The Alexandra Limp

In 1869, a new fashion took hold among the young ladies of England: they began limping. They might intentionally snap the heel off one of their shoes or even buy a set of shoes designed to give them a limp. The important thing was to be seen shuffling unevenly around Hyde Park or the theater.

Speaking as someone who always walks with a limp, this would have been very uncomfortable. Walking unevenly strains your muscles and skeletal structure and leads to chronic pain. High heels and bras – or corsets – are not always comfortable, but this was an extreme sacrifice for fashion. So, why did the Victorian ladies do it?

The answer is Alexandra of Denmark, the Princess of Wales. She was immensely popular and a fashion setter in Britain. She wore chokers to disguise a scar on her throat, so chokers became popular among British ladies. In 1867, Princess Alexandra gave birth to her third child and became very ill with rheumatic fever – a complication of strep throat and scarlet fever that was sometimes deadly in the days before antibiotics. Princess Alexandra survived, but she had to learn to walk again using walking sticks, and she continued to limp. Ever anxious to follow their social leader, the fashionable ladies of England hurried to break their shoes and limp after her.

I’m not sure what Princess Alexandra thought about this, but the newspapers howled in outrage at the silliness of watching able-bodied young ladies limp all over London and other British towns. Perhaps thanks to the painful side effects of constantly limping, the fashion faded after a year or two, and ladies found other ways to torture themselves for fashion. Of course, people who had real limps didn’t leave them behind so easily. Princess Alexandra limped for the rest of her life.

A portrait of Princess Alexandra in a fashionable white dress.
Princess Alexandra in 1864

Dance Fans

Regency dances were complicated, involving many steps that participants had to remember. And the ballrooms were crowded with people dancing energetically, making them very hot. Clever ladies solved both of these problems by carrying fans decorated with fashionable dance steps. The examples below are from the Jane Austen cottage in Chawton.

This fan shows the steps of the quadrille (each circle is a different “figure” created by the dancers, so they all had to know their places and how to move in the circle so they didn’t crash into each other).
And this one has the music to several country dances.

With the help of fans such as these, ladies of Jane Austen’s time could stay on top of the latest dance steps and stay cool.

Wishes and curses

You may know that the tradition of tossing pennies into wells or fountains to make a wish goes back to ancient times when offerings were thrown into bodies of water to gain favors from the gods (if you didn’t before, you do now). But did you know that people also threw curses into sacred waters for the gods to enact? These curse scrolls or tablets were written asking for justice or revenge, and they give us a fantastic glimpse into the everyday life – and the gossip – of people who lived two thousand years ago.

The scrolls in these pictures are from the Roman baths in Bath, England. Sadly, my camera isn’t high resolution enough to capture the very faded writing on the lead tablets, but I did take a shot of the transcriptions as well (most of them are in Latin). The “tablets” themselves are pretty small, just a couple of inches across.

Faded and cracked thin, lead plates.
Latin transcriptions of the curse tablets above with an explanation that they are about the theft of a hooded cloak, the theft of a bracelet, and two instances of the theft of six silver coins.

Some of the translations say things like, “I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola.” An interesting take on revenge, telling the goddess that she can have the coins if she gets them back from the thieves. Another is more specific, saying, “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the goddess’s temple.” I guess he really liked those gloves, though it is a pretty infuriating feeling to have something stolen.

In some cases, people would write the curse backward, maybe to make it stronger or easier to read on the “other side,” and sometimes they added magical symbols or shoved nails through the scrolls to reinforce their curse.

One of the scrolls is in what scholars believe to be the only (known) written example of ancient British-Celtic.

A small fragment of a lead tablet.

There’s no translation of this tablet because British Celtic is an as-yet-untranslated language. The words read, “Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai,” though the scroll and the message are incomplete. There are a couple of suggestions about what this might mean, but if you can figure it out, let us know (and the rest of the world)!

To end on a cheerful note, archeologists have also fished a lot of beautiful items out of ancient wells and ponds, and I would love a modern replica of this ancient Celtic brooch found at Bath.

