As is sadly still the case today, it has always been the way that women who go against society’s norms will find themselves the subject of some derogatory terms. The following lend us a window into the acceptable standards of female behavior in bygone days.
A Bartholomew-baby was a gaudy doll, such as were sold at fairs. It is referred to in Poor Robin, 1740, thus;
‘By the eighth house you may know to an inch, how many moths will eat an alderman’s gown; by it also, and the help of the bill of mortality, a man may know how many people die in London every week; it also tells farmers what manner of wife they should chuse, not one trickt up with ribbands and knots, like a Bartholomew-baby; for such a one will prove a holiday wife, all play and no work.’
A woman who dressed so gaudily may have found herself the subject of bibble-babble (idle gossip) and seems to have been generally frowned upon. If she were profligate, she would have been called a Baudy-Basket. In Mrs Behu, City Heiress, 1628, the word betawder was used, meaning to dress gaudily; ‘Go, get ye home, and trick and betawder yourself up like a right city lady,’ the woman was told.
If a woman’s hair or head-dress was loose and disordered, or decorated with vulgar finery, she would be called a blouse.
If an adulteress, she’d be referred to as a bed-swerver; a bed-suster, if she was the concubine of a married man; and should her bed-fellow be a dull, heavy fellow, he would be called a bed-presser.
If a woman addicted herself to study or author-ship, she was called a blue-stocking.
A woman vicious by nature was deemed a boggler and if a woman was thought to be a common strumpet, she was named a buttock.
If she lived in the 1500’s she may have worn a bongrace to protect her complexion. This was a border attached to a bonnet or hat. Cotgrave, 1600’s, speaks of it as outmoded apparel; ‘Cornette, a fashion of shadow, or bongrace, used in old time, and at this day by some old women.’
The bon-grace is also mentioned in The Pardoner and the Frere, 1533; ‘Her bongrace, which she ware with her French hode, when she went oute always, for some sonne burnynge.’
If a woman was the wife of a common vagrant, she was a bitch, whereas a bitch-daughter was an alternative word for night-mare.
Being the Bawdy-Basket that I am, methinks I shall dare to go and betawder myself like a buttock for a spending spree in town. I shall surely invite some bibble-babble but hope not to meet any bogglers and bitches along the way lest I should suffer a bitch-daughter during the night!
The above examples were selected and compiled from the Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English compiled by Thomas Wright, M.A., F.S.A. 1904.
Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.
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