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Idiom: Ton

Definition and usage of the term ton

What's a historical romance novel without a reference to the "ton"? As shocking as it might be, this was not actually a term used in the Georgian era, at least not as it appears in our beloved historical romance novels.

The use of “ton” is Georgian, but the meaning was different than we see in historical romance novels.

We typically see "ton" either used on its own or in some variation with "haut ton," or "le bon ton" or simply as "beau monde" without the word "ton."

While often used synonymously, haut ton, le bon ton, and beau monde all differ in reference.

Haut ton is the broader category, referencing high fashion, while le bon ton refers specifically to good manners. Beau monde refers to the group itself, as in fashionable society.

Generally speaking, anyone said “to be of good ton” or a member of the “beau monde” would be a fashionable person of good manners and behaviour.

How we often see it used is erroneous to its original usage. “Ton” did not refer to aristocracy or even popularity or condescension. It was quite literally anyone who was either fashionable or well-mannered, and ideally both if we assume the abbreviated “ton” refers both to haut ton and le bon ton rather than just one. Mr. Darcy, for instance, would “be of good ton.”

This usage is not how we see it in historical romance novels, however. We see it as referencing the "upper ten thousand." Another misuse is this association with the “upper ten thousand.” These are two separate phrases that have nothing to do with each other.

The “upper ten thousand” is an Americanism coined in 1840 and popularised in the 1850s to refer to wealthy New Yorkers. This is neither a British nor a Georgian phrase. Georgette Heyer, the queen of Regency romances, used this phrase (asynchronously and erroneously), and thus it caught fire with hist rom writers.

Enjoy this article from Regency History:

What is the Haut Ton


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