A circular brooch with a long pin for holding a clock or tunic, with swirling designs on each end of the circle.

Hawthorn tree lore

Hawthorn trees are among the most magical in European folklore – and also the most conflicting. Good luck or bad luck? Friend or foe? It depends on who you ask and when. But they’re gorgeous trees either way, with their pink or white blossoms and their trunks that get furrowed and gnarled with age. The most famous hawthorn is probably the Glastonbury Thorn at Glastonbury Abbey. It is said to have sprung from Joseph of Arimethea’s staff when he arrived there bearing the Holy Grail. Interestingly, the Glastonbury Thorn (or its current descendants) blooms twice a year – once in spring, like most hawthorns, and once at Christmas.

A lovely hawthorn tree in the Logan Cemetery – really, my picture doesn’t do justice to its cascade of late-May blooms.

Hawthorn trees were supposed to be particular favorites of the Fair Folk, often guarding the entryways into Elfland as well as ancient holy wells. For this reason, it’s bad luck to cut them down. There are roads in the British Isles that were redirected to go around old hawthorn trees, and some buildings there are said to be cursed because a hawthorn was removed to make way for the building. The Fay are very jealous of their trees.

I was delighted to find that the Logan Cemetery hawthorn has its own gnome guardian among its branches. He looks like he’s seen a few battles, maybe protecting the entrance to the Otherworld?

On the other hand, it was traditional to cut branches of blooming hawthorn for May Day celebrations. So, perhaps this is the one time it’s permissible to disturb the tree? Maybe it allows the Fay to join the celebrations. One should never bring the hawthorn branches or flowers inside, though. That might invite the Fair Folk’s attention (Branches from the Glastonbury Thorn supposedly decorate the queen’s table at Christmas, but maybe she gets a special dispensation).

The Logan Cemetery hawthorn has two trees growing from the debris collected over the years between its trunk and branches: this little spruce and the sapling by the gnome, which might be some kind of plum. When rowan trees grew in the joints of other trees, they were called “flying rowans” and were thought to be especially potent magic. Maybe this “flying spruce” growing from the hawthorn also has some special power.

Some people felt it was good luck to have a hawthorn growing near (but not too near) their house, while others didn’t want the Fair Folk that close. If you decide to plant a hawthorn, it’s a hardy tree with spring flowers, an informal growth habit, and tiny red fruit in the fall-winter (edible in most species but not tasty). Paul’s Scarlet, the one in these pictures, was discovered in the mid-1800s and has double pink flowers (wild European hawthorns, including the Glastonbury Thorn, are usually white), but it often loses its leaves early in the summer. Crimson Cloud is a pink-flowered European hawthorn that keeps its leaves until fall, and American hawthorns or maythorns also make nice yard trees. I haven’t found any stories associating American hawthorns with the Fair Folk, and I guess you can decide if that’s a pro or a con.

Daylight Savings Time

We all hate daylight savings time, right? The “fall back” one isn’t so bad because we get an extra hour of sleep, but we pay for it when we have to “spring forward.” Even my dog was cranky today because we wouldn’t feed her at what she knew to be dinner time, since we were all pretending it was an hour earlier. And Hawaii and Arizona don’t even bother with the time change, though the Navajo Nation lands within Arizona do, which just makes everything even more confusing.

I knew that daylight savings time started in World War I as a way to save fuel (an extra hour of daylight in the evening meant less fuel used to light homes). This was in the US and also in some European countries, many of which also still practice daylight savings today. Only a few cities in Ontario, Canada had experimented with it prior to WWI.

What I didn’t know was that we’ve been getting rid of daylight savings time and bringing it back on and off for the last 100+ years. The first round of daylight saving time ended with WWI. FDR brought it back for WWII and called it “war time.” When WWII ended in 1945, so did war time.

For a while, some parts of the US practiced daylight savings time, while others did not. So, a city might change its clocks while the surrounding countryside stayed on standard time. We can imagine the chaos this would have caused for businesses, travelers, and pretty much everyone.

