I need to write a letter in an old manner. I suppose like the beginning of the 19th century.

So what was the regular phrase to get a news?

  • 1
    This is highly dependent on the era you're looking for.
    – Catija
    Feb 26, 2015 at 20:11
  • I suppose the beginning of the 19th century.
    – cadmy
    Feb 26, 2015 at 20:13
  • 1
    One could say this is offtopic because per the help center, questions about historic English are offtopic
    – user6951
    Feb 28, 2015 at 2:36

3 Answers 3


The historically accurate answer.

The common 19th century way to ask "what's been happening?" or "what is new?" or "what is the latest news?" is one of the following:

  • "What news?" (Read it again, no mistake or typo was made!) This informal idiom is often used when a person newly arrives, especially from town, a more distant place or time, or as a request for reconnaissance information. In a more formal register, this was used at the beginning of a sentence.

  • "What has happened | transpired | occurred..." As a query for news, this (formal) form required some qualifications to ground the question in time, an event occurring in time, or a particular subject of interest. These qualifications are often applied to formal versions of the "What news?" idiom.

Remember, the primary form of all news was when someone arrived. New information about the world was always thought of more like "important gossip": some person's information about something and relative to some time. An idealized version of this is, "What has happened since [we last met OR some-event OR some-other-mention-of-time] about [some topic]." There was little-to-no sense of "news" in the modern, abstract sense; "news" as we know it didn't even exist. And so the "What News?" idiom also worked as part of a greeting, welcoming the newly-arrived to share, which aided in the spread of important information.4

Pray tell me about "pray tell".

The form "pray tell" had it's heyday in the 1700's, and it was almost completely formed as "pray tell me", as the following Google Ngram indicates.

It's interesting that (as a corollary) we can conclude that the phrasing from @WhatRoughBeast's answer, "And what, pray tell, is...", is not at all representative of historical usage. Further checking shows that even simple fragments of that sentence, "pray tell is..."* and "what pray tell...", have a 0% occurrence.

The next Google Ngram suggests that plain questions were much more popular than the "pray tell" forms. For example, "tell me what..." and "tell me how...", were much more common than "pray tell me what..." and "pray tell me how...".

enter image description here

"Pray" does mean "wish" or "hope". But as used in a question (or command), it indicates a verbalization of such to the other person as an emphatic, urgent, polite, or excited request, like beseech, implore, command, beg, or urge. It can confer an urgency or authority to the speaker. "Pray" wouldn't usually be used to satisfy a simple curiosity of what is new or news, especially as a question to someone already known.

Historical Quotes

The following are some representative quotes from COHA (focused on 1800 to 1830). Some are from fiction, which presumably would reflect not only then-current language, but also idealized language from the past.1

Quotes: "What news?"

  • Enter Rainouard. All hail, my friend. What news? Rain.
  • But here comes one. Enter Jenny. Jenny Well, deary! what news?
  • but at last inquired, '' What news, Johnson? '' '' Fine news, '' said he
  • Enter Shahillas. Kuhn. Kuhn What news brother? Sha. Shahillas Bad indeed! We have been defeated by the
  • Enter a young warrior. Kuhn. Kuhn What news have you? War. Warrior Captain Lewis and his long knives are coming
  • What news do you bring to excite us?
  • Enter 2d Villager, R. H. Now friend what news have you?
  • sheepish he looked, his mother all expectation. -- '' Well, son, what news? '' '' Don't ask me about news, '' says William
  • me with a smile, (for she was there) and asked, '' what news from Boston? '' '' All well, '' I replied, '' ...
  • Enter Selictaz, in great haste. Powha. Powhatan Ha! what news, Selictaz? what of the Prince? how goes the battle? speak
  • Enter Gustavus -- R. H. Gus. Gustavus St Felix Well, my friend, what news do you bring?
  • Enter Alexis, R. Well, Alexis, what news bring you? Alexis. Alexis A small, but well armed band,
  • What news have you to communicate since we separated at the ferry, hey? ''
  • Now George, tell us what sale? what news in the city? how were the roads?

Quotes: "What has..."

  • what has transpired In my absence
  • Since last we parted -- Anto. Antonia What has happened since?
  • In good earnest, what has happened in the political world?
  • What has occurred since we last parted?
  • But yesterday we spoke on this subject. What has since happened.
  • But as you have made so long a voyage, do tell me what has happened since I left you the affianced bride of The Honourable Mr. Ashley?
  • Toll, what has happened since last night? '' he said, as he sank back upon the

Quotes: "What has become of..."

  • O tell me, where is she? What has become of her?
  • And what has since become of him?
  • What has become of poor Mrs. Wilmot and her children?
  • What has become of these eight establishments' at the present time?

So what should I write?

I pray you choose side with (and defend) historical accuracy by saying ye some words as such:

  • What news? Pray spare me not any detail!
  • What news from Boston?
  • What news have you of the political world, my friend?
  • What has happened in your town since we last parted?

