Who’s that (interesting) girl?

Who doesn’t love a murder mystery, right? Especially a 200-year old murder? So it was that I was drawn to All Things Georgian and the tale of Elizabeth Shepherd or Sheppard. One thing led to another. I wasn’t convinced of the author’s conclusion that this was motiveless. It did not seem to fit with the reasons why bad men murder young women, so I went to investigate contemporaneous sources for myself.

There I saw it again. It was the phrase that All Things Georgian had already highlighted in the story. The victim was an “interesting girl”

Baffled as I once had been by the phrase “frail Cyprian” (see Not From Cyprus, Not So Frail), I had my suspicions that the local lass might either have been having a baby or perhaps have a bit of a reputation with the boys. Sort of reasonable, I told myself. After all, the phrase “interesting condition” was a Victorian euphemism for pregnancy.

I searched the newspapers held on the UK’s British Library newspaper database. Again and again, in court cases and other news items around this period, it was used without further qualification. So readers knew what quality was being described. The “interesting” girls in question were obviously not loose women. On the contrary, they were quite the opposite. Though, in context, it did not seem to mean pretty or beautiful. On occasions those words were used as well.

It had little to do with attractiveness in any sexual sense. It was just as readily applied to a four or five year old who burnt herself to death going too near to an open fire or another tot who was playing around a farm steam traction engine with gruesomely fatal results.

Nothing in the OED, so I went back to the British Library records of all the uses of the word ‘interesting’ — and there are a lot. Through the 18th century the adjective had the meaning we ascribe to it. There was ‘interesting news’, ‘an interesting play’, ‘interesting memoirs’, ‘interesting debates’ and so on. It was never used to describe an attribute — either physical or character — of anybody, male or female.

I have reached year year 1795 but will not let this one drop and will inevitably bore you again when I find a definitive answer, but in the meantime… do you have a definition?

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4 Responses to Who’s that (interesting) girl?

  1. actonbooks says:

    Yikes, it’s everywhere. This is from the Daily Alta California in July 1869 and it’s not just girls who are interesting:- “About six PM., the son of Patrick McGowan, blacksmith, residing on Eleventh Street, between H and I, was drowned in the American River, while bathing. He was an interesting boy of 11 years of age. The body was recovered and taken to the parents by the Coroner.”


  2. I look forward to being bored! I’m wondering if it might mean something along the lines of ‘not right in the head’.


    • actonbooks says:

      I like it… it reminds me of another word that has moved around a bit in its life. ‘Simple’ nowadays means educationally challenged but once it meant chaste and innocent. I will test the theory, but firstly there is nothing in any of the stories that suggests an “aha, that’s why she did that or that happened to her.” Secondly the Victorians didn’t do nice. You were committed to a Home for Idiots, or lived out the remainder of your life in the building with the legend Hospital for Incurables over the door. I’ll keep you poste when I think I’ve reached a conclusion.


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