‘Oi, you cheeky nibbler’

One of the most interesting parts of writing historical fiction is getting to grips with the vocabulary of the period – and then dropping these words into conversations with friends and family. For instance, last week I needed a word that a Victorian might use to describe a sycophant. These days we’d probably call them a ‘bootlicker’ or a ‘toady’ if we didn’t want to be rude, or something rather nastier if we did. After some research, I came across the word ‘tufthunter’. Although it’s strictly an old university term, it seemed to fit the type of character I wanted to describe.

My favourite definition of the word came from worldwidewords.org

Tuft was from about 1670 a slang term for a golden ornamental tassel that was worn on an academic cap (a mortarboard) at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Most members of these universities had only a plain black tassel, but the titled undergraduates — noblemen and sons of noblemen — wore gold ones as a mark of their status. By an obvious transfer of sense, wearers of golden tufts were themselves called tufts. Those individuals who were slavish followers of the tufts, toadies or sycophants, became known as tufthunters.

Persons of the toadying persuasion have never had a good press. William Makepeace Thackeray described one in his Shabby Genteel Story of 1840: “Mr. Brandon was a tufthunter of the genteel sort; his pride being quite as slavish, and his haughtiness as mean and cringing, in fact, as poor Mrs. Gann’s stupid wonder and respect for all the persons whose names are written with titles before them. O free and happy Britons, what a miserable, truckling, cringing race you are!”

The more concise Merriam Webster definition of tufthunter is here.

After testing the word out on a few people who gave it the thumbs up I sent it to my American son-in-law for one final opinion. ‘I’ll have to remember that one,’ he said. I wonder if he’s got someone in mind he can use it on?

Tufthunter will appear in a scene where my main character, Jack, is lying in bed going back over the day’s events. He’s been asked to help investigate a murder which the local police are showing no interest in solving, but when he arrives in the village of Cattawade it’s soon clear that there’s more to the death of Mina Lawn than he’s been led to believe.

Laying back, hands pillowing my head, I went back over everything. The kid’s story about a  ‘ghost’  could be easily explained, it was the rest that had knocked me right off balance. First, there’d been Ruby’s news, not what I’d been expecting to hear, and then I’d been smacked in the face by some stranger. With Haddock on his way, I’d got no choice but to put the problem of Ruby and the child to one side, and concentrate on the Lawn case. That would please Gabriel and Jenny too and, I hoped, keep me out of at least one sort of trouble.

I closed my eyes, but something else about Mina’s death still tickled in the back of my head. Something I’d been chasing around all day and still hadn’t caught up with. I’d learned a lot more about the Lawns from my visits to the boat shed and their house with Gabriel and, added to what Rosamund had told me, I had a fair idea of how the little family worked. What I didn’t know was how the other brother, that tufthunter Horace, fitted in. Since no one wanted to talk about him it was no good my asking so I’d have to rely on my own eyes and ears. With luck, I’d turn up something useful at the old girl’s shop in the morning. Given Haddock’s gibe about my not being up to snuff it would be good to chuck a hefty lump of information in his direction. That would give the little Inspector something to chew on.”

Other words I’ve used have been far more common than tufthunter, but every bit as entertaining. Here are just a few from A Vocabulary of the Flash Language, a glossary attached to The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux Written by Himself. Vaux’s work was published in two volumes by W Clowes of Northumberland Court, Strand, London, in 1819.

Best to give a ‘nibbler’ a wide berth as he’s a pilferer or petty thief. Don’t  get too close to a ‘dipper’ either as he’ll pick your pocket and make off with your ‘fogle’ (silk handkerchief) or your ‘reader’ (pocketbook). As for a ‘whiddler’ never trust him, or her, with a secret. They’re far too talkative and are bound to let it slip to the wrong person.

Given that all the books in my Victorian series contain a smattering of such words I’ve been asked recently if I’m going to include a glossary. I’m tempted, but the last thing I want to do is haul the reader back to reality by making them stop and turn to the back of the book. (Something very high up on the writer’s list of fatal mistakes). It’s probably better for me to cut the obscure words in the final edit. That’s a problem for much later though. For now, they’re staying in, for no better reason than they add to the fun of writing the story.

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