Friday, June 30, 2006

Technical Topics -- Words, words, words -- the uses of slang

I've been mulling over a problem I have.

So much of our useful vocabulary related to crime comes from America and was coined (or written down) in the early twentieth century. We owe our modern crime vocabulary to Dashiell Hammett and the noir movies with all those hard-boiled private detectives.

'On the lam', 'snoop' (meaning an informer,) 'tail' (to follow,) 'frame', 'plant' (as in plant false evidence,) 'case'(to reconnoiter,) 'tart' and 'tramp' (slut,) 'cathouse'. All of them lovely technical terms, too late for my period.

The ones I miss the most, (I should not use them in 1810,) are 'frame', 'planted' and 'tail', because they are perfect and specific and have no early C19 equivalent. Especially 'frame'. I don't know the date in this usage, but I'm virtually certain it's early C20 vintage. Long after my time, anyway. But I need it in a plot that involves the forging of incriminating evidence.

I like 'caper'. I can use 'rig' or 'lay', which I know are period. But I like 'caper'. How far is it out of my era?

I wish the OED referenced slang.

I'm going to admit, shamefaced, that I've put 'framed', 'caper' and 'planted' in the ms. I've used them in dialog. I just don't know a contemporary cant substitute for 'framed'. The circumlocutions – 'rigged up evidence against', 'incriminated', 'placed a false trail' -- do not 'sound' like my Cockney character.

Am I going to leave this glaring error in the submitted draft? Nobody but me will know 'frame' and 'plant' are out of period. Even 'caper' might pass cursory inspection. Nobody will care.

Who knows ... maybe they are in my era and I just haven't come across the references. Slang is poorly accounted for.

I could add an endnote admitting my guilt.
I could say nothing and just do it.

Guilt, guilt, guilt.
It feels like I'm planning to shoplift or something.


  1. How about "set up" for frame? I'm thinking 'set' is used lots by Brits (as in 'set about making dinner').

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Let's try again ---

    Hi Sara --

    I like 'set up' as Britspeak ... but I fear, used in this way -- 'set up' meaning 'to frame' -- it too may be 20th century slang.

    Could just be me, but it doesn't 'sound' periord to my ear.
    Then again, 'frame' doesn't sound 'period' either so there you are.


  4. Hi Jo,

    According my sources, "caper" as in "scheme" or "illegal escapade", was in use by 1850. Use it and perhaps a better word will drop out of the ether along the way. In my WIP I'm using slave spirituals, although no one is quite sure when they first evolved. My time period could be a little early for them, but who's to say what a group of slaves, left to themselves, got up to--hymnally speaking--in the late 18th century? Who's to say who in the early-mid 1800s first began using caper to mean scheme?


    PS: is there a handy french term for caper one of your characters could fling about?

  5. Hi Lori -

    Wow. 'Caper' is mid C19 at least.

    I cannot tell you how relieved I am to hear that.
    I had feared I was dealing with C20 slang.

    Where did you find 'caper' btw? I don't think it's in Partridge ... (jo reminds herself to check again becuase it probably should be.)

    >>>slave spirituals<<<

    I think singing spirituals of some sort would go right back to the early Evangelical Meetings. And THAT goes right to the start of C19.
    No reason to think slaves in the South wouldn't have been exposed to Evangelical fervor.

    I'm sure you're accurate.

  6. Again to Lori -

    I would like to go check in Les Miserables for the equivlent word to 'caper' ...
    but I've misplaced the internet text copy of Miserables in French.

    I had it once and lost it again and I haven't been able to find it anywhere.


  7. Jo,

    I found "caper" in my ENGLISH THROUGH THE AGES guide, listed in the "In use by 1850" section.

    And to cap it off, I just finished listening to one of Patrick O'Brian's Aubry/Maturin books (DESOLATION ISLAND), and he used "caper" in this same sense, I believe from Stephen's POV. That's a Napoleonic setting, same time period as yours, right?

    If O'Brian used it.... why not?