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-Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Article, Purge Those Anachronisms

Language is a fluid entity, shedding and adding terms through time.

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 spread.

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 dictionaries!

Copyright 2004 Liddy Midnight

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