Wonderful Words of Austen Q-Z

Today marks the third and final installment of my Wonderful Words of Austen series of posts. This set of letters, Q-Z has been so fun to put together that I’m sad to bring the series to a close. I hope you enjoy the words as much as I have.

Mrs. Bennet, a model of querulous behavior

Querulous – An adjective that means habitually complaining. I confess that this word didn’t mean what I thought it did. This phenomenon sometimes happens when I’ve read a word and assign it a contextual meaning in my mind without stopping to look it up. Fortunately, I don’t think I’ve embarrassed myself by using this word incorrectly. Jane Austen used this word only one time. I’ve personally read this passage numerous times and somehow passed over this word, assigning a meaning that made sense to me at the time. When I selected querulous from the list of “q” words for this post, I was delighted to learn the true meaning, since it lends a delicious paradoxical flavor to the passage describing the mood at Longbourn after Lydia went to Brighton.

“After the first fortnight or three weeks of her absence, health, good-humour and cheerfulness began to reappear at Longbourn. Everything wore a happier aspect. The families who had been in town for the winter came back again, and summer finery and summer engagements arose. Mrs. Bennet was restored to her usual querulous serenity…” ~ Pride and Prejudice

Mrs. Bennet’s rapacity for whist players is soon to be unleashed

Rapacity – A noun that means extreme gluttony, reprehensible acquisitiveness or insatiable desire for wealth. Jane Austen used it just one time, in the scene where Elizabeth is deprived of Wickham’s company because her mother called him away to play cards. I love her use of this word here because it conveys more than a hint of resentment on Elizabeth’s part. She clearly considered her mother acquisition of Wickham to play cards to be a defect in her character. Giving such weight to one little word is one of the reasons we adore Jane Austen.

“When the tea-things were removed, and the card-tables placed, the ladies all rose, and Elizabeth was then hoping to be soon joined by him, when all her views were overthrown by seeing him fall a victim to her mother’s rapacity for whist players, and in a few moments after seated with the rest of the party.” ~ Pride and Prejudice

Mr. Elton is in a sanguine state of mind

Sanguine – confidently optimistic and cheerful. Jane Austen used this word thirty times. When one thinks through the various characters of Austen’s works, it isn’t hard to think of characters who are sanguine, or as in our example, have moments of being so. It is generally a positive trait, but when Jane Austen uses words, we can expect the unexpected, for poor Mr. Elton will soon transition into an altogether different attitude. This passage, from the 15th Chapter of Emma, finds us with Emma and Mr. Elton alone in the carriage, and Elton seizes the opportunity to propose.

“and two moments of silence being ample encouragement for Mr. Elton’s sanguine state of mind, he tried to take her hand again, as he joyously exclaimed…” ~Emma


Tressels – A horizontal member supported at each end by a pair of divergent legs. A modern example of a tressel, which we now spell trestle, is a sawhorse. This word caught my eye because of a previous search for an appropriate Regency word for a dummy horse one could use to practice mounting. I finally came across the term “trestle horse”, which was used in the military.
Jane Austen used this word just once, providing a vivid mental vision of the Christmas preparations of Mrs. Musgrove at Uppercross in the passage. The description reminded me of similar setups using planks instead of trays at potlucks, and I perceive that the “tressels and trays” were likely used as backup tables brought out during preparations for a feast.

“On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard in spite of all the noise of the others.” ~ Persuasion

Elizabeth Bennet upbraids Mr. Darcy at Hunsford

Upbraid – Means to express criticism or severely scold someone. Jane used this word two times, as well as “upbraided” and “upbraiding” each one time. It’s the perfect descriptor for the tongue lashing Elizabeth gave Darcy at Hunsford when he proposed. It proves that she knew she went too far very soon after the scene occurred.

“Mr. Darcy’s letter she was in a fair way of soon knowing by heart. She studied every sentence, and her feelings towards its writer were at times widely different. When she remembered the style of his address, she was still full of indignation; but when she considered how unjustly she had condemned and upbraided him, her anger was turned against herself; and his disappointed feelings became the object of compassion” ~ Pride and Prejudice

Harriet Smith has so few vagaries herself that she can’t calculate on the effects

Vagaries – a whimsical, wild, or unusual idea, desire, or action, typically unpredictable or erratic. Jane Austen only used this word once, yet in the excerpt below, which refers to Harriet Smith, we find it used as a fairly kind way of calling Harriet Smith simple and uncomplicated. It also seems to be Austen taking a mild jab at Emma through Mr. Weston, who appears in this conversation to be unaware of Emma’s eccentricities, even though his marriage stemmed from one of her matchmaking schemes, which fall into the category of vagaries.

“But your good friend there (nodding towards the upper end of the table) has so few vagaries herself, and has been so little used to them at Hartfield, that she cannot calculate on their effects, as I have been long in the practice of doing.” ~ Emma


Lucy Steele: capable of the utmost meanness of wanton ill-nature

Wanton – [noun] lewd or lascivious woman, [verb] waste time; spend one’s time idly or inefficiently, [verb] indulge in a carefree or voluptuous way of life, [verb] spend wastefully, [verb] become extravagant; indulge (oneself) luxuriously, [verb] engage in amorous play, [verb] behave extremely cruelly and brutally, [adjective] occurring without motivation or provocation, [adjective] casual and unrestrained in sexual behavior.

