A Napoleonic Era Lexicon

Doctor Syntax with a Blue Stocking Beauty by Thomas Rowlandson, from William Combe's The Third Tour of Doctor Syntax, In Search of a Wife (1812)

Unlike Master and Commander, a great deal of the action in Post Captain takes place on land, which means an entirely new vocabulary is introduced. This lexicon will hopefully prove useful if you become confused by all the lubberly terms being thrown about.

Caveat: This is not a period lexicon, but one created based on usages in Regency romance novels. For this reason it doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth of the way people spoke, but rather the way many authors have reproduced it (hopefully after in-depth research). It’s still a helpful resource and contains many phrases you might encounter in Post Captain.

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A lady’s maid. Named for a character in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Scornful Lady.


Exclusive assembly rooms in London. One required vouchers from one of the Patronesses in order to attend.

ape leader

A spinster or old maid. According to an old saying, their fate is leading apes in hell.

assembly rooms

Halls where dances, concerts and other social events were held. Most towns had assembly rooms. The most famous is Almack’s in London.

Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre

A circus in London featuring horseback riding, acrobats, clowns and the like.

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Foolish, stupid.

Banbury tale

A roundabout, nonsensical story.

banns – reading the banns

A notice of an impending marriage given on three consecutive Sundays in one’s parish church. If no one objected to the match during this period, the marriage could procede.


A type of carriage with four wheels, a folding hood, and two seats facing each other inside.


A lawyer who argues cases in court. See also solicitor.

Bartholomew baby

A person dressed up in a tawdry manner, like the dolls sold at Bartholomew Fair (a two-week festival celebrating the Feast of St. Bartholomew).

Bath chair

Wheelchair. Probably named because they were used by many invalids taking the waters in Bath.

bear leader

A travelling tutor, who leads his charges as if they were trained bears.


An insane asylum in London. The full name was the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem.

bit o’muslin

A woman of who gives sexual favors in exchange for payment.


A lady interested in books, learning and scholarly pursuits. From the so-called “Blue Stocking Society” which a group of society ladies began in the 1750’s to discuss literature and other matters. Interestingly, the “blue stockings” were worn by a man — Benjamin Stillingfleet, who was asked to attend the group, but since he did not own formal evening dress including the requisite black silk stockings, he wore his informal clothes along with blue worsted stockings.




A twilled or corded cloth made of silk and wool or cotton and wool, often dyed black and used for mourning clothes.

Bond Street Beau

A fashionable gentleman, as one might find on Bond Street in London.

Bow Street Runners

A small force of detectives attached to the court at Bow Street who investigated crimes. The Bow Street Runners were created by Henry and John Fielding in 1753. They were disbanded under the Police Act of 1839. See also constables.

breach of promise

If one’s intended broke off the engagement, one could sue for breach of promise and receive moderate financial compensation.


Short, close-fitting trousers that fastened just below the knees and were worn with stockings.

brown – doing it much too brown

To be roasted (i.e., browned), deceived, taken in.

brown study

Said of one absent, in a reverie, or thoughtful. From the French expression “sombre réverie.” Sombre and brun both mean sad, melancholy, gloomy, dull.


Fashionable trousers made from the skin of deer.


A tangled situation; a mess.


An illegitimate child.

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cap – set one’s cap

Try to catch a sweetheart or a husband. A lady puts on her most becoming cap to attract the gentleman’s attention and admiration.

caps – pull caps

To quarrel like two women, who pull each other’s caps.

cast up one’s accounts

To vomit.

cent per center

Moneylender. From the French meaning “100 for every 100,” in other words interest equal to the amount of the principal.


A light, open carriage, usually with a folding top. They generally had two wheels and sat two people and were drawn by one horse.

Cheltenham tragedy

To make a Cheltenham tragedy out of something is to make a big deal out of nothing, or blow a situation out of proportion. This may be a reference to the melodramas that were performed at Cheltenham spa.


A gentleman’s mistress. From the French for “dear friend.”


A saucy, forward girl.


A married lady’s admirer and escort. From the Italian.


A resident of the City, the area of London where banks and businesses are located. The term is used for members of the middle or merchant class, often in a derogatory manner.

The City

The area of London where the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange and other financial institutions are located. It is bordered on the south by the Thames and extends east to the Tower and west to the Temple Bar, covering one square mile. Historically, it is the site of the original Roman settlement of Londinium.

claret – draw someone’s claret

Blood – to make someone bleed.

climbing boy

A boy used by chimney sweeps to climb up into small, hard-to-reach places. Regency heroines frequently rescue them.

come out

A young lady’s first entry into society. She would first be presented at the Royal Court, and a ball would usually be held in her honor. Then she would be free to attend society events and seek a husband.