It was the 1960s when we got saddled with daylight savings time on a more permanent basis to settle the confusion. This was popular with sports equipment manufacturers, who hoped that people would play more sports if they had more daylight hours in the evening, and who continue to lobby for the continuation of daylight savings time. Some workers liked having more daylight time after work to spend outdoors or with their families, but for the most part, it remains unpopular with parents, teachers, farmers (who find that cows don’t adjust their milking schedule to daylight savings time), and pretty much everyone else.

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the US and many other countries experimented with making daylight savings time permanent in the hopes of saving energy, but that caused problems with workers and school children having to leave home in the dark on winter mornings. Also, though daylight savings time does accrue a very small amount of energy savings in lighting, it may actually cause an increase in fuel use because of people driving more to evening activities. So, we moved back to the clock switching.

The days we spend on standard time are shrinking, though, moving late enough in the fall to allow trick-or-treaters to enjoy the extra hour of daylight and earlier in the spring (perhaps to avoid major religious holidays like Easter?). Maybe we’re heading toward doing away with it once more – this time for good.

Photo courtesy of maxmann

On Bravery: The “One Last Time”

This morning, I had the opportunity to attend the retiring of a faded, wind-battered US flag. When it was unfurled to be saluted one last time, I couldn’t help thinking of what day it is today and about all the people twenty years ago who went out to do their jobs, many for one last time. Some knew they had a dangerous job to do that day. Rick Rescorla, a Cornish Vietnam vet and Morgan Stanley security officer in the World Trade Center, had drilled the employees under his charge for emergency evacuations, anticipating the possibility of a terrorist attack. Thanks to him, many of those employees survived the attacks, despite being near the top of the building. Some of Rescorla’s last known words were, “As soon as I make sure everyone else is out.” He was last seeing running up the stairs one last time.

Many other people did not anticipate what that day would bring, like those on United flight 93. It’s obvious from reading the words of Todd Beamer in his last known conversation (below) that he did not want to die. I think it would be fair to say it scared him. But he was willing to do the job before him, his family in the forefront of his mind, probably hoping it would end well while knowing it likely would not. He completed his task on September 11 over an empty Pennsylvania field. He stood up for himself, his family, and the community of strangers who make up his country one last time.

For many others, though, the heroic work and the struggles went on for weeks and even years after that day, sorting through rubble or misinformation or lingering trauma. They got up each morning knowing they had to face it again – one last time over and over. I’m sure there were days they didn’t want to, but their fight wasn’t over. Like the worn flag, they were there day after day, collecting battle scars visible or invisible. I would guess that those who met their one last time on September 11th had similarly been there for the daily grind, facing the daily battles they believed worth the struggle, however imperfectly, until that fight was a part of them.

That’s what I hope I (and we) never forget – that even though our nation and the world have problems, we can be brave enough to face them, whether it’s the rare “one last time” or the slower but equally as heroic step by step, day by day fight for something better, something worthwhile.

*Transcript of Todd Beamer’s last phone call – I wasn’t able to verifty that this is authentic, but it matches all the information I’m able to find about his final conversation. Also, I don’t who if anyone owns the rights to this; please let me know if this is a copyright infringement, and I will paraphrase instead.

Todd: Hello… Operator…listen to me…I can’t speak very loud. – This is an emergency. I’m a passenger on a United flight to San Francisco… We have a situation here…Our plane has been hijacked…can you understand me?

Lisa: (exhaling a deep breath to herself) I understand… Can the hijackers see you talking on the phone?

Todd: No

Lisa: Can you tell me how many hijackers are on the plane?

Todd: There are three that we know of.

Lisa: Can you see any weapons? What kind of weapons do they have?

Todd: Yes… they don’t have guns… they have knives – they took over the plane with knives.

Lisa: Do you mean…like steak knives?

Todd: No, these are razor knives…like box cutters.

Lisa: Can you tell what country these people are from?

Todd: No… I don’t know. They sound like they’re from the Mid-east.

Lisa: Have they said what they want?

