaign.

From a Duke University 2012 Campaign.

I’ve been thinking of political correctness and historical fiction for some time now. My other major project is a novel set in 1890s London. But the problems presented by the words of the past present more of a conflict of interest for me in this project, creating and sharing a historical dictionary with other writers of historical fiction.

I believe that when someone complains about political correctness, what they are actually complaining about is how they are being forced to think about the needs of marginalized groups and how their reluctance to do so makes them look like an asshole. But I am not writing to discuss the state of our language today so much as I am writing to talk about the ways in which our perception of language has changed, and how that impacts the perception of a collection of words from a less-enlightened time.

I do not feel that removing offensive language from the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties is an option for me. Yes, those words caused pain. I do not wish to preserve them so that they can cause further pain; I want to present them in a way that helps readers better understand the history of our language, so that my readers can better understand the contexts their characters are speaking in.

Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 7.22.14 PMYet, there is a case to be made for removing offensive words. Last year, Hasbro removed a number of racial slurs from the Scrabble Dictionary.

“In its previous dictionary, Hasbro was literally playing games with hate,” said [Anti-Defamation League] ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman, “by supplying legitimacy to demeaning and hurtful stereotypes. Families play Scrabble together, and there should be no room on the board for prejudice.” [Source]

I support Hasbro’s decision, and the difference that I see between my dictionary and theirs is that mine records words that were used in the past, whereas the Scrabble Dictionary advocates for continued usage in game play.

As author’s of historical fiction, we have a responsibility to portray the past at least somewhat accurately. My characters are almost all historical persons. To eliminate the challenges they faced would be detrimental to the story and would diminish the hardships that they faced in real life. Some of my characters are gay; many are women. Life wasn’t easy for homosexuals and women in the 1890s, and I admire these historical people for living the lives that they lead – not in spite of the challenges they faced, but because the challenges they faced made everything so much more difficult for them.

Politically correct history prioritizes making its audience happy over presenting accurate representations of the past. It’s a kind of fiction in and of itself. I think it’s like the first cousin of propaganda, and can only distantly be related to art. Art, like history, sometimes makes people very uncomfortable. It would be a big stretch to call my dictionary art. I see it more as a box of paints for painters, only its words for writers. Omitting the politically incorrect words of the past, would be like expecting someone to paint a landscape without the colour blue.

Just like the use of the colour blue in a landscape, there are right and wrong ways to use historically accurate, but politically incorrect, language in historical fiction. The painter has an advantage over the writer in this case because its fairly obvious what’s blue. To help my readers, I intend to use this blog and the pages of my dictionary to demonstrate the correct usage of offensive old words. If a word is both offensive and obsolete, you may not want to use it because no one will understand what you mean. Though obsolete words can work well in some situations. I used to keep a dictionary blog that used lots of them.

In creating a historical dictionary for writers, I have taken on the responsibility of making it evident that a grandmother in 1863 London wouldn’t call anyone a ‘pie-biter,’ if only because the term was new and American. I will also make it my responsibility to make it clear that more offensive words are understood by the writers reading my dictionary so that it will be as uncomfortable to write them as it is to read them.

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Hysteria, Highstrikes, and Hysterics

Woman with hysteria under the effects of hypnosis.

Woman with hysteria under the effects of hypnosis.

Though hysteria has a two thousand-year history of using women’s bodies to opress them, the term was first adopted by medical circles in 1801, as an adaptation of the latin hysteric. The concept of hysteria and hysterics profoundly influenced the lives of women throughout the nineteenth century, regulating them to asylums, and providing a source of comedy, as evidenced through the colloquialism high strikes, or highstrikes, a comedic mispronunciation of hysterics that was popularized soon after hysteria made it into medical journals.



Many people prefer to attribute hysteria’s origins to Hippocrates, but the term doesn’t show up anywhere in the Hippocratic corpus. The Hippocratic corpus did lay the ground work for wandering womb theory, which became linked to the supposed symptoms of hysteria, the way that epileptic seizures were linked to an ability to communicate directly with God. Like belief in these conversations with God, wandering womb theory hung around in Europe for centuries.

Throughout the nineteenth century, hysteria was promoted as a medical condition caused by disturbances of the uterus (from the Greek ὑστέρα hystera “uterus”). Hysteria was often used to describe postpartum depression, but could be used to diagnose any characteristic people disliked about any particular woman. Historian, Laura Briggs, demonstrated how one Victorian physician compiled a seventy-five page list of possible symptoms of hysteria, and still called the list incomplete.

hysterical_woman_6628Because of hysteria’s use (and abuse) as a medical catchall, and an improved understanding of the body, hysteria is no longer a legitimate medical diagnosis. When we use the term today, we usually use it as part of the phrase mass hysteria to describe the way the people who watch Fox News react to things like ebola.

However, terms, like highstrikes, currently appear in the manuscript of the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties. The inclusion of such loaded terms fills me with a sense of responsibility to instruct my readers on the appropriate use of such terms, which is an exercise that no dictionary I’ve ever read has ever participated in.

As I edit, I find myself including notes that explain the connotations of such words, but I wonder if there are some words that shouldn’t be included at all.

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The Etymology of a Dunce

duncecapA variation of the word ‘dunce’ appears in the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties. ‘Dunce’ is one of those words that has a more interesting history because it comes from somebody’s name: Duns Scotus.

Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was no dummy. He’s generally considered one of the most important philosophers of the Middle Ages.

Scotus was  ordained as a Catholic priest at the Church of Saint Andrew in Northampton, England, in 1291. That he was called Johannes Duns suggests that he was from Duns, in Berwickshire, Scotland, because it was traditional to call people by their Christian name followed by their hometown.


Duns Scotus

Scotus’ philosophies helped shape modern Catholicism. He’s often associated with voluntarism, the tendency to emphasize God’s will and human freedom in all philosophical issues. His philosophy argued for the existence of God, and emphasized the relationships between all living things. He also defended the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Pope Pius IX’s 1854 declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception uses Scotus’ arguments on the subject, “at the first moment of Her conception, Mary was preserved free from the stain of original sin, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ.” Scotus’ position was hailed as “a correct expression of the faith of the Apostles.”

But people didn’t always think Scotus was so clever, and it’s amazing what a lasting impression criticism can have on our language. Sixteenth-century philosophers, who liked Scotus’ work were called ‘Dunse’ (like some people are called Marxist or Kantian). For the most part, sixteenth-century philosophers disliked Scotus’ work, and accused him of sophistry. Hence, as a variation of ‘Dunse’ the term ‘dunce’ was born, meaning “somebody who is incapable of scholarship.”