‘Impudent Huzzy!': How to Speak Like a Founding Father

Slang from the 18th century isn't as "frowzy" as you might suspect

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Lasse Kristensen

How many mickles are in a muckle? Well now, that’s a question for George Washington, who espoused a great many words that would put today’s Americans in a tizzy.

In honor of Independence Day, NewsFeed has put together a list of tantalizing terms that our Founding Fathers pronounced on their patriotic tongues. Some are slang, some are now obsolete and some are simply wonderful words that aren’t used enough these days. For many items, we’ve included quotations straight from the Fathers themselves, all taken from citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the name of historical appreciation, Americans might resolve to use at least one of these tomorrow. Goodness knows plenty of Yankees will be heading to the tippling house:

alphabeted (adj.): arranged in alphabetical order. This is a prime example of a “verbed” noun that is more economical than spelling the whole thing out. Washington didn’t arrange ledgers in alphabetical order in 1771; he alphabeted them.

blackguardism (n.): abusive or scurrilous language; swearing. Blackguard was shorthand for a villainous attendant or follower, so by extension bad language got this name. “The public,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1799, “wish to hear reason instead of disgusting blackguardism.”

Bloody Bones (n): a bogeyman or bugbear, especially invoked to frighten children. In some tales, Bloody Bones skulks in ponds, waiting to drown kiddies; he was often mentioned along with “Raw Head,” a scary skull-faced thing. TJ used the metaphor to talk about fellow politicos: “Hancock and the Adamses were the raw-head and bloody bones of Tories and traitors,” he wrote in 1817.

crapulous (adj.): characterized by gross excess in drinking or eating; intemperate, debauched. In the year that the U.S. Constitution came to be, Jefferson took time to write about other men’s “crapulous habits.” (We might reprise this today as a word meaning approximately “so bad, it’s good.”)

frowzy (adj.): ill-smelling, fusty, musty; having an unpleasant smell from being dirty, unwashed, ill-ventilated or the like. In all his various pursuits, Benjamin Franklin was bound to come across some frowzy — also frouzy — things. “It is the frouzy, corrupt air from animal substances,” he declared in 1773.

gimcrack (n.): a person who has an aptitude for mechanical things; a jack-of-all-trades. “There is also a gimcrack corkscrew,” Franklin wrote in 1766, “which you must get some brother gimcrack to show you the use of.” Everyone take a moment to consider who among your friends you can start calling “Brother Gimcrack” (pronounced Jim-krak). And keep in mind that the word has other meanings.

hatchet man (n.): a pioneer or axeman serving in a military unit. Back in Washington’s day, a hatchet man was exactly what it sounded like. Later, the term was used in the U.S. to refer to hired Chinese assassins. And today a hatchet man is typically a person employed to attack and destroy other people’s reputations.

huskanoy (v.): to subject someone to the ceremony, formerly in use among the Indians of Virginia, of preparing young men for the duties of manhood by means of solitary confinement and the use of narcotics. The real question, of course, is how such a thing ever fell out of practice. In 1788, Jefferson wrote that a man was “so much out of his element that he has the air of one huskanoyed.”

huzzy (n.): a disreputable woman of improper behavior; a badly behaved, pert or mischievous girl; a minx. Today one might hear the variation hussy, but foresightful Washington knew that words are way cooler when you put z’s in them. “A more … impudent huzzy, is not to be found in the United States,” he wrote in 1795.

mickle (n.): a large sum or amount, chiefly used in the proverbs “many a pickle makes a mickle” and “many a mickle makes a muckle.” In 1793, Washington referenced the Scottish adage that “Nothing in nature is more true … [than] many mickles make a muckle.” Predecessors of mickle include the Old Saxon mikil and Middle High German michel.

milk-and-water (adj.): something feeble, insipid or mawkish. “I had heard him say that this constitution was a shilly shally thing of mere milk and water, which could not last,” Jefferson wrote in 1792. Shilly-shally means irresolute and undecided. Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate “him” being wrong on both accounts.

partie carrée (n.): a party of four people, especially one comprising two men and two women. This term comes from French that roughly means “square party.” TJ described going out in partie carrées. (One couldn’t expect him to spend all that time in France without picking up an affectation or deux.)

red-heeled (adj.): wearing shoes with red heels, figuratively used to suggest foppishness or ostentatious display. In 1780, Franklin derided a “red-heeled” commissioner, who was presumably not wearing Christian Louboutin pumps.

Septemberize (v.): to murder for political reasons. “The warhawks talk of Septembrizing,” Jefferson wrote in 1798. The word comes from the French “Septemberists” who advocated the massacre of political prisoners that took place in Paris in September 1792.

tippling house (n.): a house where intoxicating liquor is sold and drunk; an ale house, a tavern. As far back as 1757, Washington was relating stories about “Instances of the villainous Behavior of those Tippling-House-keepers.” Villainous behavior notwithstanding, who would want to go drinking when you could go tippling instead?

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, NewsFeed’s weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.