Eighteenth Century “Conversation”

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Oh, the English language. Of course we use words and phrases today often decidedly differently than our ancestors did. Usage and meanings evolve over time.

Phraseology we almost never use now was once common. If we return to two centuries ago, where as you may know I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months, there are moments when reading what is clearly English can still feel somewhat like reading a “foreign” language. You have to be VERY cautious.

You may recall I had had some “fun” earlier this year as I was first researching Conventions. To help “him” better understand me, I attempted to write a planned character a letter as we in 2016 might write to an American of the late 1700s – in his 230 year old style and vernacular:

Letter To 230 Years Ago, originally posted January 22, 2016.
Letter To 230 Years Ago, originally posted January 22, 2016.

How complicated it can become. In 1790, for instance “society” often meant one’s immediate close friends and family: “I was most happy in my society.” That usage is almost unseen today.

To write “I esteem her greatly” would have been a pretty standard form for “I like her a lot.” Perhaps even “I love her”…but I’m trying to be somewhat guarded and restrained in noting it. Or maybe simply “I fancy her” – which would be a British common expression today. (Americans don’t generally use “fancy” in that manner.) That use of “esteem” today is mostly vanished. “Esteem” now is used most commonly as the latter half of “self-esteem”: self-like.

1600s beams and wood amidst "modernity" - newer wood, carpet and an electric extension cord. Looking down the steep stairs outside of my home office, Hertfordshire, England. [Photo by me, 2016.]
1600s beams and wood amidst “modernity” – newer wood, carpet and an electric extension cord. Looking down the steep stairs outside of my home office, Hertfordshire, England. [Photo by me, 2016.]

A bit, err, frightening, those stairs sometimes.

And the word “frightening” has been much watered down since the 18th century. Use of that word then conveyed true terror, often sexual. It was not used lightly: it was borderline obscene.

Speaking of sex. And in writing that, I presume that I’ve now got your full attention? ๐Ÿ˜‰

We write and talk about sex so openly now, it’s easy to forget how that is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to just a few decades ago, sex was rarely overtly mentioned in letters – not even between married couples wildly in love. It was usually buried in euphemisms.

George Romney, portrait of Miss Constable, 1787. [Wikipedia. Public Domain.]
George Romney, portrait of Miss Constable, 1787. [Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

Which means from our distance a “detective job” may sometimes be necessary. And the potentials for dramatic error are many. Case in point: Some two hundred years ago, “conversation” was regularly employed as a polite way to describe, well, sexual intercourse.

“Familiar” could also be a slang term for sex. As say, “Sir, was quite familiar to me.” Uh, was he?

Then again neither might have anything to do with sex. Similarly, “pleasure.” That was sometimes another way of alluding to sex…while not “clearly” saying so. But, again, you have to be VERY careful there. They used the word “pleasure” more than we do, and in ways we don’t now, and also in ways that had nothing to do with sex.

That was centuries ago. But we see this too. Even language we use in 2016 may be somewhat different than one hears used only a decade or so ago:

Last night, a West Wing episode on our television. [Photo by me, 2016.]
Last night, a West Wing episode on our television. [Photo by me, 2016.]
However, context, as always, is everything. After all, for example, if someone writes on Facebook, “My electric hook up is later,” what do we suppose the writer means to convey? Presumably, we do understand?

Yet, even better, what do we think some historian or writer in 2316, trying desperately to understand our 2016, might imagine that Facebook poster had meant?

Hope you have a, uh, pleasurable weekend. ๐Ÿ™‚

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