To give someone her congé is to dismiss her. Especially used for gentlemen and their mistresses. From the French meaning notice or leave.


Short for Consolidated Annuities. These were government securities that paid a fixed rate of interest each year.


Peacekeeping officers appointed by the local magistrate to arrest criminals. See also Bow Street Runners.


Foolish, stupid.

Corn Laws

Laws passed to put tariffs on imported corn in order to protect domestic farmers. The result was exorbitant food prices that made it difficult for working people to feed their families. The laws were repealed in 1846.


A gentleman who is fashionable and adept at sporting activities. It originally meant profligate, after the apparently elegant yet dissipated lifestyle in ancient Corinth.


A French dance for four or more couples with complicated steps and much changing of partners, led by one couple.


A dance of rural English origin in which partners face each other in two long lines.


A vain, conceited person. It formerly meant “fool,” from the caps fools wore with bells and a piece of red cloth on the top, in the shape of a cock’s comb.


A gentleman’s neckcloth made of starched linen that could be tied in a variety of styles.

cups – in one’s cups

Inebriated, drunk.


A clergyman who assists a pastor, rector or vicar.


A fashionable, sporty, two-wheeled carriage pulled by two horses.

cut, cut direct

To cut someone is to refuse to recognize that person socially. The cut direct was the most blatant way — one would look the other person directly in the face but pretend not to know him. The cut indirect involved simply looking another way, the cut sublime involved looking up at the sky until the person passed, and the cut infernal involved looking at the ground or stooping to adjust one’s shoes.


A woman of who gives sexual favors in exchange for payment; a mistress or courtesan. Named for the island of Cyprus, famous for the worship of Aprhrodite, goddess of love.

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A gentleman who is overly concerned with his dress and appearance.

demimonde, demimondaine

A demimondaine is woman of who gives sexual favors in exchange for payment; a mistress or courtesan. The demimonde refers to this class of women. From the French literally meaning half world, or underworld.


The major horse race in England, held at Epsom Downs in late May or early June. Pronounced “Darby.”

dernier cri

The latest thing; the newest fashion. From the French meaning “the last word.”

diamond of the first water

A very beautiful woman. From the term used for the jewel meaning a diamond of the best color and most brilliant luster.


Inebriated, drunk.


A term used to refer to the widow of a peer — e.g., the Dowager Countess of Essex. Generally the term is only used if the current holder of the title is married and therefore the female title (e.g., Countess of Essex) is in use.

dower house

A relatively small house on an estate to which the dowager would retire when the new heir took up residence.


Chaperone. From the Spanish.

dun territory

In debt. The tradition is that it refers to Joe Dun, a famous bailiff of Lincoln in the reign of Henry VII, who was famous for his skill at collecting debts. Also possibly from the Anglo-Saxon “dunan” meaning din or clamour.

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To limit the inheritance of property or title to a specific line of heirs so that it cannot be passed to anyone else. An entailed estate usually passes to the eldest son.

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Material of a different color that shows when the cuffs and collar are folded over. In the military, different colored facings implied different regiments.


Variation of “taradiddle” — a falsehood or lie.


A card game in which players bet on the order that cards will appear when dealt from the bottom of the deck.


A piece of lace, muslin, or other cloth worn about the neck to preserve a lady’s modesty. From the French meaning neckerchief.

Fleet Prison, Fleet marriages

Fleet Prison was a prison for debtors. Fleet marriages were clandestine marriages that were performed at the prison without the need for licenses or banns during the 17th and 18th centuries. The practice was ended with the Marriage Act of 1753.


Thieves in the streets, muggers.


A gentleman who dresses in excessively elaborate clothes and has affected manners.


Driving a carriage pulled by four horses, an exercise requiring skill. The Four-in-Hand Club was a notable club for gentlemen who were excellent drivers.


Inebriated, drunk.


A Member of Parliament, including peers in the House of Lords, could frank letters — mail them free of charge — by affixing his personal seal along with the word “frank” or “free.” This practice continued until 1840, when cheap postal rates were introduced.


A person who robs and plunderers, especially pirates and smugglers. From the Dutch “vrijbuiter” and the German “freibeuter,” meaning to rove freely.

French leave

To take French leave is to go off without taking leave of the company: a saying frequently applied to persons who have run away from their creditors.The allusion is to the French soldiers, who in their invasions take what they require, and never wait to ask permission of the owners or pay any price for what they take.


An effeminate fop; a name borrowed from a celebrated character of that kind, in the play Miss in her Teens (1746) by David Garrick.


A dismal countenance. Friday was a day of abstinence.