Todd: Someone announced from the cockpit that there was a bomb on board. He said he was the captain and to stay in our seats and stay quiet.He said that they were meeting these men’s demands and returning to the airport… It was very broken English, and… I’m telling you… it sounded fake!

Lisa: Ok sir, please give me your name.

Todd: My name is Todd Beamer.

Lisa: Ok Todd… my name is Lisa… Do you know your flight number? If you can’t remember, it’s on your ticket.

Todd: It’s United Flight 93.

Lisa: Now Todd, can you try to tell me exactly what happened?

Todd: Two of the hijackers were sitting in first class near the cockpit. A third one was sitting near the back of the coach section. The two up. front got into the cockpit somehow; there was shouting. The third hijacker said he had a bomb. It looks like a bomb. He’s got it tied to his waist with a red belt of some kind.

Lisa: So is the door to the cockpit open?

Todd: No, the hijackers shut it behind them.

Lisa: Has anyone been injured?

Todd: Yes, they… they killed one passenger sitting in first class. There’s been lots of shouting. We don’t know if the pilots are dead or alive. A flight attendant told me that the pilot and copilot had been forced from the cockpit and may have been wounded.

Lisa: Where is the 3rd hijacker now Todd?

Todd: He’s near the back of the plane. They forced most of the passengers into first class. There are fourteen of us here in the back. Five are flight attendants. He hasn’t noticed that I slipped into this pantry to get the phone. The guy with the bomb ordered us to sit on the floor in the rear of the plane… Oh Jesus… Help!

Lisa: Todd… are you ok? Tell me what’s happening!

Todd: Hello… We’re going down… I think we’re going to crash… Wait – wait a minute. No, we’re leveling off… we’re ok. I think we may be turning around… That’s it – we changed directions. Do you hear me… we’re flying east again.

Lisa: Ok Todd… What’s going on with the other passengers?

Todd: Everyone is… really scared. A few passengers with cell phones have made calls to relatives. A guy, Jeremy, was talking to his wife just before the hijacking started. She told him that hijackers had crashed two planes into the World Trade Center… Lisa is that true??

Lisa: Todd… I have to tell you the truth… it’s very bad. The World Trade Center is gone. Both of the towers have been destroyed.

Todd: Oh God —help us!

Lisa: A third plane was taken over by terrorists. It crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC. Our country is under attack… and I’m afraid that your plane may be part of their plan.

Todd: Oh dear God. Dear God… Lisa, will you do something for me?

Lisa: I’ll try… if I can… Yes.

Todd: I want you to call my wife and my kids for me and tell them what’s happened. Promise me you’ll call.

Lisa: I promise – I’ll call.

Todd: Our home number is __________… You have the same name as my wife… Lisa… We’ve been married for 10 years. She’s pregnant with our 3rd child. Tell her that I love her… (choking up)…I’ll always love her…(clearing throat) We have two boys. David, he’s 3 and Andrew, he’s 1…Tell them…(choking) tell them that their daddy loves them and that he is so proud of them. (clearing throat again) Our baby is due January 12th…I saw an ultra sound…it was great…we still don’t know if it’s a girl or a boy…Lisa?

Lisa: (barely able to speak) I’ll tell them, I promise Todd.

Todd: I’m going back to the group—if I can get back I will…

Lisa: Todd, leave this line open…are you still there?…

Lisa: (dials the phone.) Hello, FBI, my name is Lisa Jefferson, I’m a telephone supervisor for GTE. I need to report a terrorist hijacking of a United Airlines Flight 93…Yes I’ll hold.

Goodwin: Hello, this is Agent Goodwin.. I understand you have a hijacking situation?

Lisa: Yes sir, I’ve been talking with a passenger, a Todd Beamer, on Flight 93 who managed to get to an air phone unnoticed.

Goodwin: Where did this flight originate, and what was its destination?

Lisa: The flight left Newark New Jersey at 8 A.M. departing for San Francisco. The hijackers took over the plane shortly after takeoff, and several minutes later the plane changed course – it is now flying east.

