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Liddy's Favorite Quote
"The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we
counted our spoons."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Liddy Midnight weaves spells with her words. Don't miss her!"
~ Maggie Shayne
Language is a fluid entity, shedding and adding terms through
You ought to be.
How many times have you been reading along, wallowing quite contentedly
in the period resonance created by a story, when an inappropriate
reference jarred you clean out of the page, straight back into your
armchair? As a beginning writer of historicals, I began reading more
widely in the genre and paying attention to authors’ word selection. I
was appalled by the number of these inappropriate words that get by
critique groups, contest judges and, yes, even editors.
The writers of historicals must be aware that language is a fluid
entity, adding and shedding terms like barnacles on an old hull. There
is a long list of words and terms that were coined as our language
developed. Starting as borrowings, slang, or colloquialisms, new phrases
eventually either die out or move into general usage. Contact with new
cultures and ideas sparks new words, often borrowed from the strangers
who developed the concepts. Technological advancements provide a need to
describe innovations. Regional dialects give rise to new terms that
Care must be taken by the writer to weed out those terms that post-date
the period portrayed. This does not meant hat the author should attempt
to confine her word selection to those actually in use at the time. Let
us use as an example eleventh-century England. Were one to write as the
characters actually would have spoken, readers would be restricted to
scholars of the period and those devoted enough to apply themselves to
the study of both Saxon and Norman French. Since none of us should
expect any publisher to touch a manuscript with such a limited audience,
it falls to the author to select words that will not pull the reader out
of the page. This means purging the obvious anachronisms and making
every effort to steer clear of those insidious terms that at first
glance seem appropriate. These terms fall into two categories. For the
purposes of this article, I will call them modern and dated.
Modern terms are those that are peculiar to the twentieth century.
Examples of these include anything to do with advanced science and
technology, particularly computers. A character in a Regency should not
store some pertinent fact about the mystery at hand in his ‘memory bank’
for later examination. Other modern terms are those stemming from any
major event in this century. The importance placed on youth in our
culture has given rise to the term teenager, the first usage of which is
recorded as 1941.
Dated words are those that came into usage prior to 1900 (the date most
often used for dividing historicals from contemporaries in the romance
genre), but are not freely available to characters and descriptions in
every historical period. Mesmerism is named for the Austrian physician
Franz Mesmer, who lived from 1734 to 1815. The term thug originated from
a Hindi word, and appears for the first time in English in 1810.
Students of British history will recognize that this is well after
England’s earliest direct contact with India.
How can the writer discover the origin of a word? A dictionary is a fine
place to start. Most good dictionaries will list the etymology, or the
history of the word, right after the preferred pronunciation and
identification of its function. a little practice can make it easy to
decipher the different languages cited and the writer will be able to
trace the evolution of the word. If the story under construction is set
in the south of Italy during the Renaissance, and the word in question
has a pedigree of Norse and Scandinavian languages, the writer might
want to look a little further for a more appropriate word.
The ultimate authority for the history of the English Language is the
Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED lists the first recorded date
of documented usage for each entry. Most libraries will have at least
the abridged version of this verbal treasure trove, with its miniscule
type and four-up format. That’s four small pages reproduced on one, with
a magnifying glass required to prevent eyestrain. Those lucky enough to
have access to larger libraries or to number among their acquaintances
someone who possesses the CD-ROM version will find their search a little
easier. The only drawback to the OED is that it does not concern itself
with terms that have gone out of common usage.
Does the writer need to distinguish between these types of anachronisms?
If the author is going to stay in one era, probably not. However, if the
writer has many stories in a variety of settings bubbling up inside of
her, all clamoring for their turn on the page, then it is a useful
exercise to determine why a word is inappropriate for this particular
setting. Knowing that the term red light district originated in the
cattle towns of Kansas, which did not develop until after the early
western expansion of the railroads, is useful in determining just when
the author may be safe in using that description without censure.
Good luck with your word selection, and keep consulting those
Copyright 2004 Liddy Midnight