Government securities that could be purchased by investors. See also consols.


Bombast; made up of pompous, high-sounding language. Also a coarse, heavy cloth made of cotton and flax.

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Nonesense, humbug (noun). To deceive, to tell lies (verb).


A light, two-wheeled, one-horse carriage especially used in the country.


An outdoor overcoat usually with one or several capes around the shoulders.

green girl

A young, inexperienced girl.

Gretna Green

A town in Scotland just over the border from England where couples would elope. A marriage could be obtained without a license, a clergyman, a waiting period, or parental consent. The couple simply had to declare their intention to marry in front of witnesses. The blacksmith in Gretna Green was a popular place for marriages, hence the phrase “married over the anvil.”

grigs – merry as grigs

A grig is a young eel. Possibly an allusion to their liveliness. There was also a class of vagabond dancers and tumblers who visited ale-houses called grigs.


An old English silver coin worth fourpence; a very small sum. “I don’t care a groat” = “I don’t care at all.”


One who is easily imposed on or taken in. From the fish of that name, which is easily caught.

gull, gulled

A person who is easily cheated (noun). Deceived, cheated, imposed on (verb).

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hackney carriage

A carriage for hire. A hackney is a horse for ordinary riding or driving, from the town of Hackney near London known for its horses.


A landscaping element consisting of a trench or ditch that cannot be seen until one approaches it. Presumably named for the exclamation of surprise one utters on encountering it.

half pay

A military officer who was not on active duty received half his usual pay.


A bad-tempered, disreputable old woman. Probably from the French word “haridelle” meaning a worn-out horse.

Hessian boots

High boots coming to just below the knee that have tassels on the top. Named for the German soldiers called Hessians who introduced them.

high in the instep

Haughty or proud.

high ropes

To be on the high ropes; to be in a passion.


A popular gentleman’s bootmaker.


A tomboy; a girl who behaves in a boisterous and unladylike manner.

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Breeches. So called because it was not considered polite for ladies to mention them by name.

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A place of concealment. To “wish someone at Jericho” is to want them out of the way. The manor of Blackmore, near Chelmsford, was called Jericho, and was one of the houses where Henry VIII visited his courtesans.

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A four-wheeled carriage with two inside seats facing each other and a top made in two parts that could be folded back. Named after Landau, the German town where it was first made.

leading strings

Strips of fabric on children’s clothes to hold onto them and help them walk. “Since I was in leading strings” = “Since I was a child.”



Little Season

A smaller version of the Season, when London society attended a variety of entertainments. The Little Season took place from September to mid-November. See also Season.

Long Meg A very tall woman. Long Meg of Westminster was a notorious woman from the time of Henry VIII about whom a number of ballads and stories were written.


A card game in which players who fail to take a trick pay forfeits into a pool.

loose fish

An unreliable sort.

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maggot in one’s head

A strange notion or whim.

make a cake of oneself

Make a fool of oneself. Possibly from “half-baked.”

mail coach

Coaches with regular routes and schedules that carried both mail and passengers around the country.


A dressmaker. A mantua is an old type of gown, no longer worn in Regency times.

Marriage Mart

A term used for the London Season, when young ladies would seek mates.


A boxing match or fight.


A dressmaker. From the French “mode” meaning style.



more hair than wit

Not very smart.

mushroom, pushing mushroom

A person or family suddenly raised to riches and eminence. Also a person or family trying to force their way into society above their birth. In both cases, an allusion to the fungus, which starts up in a night.

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A very rich man, especially one who acquired his fortune in India. From the Hindustani word “nawab,” term for a ruler in the Mogul Empire.


A strong, yellow or buff cotton cloth, originally made in Nanking, China.

Newgate Prison

The main prison in London, attached to the Old Bailey, where public executions took place.


One that is unequalled. There is none such as he.

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on dit

Gossip. From the French meaning “they say.”


A lady with a unique style.

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parson’s mousetrap



A person considered as a matrimonial match. From the French meaning party or match.

Patroness of Almack’s

One of the society ladies who could give vouchers to hopefuls seeking entree into the hallowed halls of Almack’s. The patronesses were: Lady Castlereagh; Lady Cowper; Mrs. Drummond Burrell; Princess Esterhazy; Countess Lieven; Lady Jersey, and Lady Sefton.


A coat with armholes or sleeves worn by ladies over their dresses, buttoning up the front, usually either full or three-quarter length.


A light, four-wheeled carriage with open sides, with or without a top, with one or two seats, drawn by one or two horses. A high-perch phaeton was a particularly dashing vehicle. From the Greek myth of Phaëthon, who tried to drive the chariot of his father the Sun and nearly destroyed the earth.

pockets to let

Broke; without money.



post chaise

A small closed carriage that could be rented for long journeys.

