Williamsburg Slang

Williamsburg Slang

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Williamsburg slang is based on the everyday vocabulary of the eighteenth century, which presents a challenge for the costumed interpreters of this colonial haven. They are extensively trained through numerous classes. One of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundations lessons includes the handout, "Eight Easy Ways To Make Your Speech Sound More Eighteenth Century." It recommends the following: "interpreters say, 'tis' and 'twill' in place of 'it's' and 'it'll.'" The guide goes on to suggest "'sir' and 'madam' in direct address, in order to provide an atmosphere of proper formality, even in everyday conversation." The interpreters must also become familiar with the slang terms and phrases of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1700s. Below are some examples of local lingo to help you better understand the more obscure words and references used here.

1. Bigwig

Wigs were very popular in the 1700s, and men who wore larger-sized and more costly hairpieces were often referred to as "bigwigs" by the everyday citizens. Calling someone a bigwig in colonial times was not complimentary. Today the term is used as a name for an important person, dignitary or official.

2. Blockhead

Blockhead is another Williamsburg slang word connected with wigs. A blockhead was a wooden stand shaped like a head, which was used to store wigs. Therefore, the expression "blockhead" came to mean "one with wood in their brain," i.e., someone dull or stupid.

3. Burning the candle at both ends

This was a phrase used in the 1700s meaning to foolishly spend all of your savings, as opposed to now, when it refers to the attempt to physically do all that you can, or working at a hectic pace for an extended period of time.

4. Egad

This exclamation or interjection was uttered in place of the words, "Oh, God." It softened the reference to God. "Oh, La" or "Lard" was also used instead of "Lord."

5. Mob Cap

Women in the colonial period wore large plain or ruffled hats during their daily work. The muslin or linen cap helped keep their hair clean, as bathing and shampooing were not frequent activities.

6. Sampler

A sampler was not an assortment of goodies to taste, but rather a sewing project whereby young girls learned the alphabet, as well as different hand stitches. An authentic colonial sampler is now a precious and expensive antique collectible.

7. Cop

In early 1700's Williamsburg slang terms, the word "cop" came to mean "capture" or "catch." The word evolved into a noun for someone who captures criminals such as a policeman. A copper or "copperman" was a policeman.

8. Powder Magazine

A powder magazine was not a periodical for skiers, but rather the building used to store the town's ammunition or gunpowder. In Williamsburg, the powder magazine was a tall octagonal brick tower located in the center of the town.

9. Trifle

This exotic colonial dessert consisted of plain or sponge cake soaked with a little sherry, brandy or rum. The cake was often topped or thickened with cream or custard, and perhaps layered with jelly.

10. Slipshod

The word slipshod meant to be shod or wearing slippers. If a person was wearing slippers in the 1700s, they were dressed poorly or slovenly.

11. Consumption

A wasting-away disease that "consumed" its victims, usually pulmonary tuberculosis.

12. Hornbook

A hornbook or primer was a thin piece of wood, metal or leather with a handle used to help colonial children learn to read. Paper was very expensive in those times, so just one sheet was used and covered by a thin layer of mica or transparent horn. The alphabet was typically written on the paper.

13. Macaroni

As heard in the song "Yankee Doodle," macaroni means fancy in Williamsburg lingo, not a form of pasta.

14. To dive into the woods

A common figure of speech meaning to hide yourself.

15. Flip

A popular drink served in early American taverns. A flip was a mixture of beer, sweetened with sugar or molasses and topped with a dash of rum. To make it foam, a hot poker was inserted and then swirled.

16. Spider

A frying pan or pot with tall legs, which allows coals from the kitchen hearth to be placed underneath. Sometimes a lid and hot embers are placed on top, creating a Dutch oven for cooking the food inside. Today, many campers continue to use similar pots.
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