On Words and their Meanings – Jilting the Duke by Rachael Miles

On a recent episode of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert suggested that one of the reasons Downton Abbey is ‘so alluring’ is the ‘plummy’ accents of its actors. Try the same script with an American accent, he said, and it falls flat.

As a writer of historical romances, I want my characters to sound convincing, and that means they need to use words appropriate for the era. To see what’s in use during the period, I use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a specialized dictionary that provides definitions by year. But since words exist in everyday speech long before they appear in a dictionary, I allow myself a twenty-year window. Jilting the Duke is set in 1819, so I assume that definitions listed in the OED ‘work’ up to around 1840. If I’m looking for phrases, I widen my search to include contemporary books and magazines. It’s like a scavenger hunt, trying to locate just the right appropriate word.

Sometimes researching a word or phrase leads to strange revelations. Here’s a couple of my favorites.


  • When the Home Office asks Aidan Somerville, the Duke of Forster, to report on his old lover, Sophia Gardiner, Lady Wilmot, I wanted them to ask him to empathize with her, but the best he can do is sympathize. In 1819, no one could empathize with another person. The idea of empathy as a ‘feeling-into’ develops in Germany philosophy in the late nineteenth century, while the term itself is coined in 1909 by Edward Titchener.


  • When Sophia is nervous about meeting friends and relatives she hasn’t seen in a decade, I wanted Aidan to offer to serve as a buffer for her. But in 1819, no one could serve as a buffer—in the sense of mitigating the conflict between two persons. In 1819 buffers were the metal plates that cushioned the impact between carriage parts.


  • When Aidan challenges Sophia to a game of croquet, I let him do it, though croquet doesn’t exist in 1819. It’s true: in 1819, no one could play croquet. Instead, they could play Palle-Maille, Pell-Mel, or Pall-Mall—various names for a game similar to croquet that was popular in England from the 17th century. In Palle-Maille, players strike a ball through hoops placed at either end of the playing field. In croquet, players strike a ball through a series of hoops in a particular order, and that game wasn’t part of British culture until the 1850s. However, in Jilting the Duke, I use croquet as a shorthand to convey to readers quickly what sort of game the lovers play.


But not all my research reveals words that I can’t use. Instead, I sometimes find words whose meanings are remarkably consistent over time. Here’s a fun example: from the 1660s, a person could pop something in his or her mouth and eat it.

If you like learning more about the words I use in Jilting the Duke, check out my website where I’m keeping a list of these discoveries: rachaelmiles.com


“Her characters come alive with warmth and purpose.” –Jodi Thomas, New York Times bestselling author

Broken Promise, Broken Heart

Aidan Somerville, Duke of Forster, is a rake, a spy, and a soldier, richer than sin and twice as handsome. Now he is also guardian to his deceased best friend’s young son. The choice makes perfect sense—except that the child’s mother is the lovely Sophia Gardiner, to whom Aidan was engaged before he went off to war. When the news reached him that she had married another, his ship had not yet even left the dock.

Sophia does not expect Aidan to understand or forgive her. But she cannot allow him to stay her enemy. She’s prepared for coldness, even vengeance—but not for the return of the heedless lust she and Aidan tumbled into ten years ago. She knows the risks of succumbing to this dangerous desire. Still, with Aidan so near, it’s impossible not to dream about a second chance…