My current bedtime reading is Edith Wharton’s The Children. Wharton, a contemporary of Henry James, is now considered to be a major American novelist. She wrote a lot about upper class American society at the beginning of the twentieth century – I highly recommend The House of Mirth.

Anyway, a recent chapter introduced a turn of phrase I’d never heard before:

“I’m sorry. And Judy will be awfully sold.”
“But it was a sell…just to come back again…”

The character, a child, seems to be using ‘sell’ to mean upset or upsetting. It’s very odd – I can’t find any reference to its general usage, even as nineteenth-century American slang, so I can only assume that Wharton has made it up to indicate his childishness.

Children do have some inventive use of language, often only understood by their peers. It’s a way of self-definition and group belonging I guess. ‘Wicked’ meaning brilliant is the only one from my youth that immediately springs to mind, but I’m sure there were many more appropriations of regular words to mean something else. A quick online delve into playground slang uncovers phrases such as ‘sell the Buick’, an American colloquialism meaning to vomit. Lovely.

Another new word I learnt recently is (and this one’s real) ‘finny’. Whilst shopping at Castle Market, I discovered this is the Sheffield name for haddock. Or maybe it’s only used by people who work on fish stalls…can any Sheffield folk confirm?

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