Goodwin: Ms. Jefferson…I need to talk to someone aboard that plane. Can you get me thru to the planes phone?Lisa: I still have that line open sir, I can patch you through on a conference call…hold a mo-

Todd: Hello Lisa, Lisa are you there?

Lisa: Yes, I’m here. Todd, I made a call to the FBI, Agent Goodwin is on the line and will be talking to you as well.

Todd: The others all know that this isn’t your normal hijacking. Jeremy called his wife again on his cell phone. She told him more about the World Trade Center and all.

Goodwin: Hello Todd. This is Agent Goodwin with the FBI. We have been monitoring your flight. Your plane is on a course for Washington, DC. These terrorists sent two planes into the World Trade Center and one plane into the Pentagon. Our best guess is that they plan to fly your plane into either the White House or the United States Capital Building.

Todd: I understand…hold on…I’ll…I’ll be back..

Lisa: Mr. Goodwin, how much time do they have before they get to Washington?

Goodwin: Not long ma’am. They changed course over Cleveland; they’re approaching Pittsburgh now. Washington may be twenty minutes away.

Todd: (breathing a little heavier) The plane seems to be changing directions just a little. It’s getting pretty rough up here. The plane is flying real erratic…We’re not going to make it out of here. Listen to me…I want you to hear this…I have talked with the others…we have decided we would not be pawns in these hijackers suicidal plot.

Lisa: Todd, what are you going to do?

Todd: We’ve hatched a plan. Four of us are going to rush the hijacker with the bomb. After we take him out, we’ll break into the cockpit. A stewardess is getting some boiling water to throw on the hijackers at the controls. We’ll get them…and we’ll take them out. Lisa… will you do one last thing for me?

Lisa: Yes… What is it?

Todd: Would you pray with me?

They pray: Our father which art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our trespasses As we forgive our trespassers, And lead us not into temptation But deliver us from evil For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory Forever…Amen. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…He makes me to lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside the still waters, He restores my soul, He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.

Todd: (softer) God help me…Jesus help me…(clears throat and louder) Are you guys ready?… Let’s Roll!

Image of offerings left at Flight 93 memorial courtesy of brandnewday via Pixabay.

Titanic and WWI-era Flashlights

I was going to write so many blog posts during the pandemic, and then it turned out that living in unprecedented times is stressful. Between dealing with school-at-home and quarantines and the general brain fog of being uncertain and overwhelmed a lot, I didn’t post much in the last year. But I have been doing a lot of research on all kinds of things, and I want to start sharing that again. Hopefully, people find it interested and/or helpful, but at least it means I don’t have to do the research again if I forget what I learned (anyone else feel like their memory is worse after 2020?).

I’ve worked on two writing projects recently where my WWI-era-ish characters have needed flashlights to explore dark and spooky places. Since they’re Americans, it’s flashlights and not torches, as our friends across the pond call them – I love how evocative “torch” is versus “flashlight,” but here we are with American English. At our house, we recently had to turn the power off in one room while fixing a leak in the bathroom above (a whole ‘nother round of unneeded drama), and we learned all over again to appreciate portable light.

Prior to flashlights, of course, people had candles, oil-burning lanterns, and even old-fashioned torches made of wood and cloth or rushlights. But the inventions of batteries and lightbulbs meant that we could harness electricity and hold it in our hands. Pretty cool, really.

As I was researching what kinds of flashlights were available to my civilian characters between 1918 and 1920, I found one web site claiming that the flashlights in the movie Titanic were an anachronism. The specific types of flashlights might have been, but handheld flashlights were certainly available by 1912. You can see below the 1899 patent and an ad for heandheld, tube-shaped flashlights run by batteries (evidently with enough of a market that there were already multiple patents and manufacturers competing – images courtesy of Wikimedia commons, public domain). The design isn’t too different from modern flashlights.