There are more definitions, but the list above, taken from the Austen Thesaurus covers most meanings that were in play in the early 19th century. I read a lot of Austen variations and frequently encounter this word in JAFF – almost exclusively as a reference to sexual behavior. (e.g. Elizabeth worries that Darcy will think her wanton if she shows any passion.)

Austen used this word three times, and another three times used “wantonly” but not in the context of sexual behavior that we so commonly see today. Below are three examples where you see that her usage covers a range of behaviors that never even reference the meanings so many have come to associate with the word.

“…be captiously irritable, misled by every moment’s inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness.” ~ Persuasion

“Its origin–jealousy perhaps, or wanton cruelty–was yet to be unveiled.” ~ Northanger Abbey

“That Lucy had certainly meant to deceive, to go off with a flourish of malice against him in her message by Thomas was perfectly clear to Elinor; and Edward himself now thoroughly enlightened on her character, had no scruple in believing her capable of the utmost meanness of wanton ill-nature.” ~ Sense and Sensibility

X – The Roman Numeral chapter numberings from x to xxxviii all begin with an “X”, but no actual “X” words were used by Jane Austen.

John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham when he was a younker. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

Younker – A young man or boy, usually of noble birth. From the same roots as the German “junker” which translates literally to “young lord.” Jane Austen used this word just once, spoken by Admiral Croft who is walking Anne down the street in Bath. It’s an amusing scene, where he proves to be a bit of a man gossip as he discusses various acquaintances. Perhaps because it’s an older gentleman saying  it and also we don’t see Austen use the word elsewhere, I imagine it being akin to “young whippersnapper” in today’s vernacular – the usage dates him. One of the fun things about it is that to my ear, it sounds something like an insult, but it really wasn’t. Modern dictionaries mark it as obsolete, but I can’t pinpoint a timeframe of when it fell out of common use.

“There comes old Sir Archibald Drew and his grandson. Look, he sees us: he kisses his hand to you; he takes you for my wife. Ah! the peace has come too soon for that younker.” ~ Persuasion

…their straightforward emotions left no room for the little zigzags of embarrassment.

Zigzags – Jane Austen only used four words that begin with a “Z” and she used this word just once. The word originated in France, possibly meaning “tooth, prong.” In England, its usage was initially to describe the layout of certain garden paths. Austen uses it metaphorically, with a potent effect. You feel the coldness of Emma and Elton’s anger toward each other, and the undertone of pointy parts just emphasizes the painful aspect of their final, silent minutes in the carriage.

“If there had not been so much anger, there would have been desperate awkwardness; but their straightforward emotions left no room for the little zigzags of embarrassment. Without knowing when the carriage turned into Vicarage-lane, or when it stopped, they found themselves, all at once, at the door of his house; and he was out before another syllable passed.” ~ Emma

I hope you’ve enjoyed this final installment exploring the language of Jane Austen. We barely touched the surface, but I hope you learned something new – I know I did. Please share your thoughts or any words you’ve encountered in Austen’s works that resonated with you.

12 Responses to Wonderful Words of Austen Q-Z

    • I feel the same way. I truly enjoy the “big picture” of Austen’s plots and characterizations, etc., but putting words and phrases she used under the microscope really does add depth to my understanding of her genius. Thanks for commenting, Sharon.

  1. Wow, you put a ton of work into this! I especially liked seeing tressles and zig zags, which I had never before noticed in Austen’s writing. Thank you!

  2. I am amazed at how you find these words. I am embarrassed at how I …apparently… overlooked many of them. Wow!!! good eye. Thanks for the dictionary/thesaurus of JA words.

    • Finding the words wasn’t too hard. I have a document that has all the words she used in alphabetical order which I converted to a PDF doc and bookmarked each letter. I went through the list for each letter picking likely candidates, then I narrowed them down based on how I liked the excerpts. I confess to being a lover of words – I always enjoy learning a new word. The artful use of a word is a skill I admire and seek to cultivate for myself. I’m not nearly as adept as Jane Austen, but even studying how she uses words gives insight.

  3. Ooohhh good one. Querulous! I haven’t heard that one in years, it’s like meeting a very old friend. ….maybe a very naggy friend… But I love how she used it. Mom’s whinging again, she’s clearly back to normal.

    I started using temperament words a lot after the old country surgeon in my project developed to be also a sort of councillor. The connections according to the practice of the day come across as, well, humorous. “Too much phlegm, and that’s why he lets his family run around and do whatever they want.” His apprentice is a poster-boy sanguine, down to the red hair, completely by accident.

    • LOL – I love that you already knew Querulous! You paint quite a picture of the goings on in the office of an old country surgeon too! Perfect. Thanks for commenting.

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