Pump Room

The room at a watering place where one drank the curative mineral waters and gossiped. The most famous is in Bath.

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The upper class of society.


A dance in square formation for four couples that usually has five parts or movements.

quarter day

The day at the end of each quarter during the year when rents were due and allowances were received.

queer in the attic

Peculiar or crazy.

Queer Street

To be of doubtful solvency. To be one marked in a tradesman’s ledger with a quære (inquire), meaning, make inquiries about this customer.

quizzing glass

A single eyeglass or monocle. One used it to examine, or quiz, objects or persons.

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Ill-mannered. Presumably so named because one behaves with the poor manners of lower classes.


A dissolute, profligate gentleman; one who indulges in vices such as drinking, gambling and especially sexual conquests. From the Anglo-Saxon “rakel” or “rackle” meaning rough and hasty. Possibly also a reference to the fact that these gentlemen will rake, or search, hell in the afterlife.


A purse usually made of cloth, often beaded, with a drawstring closure.

River Tick

To be punting on the River Tick is to be in debt. In the seventeenth century, ticket was the ordinary term for the written acknowledgment of a debt, and one living on credit was said to be living on tick.

Rotten Row

A path for horse riding in the southern part of Hyde Park. A corruption of the phrase “route de roi” meaning King’s Row in French.

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sawyer – top sawyer

One who excels at driving horses.


The prime time for social events for high society in London. The Season began after Easter and lasted through June. A variety of entertainments were held during this time, and it was a way for ladies to meet potential mates.

sixes and sevens

Confused or unsettled. From the Hebrew phrase “Six, yea seven,” meaning an indefinite number, as in Job (v. 19), “He [God] shall deliver thee in six troubles, yea in seven.”

small clothes

Knee-breeches, especially close-fitting ones.

Smithfield bargain

A bargain whereby the purchaser is taken in. It is also used for marriages contracted solely for monetary gain, a reference to women being bought and sold like cattle in Smithfield.


A powdered tobacco, often scented, usually taken into the nose. It was usually carried in small, decorated containers called snuffboxes.


A lawyer who handles wills and estate matters. See also barrister.


In addition to the ruling monarch, a sovereign was also a gold coin worth a pound.

Spanish coin



A short jacket worn by ladies.

special license

A license issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury for a fee that allowed a couple to marry at any time or place.

stick one’s spoon in the wall

To die. It originally meant “took up residence,” from the fact that in primitive times a leather strap was often nailed to the wall near the fireplace as a place to keep items like spoons. It eventually came to mean “die,” presumably from taking up permanent residence in the afterlife.

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An old maid. Either from the (then) old-fashioned name Tabitha, or from a tabby cat — old maids being often compared to cats.


A lady who did not “take” during her Season did not win any admirers or suitors.


A falsehood or lie.


A popular horse market in London.

toad eater

A sychophant or flatterer; a toady. Either from the Spanish “todita,” meaning factotum, or from the practice of charlatans who would have their assistants eat toads in order to “cure” them of poison.


The ton was the high society of the Regency period. It is pronounced like “tone,” and it comes from the French word ton meaning “tone, style.” A person or action described as good ton was accepted by Society. A person or action described as bad ton violated the unwritten rules of Society and was deemed unacceptable.

touched in the upper works



With a capital T, this always refers to London.

Town bronze

Polish or style.

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upper orders

The highest level of society.

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Vauxhall Gardens

A pleasure garden across the Thames from fashionable London that offered a variety of entertainments including music, dancing and elaborate fireworks displays. There were also numerous dark walks suitable for assignations.


The card game known as “21” or blackjack, where the object is to take cards until one is as close as possible to 21 without going over. From the French meaning twenty-one.


Vouchers were required to gain admittance to Almack’s Assembly Rooms. They could only be given out by one of the Patronesses.


Papers indicating a debt that is owed. From the term I.O.U.

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The waltz was considered somewhat shocking because of the contact maintained between the partners when it was introduced in England, but it soon became quite popular. A lady required the consent of one of the Patronesses of Almack’s for her first waltz.

waters – taking the waters

The waters in spa towns such as Tunbridge Wells and most notably Bath were thought to have healing powers, so to “take the waters” means to either drink or bathe in these mineral waters.

wear the willow

To mourn the loss of a love or to be lovelorn. The willow tree is associated with sorrow, e.g.: weeping willow. Willow garlands were symbols of being forsaken in love.


A popular gentleman’s tailor.


A card game somewhat like bridge for two players.

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Courtesy of Good Ton.

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