By 1918, the Germans had developed a dynamo flashlight – one that is powered by motion instead of batteries. Modern crank or shake flashlights are an example of this flashlight type. The German dynamo flashlight was worn on the chest of soldiers’ uniforms and powered by pulling a cord that spun coils in a magnetic field, creating enough energy to run a light for five seconds per pull (see Popular Mechanics Magazine vol. 32, 1919, “German Pocket Flashlight Contains Own Dynamo”). I can’t find information on any earlier dynamo flashlights, and the article seems to suggest that this was a new innovation, saying that the technology was discovered when American soldiers captured some Germans. Image below.

The most common type of flashlight used by soldiers in WWI, though, seems to be the “upright” style in the image below, with a rectangular metal case and the bulb on the front. Some, like the one pictured, had a metal “lid” that closed like an eyelid to cover the lightbulb when needed. A similar upright pocket flashlight saved the life of Winston Churchill in the trenches when it blocked a piece of shrapnel that hit him in the chest. (image courtesy of the Imperial War Museums © IWM EPH 3684)

German battery operated electric torch associated with the First World War experiences of Captain E W Leggatt as a prisoner of war in Holzminden Camp, Germany. The torch was obtained from a German sentry. Captain Leggatt was captured on 9 August 1916, and subsequently was one of the ten men who made a successful escape through the tunnel at Holzminden POW camp, Germany, on 23 July 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30083223

One of the things I find really interesting about the time period surrounding WWI is the constrasts. Big cities had electric lights, telephones, and other fairly modern technologies, while rural areas were still very isolated and more likely to use oil for heating and lighting. Of course, there are still parts of rural Utah, especially those associated with the Navajo reservation, that are still struggling to get water and electricity lines (though they can use solar power as an alternative now, where it’s financially viable). For a glimpse of post-WWI rural life, check out Blood in a Dry Town (formerly Home Again Blues) on Amazon.

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month…

One hundred years ago – November 11, 1918 – an armistice treaty brought a cease fire to “the war to end all wars.” For the soldiers and other volunteers serving, and for the nations across the world, it wasn’t really an end, but a chance to begin the healing process as best as they were able. I can’t say it better than John McCrae, though I like to think now that the torch represents the freedoms bought for us by past generations:

In Flanders Fields (1915)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Contractions are historical, y’all

One of my pet peeves in historical novels is when authors try to make dialogue sound authentic by removing all the contractions. A natural-sounding phrase like, “I’m sure you’ll do well,” becomes the awkward and kind of comical, “I am sure you will do well.”

Please don’t do this to your readers or your manuscript. Some characters will speak more formally than others, but here’s the thing: English is a lazy language full of contractions and short cuts, and that hasn’t changed over the years. On the other hand, using contractions that are too modern in historical pieces ruins the flavor, like putting mint in your orange juice, so you have to pick the right historical contractions.

The types of contractions people use have evolved, but there are plenty of authentic historical contractions writers can use to make their dialogue sounds more natural and still understandable to the modern reader. Look at Shakespeare. His works mark the beginning of modern English, and he uses tons of contractions – and not just when he’s trying to make words fit the rhythm.

So, here’s a brief look at the history of modern English contractions.

First, the “it” contractions: ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, ‘twould. These are pretty common in Elizabethan (1500s) writings, and don’t sound incomprehensible to modern readers. ‘Tis replaces “it’s,” and ‘twould would replace “it’d” if anyone is inclined to use that modern contraction. Google n-gram viewer, which measures how often words appear in print, shows “’tis” peaking around 1700 then falling off sharply, so that by 1800 it’s not very common, and probably old-fashioned.

Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writings provide ample evidence for contractions with “is” and “will,” like: she’ll, we’ll, there’s, and he’s. Shakespeare also uses “I’m,” so all of those are perfectly historical.

“Have” and “had” are apparently more controversial. The OED says the contractions -‘ve and -‘d are post-Elizabethan, but other scholars, like E.A.J. Honigmann in The Texts of Othello and Shakespearean Revision, disagree. They find evidence of contractions like “they’ve” and “she’d” in period texts and suggest these contractions might be just coming into use in writing during this time (they could have been used orally for some time before). So, you’re probably safe with those too in most English historical fiction.

