Have you ever read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? While it is, perhaps, one of the most popular works of Victorian literature, it wasn’t until recently that I completed this 19th century classic. By today’s standards, the story is nothing special (stilted flirtations, courtship, matrimony, etc.), however, one thing that stood out to me in particular is the use of language. English just isn’t what it used to be!
Here is a short list to illustrate what I mean:
“Lady Catherine, with great condescension, wished them a good journey..”
Has anyone ever spoken to you in a condescending tone, dear Reader? If so, you may have been offended that someone would look down on you or patronize you. However, in Austen’s age “to condescend” did not have a negative connotation. Instead, it had the positive connotation of someone who is obliging, acquiescing, or otherwise complying.
“I consider music as a very innocent diversion…”
Nowadays, a diversion means that you are veering off the given course. However, in Austen’s time, a diversion described a “recreation” or some other amusement.
Bonus fact: in Spanish the word for “fun” is la diversión — the older meaning is preserved here
“…no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with…”
Unless the word is preceded by “self-”, you don’t often see the word “esteem” nowadays. In the above context “esteemed” holds a meaning similar to “deemed” or “considered.”
“You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner…”
If something is “insupportable,” you may logically think that it describes something that cannot be “supported” or justified. While this meaning reigns as definition número uno today, way back when, “insupportable” chiefly meant “unbearable.”
Bonus fact: in Spanish the word for “unbearable” is insupportable (so “insupportable” with a Spanish accent).
“Pray do not talk of that odious man.”
Pray tell! Haven’t we all said this as a joke mocking antiquated English? “Pray” in this context does not actually hold any real meaning. “Pray” was just used as a preface to make a request sound more polite (even if you are already speaking unkindly of a “hateful” man, apparently).
“They all exclaimed against such terrific ideas…”
If someone compliments you on your “terrific” ideas today, you may be delighted to know that your innovation has been highly appraised. However, back in the day, “terrific” did not mean “super,” in fact, it meant something causing terror.
I admit, Pride and Prejudice is not a favorite of mine. However, focusing on these small amusements made finishing the book a little more pleasurable. 😉