Have I not given (and in ample measure!) ammunition sufficient and necessary to defend this stance?2

But if you want to make an impression of sounding old fashioned to most people, then ironically, you're better off using an expression that "sounds" old fashioned to the modern ear, even though it's not as accurate:

  • And what, pray tell, is the current news?" (Credit to @WhatRoughBeast's Answer) Most people don't know that this form never existed.3

  • You can make it sound more old fashioned by adding verbiage and more "old fashioned stuff": And what, pray thee tell, is thine own knowledge of current news?

  • And what, pray thee tell, is thine own knowledge of news that is now of current significance amongst ye? This is over-the-top faux Old-Fashioned because it has more "old fashioned stuff in it" and is conflated with excess verbiage, awkward constructions, and repetitious redundancies. That's what the modern ear thinks it hears in highly stylized prose of the 18th century. Some people would hear this as just "very old fashioned speech" while others would recognize it as pretentious or comical.

  • To be funny, you could also say, And what, pray tell, is thine own knowledge of ye olde current news?

COHA Research References

This answer is based on a review of COHA (Corpus of Historical American English), from approximately 1800 to 1830. Here are some of the more notable findings:


1. The number of examples I give does not indicate one form is more popular than another. Also, all the examples don't show the broader context which may supply additional information such as the expected news topic to be reported. Also, I typically go to great lengths to give proper citation to references. In this case, it's not necessary. All references are from 1800 to 1840, and my links to COHA results should be sufficient.

2. I'm not really imploring you to use the historical form. I was joking a bit by assuming (my own best attempt at) an old fashioned dialect.

3. @WhatRoughBeast sounded plausible to me when I first read it. On the other hand, this answer turned out to be a pleasant, counter-intuitive lesson for myself.

4. Another way of thinking about this is that the burden of deciding "what is news" and the answer to "who, what, where, and when" is currently controlled by News Agencies, "The Media", Governments, and other special interest groups. A modern person may ask another, "what's been in the news?" and the answer is what they saw on the Internet, TV, or read in a newspaper. In the early 19th century, the burden of all these questions (what is news, who, what, where, when) was a shared (and important) part of dialogue, and so the frame (which news) and the main questions had to be made explicit (or implicitly understood).

  • WOW. You have well earned your +1 this day, friend.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 27, 2015 at 10:55
  • 4
    What I earn from creating answers like this is real education. Feb 27, 2015 at 20:29
  • 1
    -1 The question is about how letters of a certain era requested news. This answer seems to transfer spoken greetings (especially or at least in the case of what news) to letter-writing, with no evidence of actual letter-writing samples.
    – user6951
    Feb 28, 2015 at 2:31
  • @user6951 I'm not sure why you would think that asking about news in a letter (which can be informal) would be any different than spoken language. But if you want some evidence, look at the link you provided in your answer (link): "Hoping you are well, what News have I to tell you!" I'd be very surprised if you could find anything that indicates "letters" would have a different form than what I found win COHA, which included both formal and informal writing. Jan 2, 2016 at 15:18

"And what, pray tell, is the current news?"

  • 5
    Regardless of whether this belongs on ELU or ELL, I do think that an answer should have more explanation than simply stating something that could be a correct answer. If a complete answer is one sentence and there is no additional explanation needed to put it into context or explain why it's correct, in my opinion, it should be a comment, not an answer.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 26, 2015 at 21:02
  • @CoolHand - I think "doesn't belong" is a bit strong. I'd agree that the answers might get more scrutiny over at ELU, and the question might get seen by some users with more expertise in the matter, but we don't know how much the O.P. really needs historical accuracy. If he's writing a screenplay for a major motion picture, then let's migrate it. But if he's simply looking for some "old-fashioned sounding words" to write in a brief personal note or card, then the answer here is fine.
    – J.R.
    Feb 26, 2015 at 21:29
  • 1
    @CoolHandLouis - Also note that this answer was left right around the time the O.P.'s comment was left and the question was revised. I'm not sure the exact time frame (i.e., early 19c) was even specified when this answer was composed.
    – J.R.
    Feb 26, 2015 at 21:34
  • 1
    To folks who are dissatisfied with this answer, for any reason: Please post an answer that you think is better! This is most of the glory of StackExchange: there are multiple answers, and people can vote them up or down. (Well, aristocrats would never dirty their waistcoats in the scrums that give voice to the wisdom of crowds, as it were…)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 27, 2015 at 2:50
  • 1
    It's actually both comical and interesting that this answer got so many upvotes (right now, +7/-3) solely due to the phrase, "pray tell". Feb 27, 2015 at 18:52

And why, pray tell, does no answer refer to any actual content of early 19th century letters?

This might be a good place to start:

The survival of opening formulas in letters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

My answer will be augmented as time provides. But to be honest, I think the question is off topic.

  • Yeah, it's off-topic. I was surprised it didn't get closed in 10 minutes. But what the hey, cadmy will certainly learn some English from the debate. :)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 28, 2015 at 2:58

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