I’ve been reading letters written right around 1650 (and anyone writing in this time period is going to be middle or upper class and well-educated), and they use plenty of contractions: I’m, I’ll, we’ll, you’ll, ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, on’t (of it), t’other (the other), in’t (in it), and with’t (with it). Don’t also makes an appearance.

Most of the “not” contractions come into English a bit late. My old friend the Online Etymology Dictionary gives these dates for when some of them came into use (this would be when they’re found in print – they may have been used verbally for a few years before):

  • don’t – 1630
  • won’t – 1660
  • couldn’t – 1670
  • hadn’t – 1705
  • can’t – 1706
  • ain’t – 1706 (considered correct English until the early Victorian period [1800s] when it came to be seen as lower class – this was when contractions in general got a bad rap in formal writing)
  • aren’t – 1709 (sometimes spelled are’n’t)
  • didn’t – 1775

And then there’s y’all. It’s an early-1800s Americanism from the South and later the West. It was probably adopted into white speech from African-American speech. As a contraction for “you all,” “y’all” is generally meant to be plural. If you’re saying it to one person, it implies they’re part of a group. So, “Y’all stay off our property,” means “you and all your folks.” You-uns or yins was also used in the early 1800s in the American Old Northwest (i.e. Ohio and Pennsylvania).

Jane Austen gives us an idea of which contractions are in use in England in the early 1800s. She’s much more sparing with them than my earlier samples, but in Pride and Prejudice, we find: I’m, don’t, can’t, shan’t, won’t, you’ll, and ’tis. Lydia and Mrs Bennet use the most contractions, but the less silly characters use them occasionally too.

In 1837, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist gives us: don’t, you’ll, he’s, who’s, I’ll, warn’t (were not), can’t, hasn’t, it’s, wouldn’t, mustn’t, haven’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, mightn’t, needn’t, ain’t, mayn’t, it’ll, there’s, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, that’s, where’s, there’ll, you’d, he’d, shan’t, daren’t (dare not), and a variety of other slang-y historical contractions, used liberally throughout the dialogue.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, published in 1855 and incorporating a wider variety of social classes, uses: don’t, shan’t, can’t, won’t, an’t (and it), mayn’t, didn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, doesn’t, it’s, I’ll, that’s, we’ve, they’d, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve, they’re, you’re, they’ll, she’d, she’s, aren’t, I’d, and some others – a pretty full complement. The laborers use many more contractions than the upper class characters, but even well-bred Margaret uses don’t, you’ll, I’ll, you’ve, I’m, and others fairly often. At this point, as in Dickens, “’tis” is gone, even from old fashioned or upper class language.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, uses most of the contractions that Gaskell used (though not “shan’t” or “an’t”), plus ain’t.

So, it from the Victorian period onward, in England and America, writers have a pretty complete palette of contractions to choose from, and in any historical time period, people of all social classes used contractions.

And there it is: a quick look at historical contractions for fun and profit (but mostly for fun 😉 ).

Remembering the Lost Generation

I’m disappointed to see how little attention the media and local civic organizations are giving to the centennial of the US entering The Great War. The WWI generation has been called the Lost Generation, and with good reason. After enduring WWI and the Great Depression, this generation and “their” war were overshadowed by their children fighting in WWII and the horrors of that war.

Yet the WWI generation of Americans also answered the call to go to war, often as volunteers. Many of the women who volunteered had to pay their own way – sacrificing money, time, and sometimes even their lives to nurse, drive ambulances, entertain, and feed and care for soldiers. We might think of the men and women who volunteered as naive, but by the time America entered the war on April 6, 1917, the fighting had dragged on for almost three years, and many of the young people who served had at least an idea of the gruesome conditions that awaited them.

For a giveaway of No Peace with the Dawn, a novel about how World War I changed the lives of one group of young Americans, see my Facebook page.

I think this poem by British poet Rupert Brooke, who died in the war, is a fitting memorial to all those who lost their lives in the Great War:

The Dead (1914)

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.

WWIposter

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