I’m in the midst of one of my least favorite writing tasks—going over the copyedited manuscript for When Maidens Mourn (Sebastian Number Seven). This manuscript has very, very few copyeditor’s balloons in it (to the point I’m worrying), but almost every one I’m finding is a query on word usage. As in, “The term ‘jawline’ dates to 1924; please consider rewording.”
As far as I’m concerned, the solution to that one is fairly simple: either leave it as is to conform to modern spelling, or separate it into two words to be true to the period but have the self-proclaimed Grammar Nazis come down on you (well, on me). Roofline (1857) falls into the same category. Hard-pressed (1825) can be changed to sorely pressed. But other words are much harder to deal with. Did you know that booed didn’t enter the dictionary until 1884? So what did they say? Heckled? But that conjures a different image, doesn’t it? Wooden-faced arrived in 1859. Confetti in 1815. Tic in 1834. So, what word did they use before then? Would modern readers even know what it meant, if I could find it?
Complicating all this is the fact that the Powers That Be sometimes get these word origin dates wrong. I remember I changed “tenement” in What Angels Fear because I was told it didn’t come into usage until the mid-century. Since then, I’ve seen it used in a passage from the first decade of the century. (So there.) Likewise, I’m told that Cyprian didn’t come into usage until 1819, yet Beau Brummell gave his famous Cyprians’ Ball in the Argyl Rooms in 1813. Doppelganger entered English language dictionaries in 1851, yet was used by Continental writers as early as 1796 (and is being used by Sebastian St. Cyr in 1812 because, I’m sorry, nothing else will work and we can all assume that Sebastian, clever man that he is, has heard of it). The term toad eater is said to date to 1742; does that mean I can use ‘toadying,’ even though it wasn’t in dictionaries until 1859?
Even trickier are words like chain gang, supposedly not used until 1834. Except that French prisoners of war were set to work in chain gangs. So what did they call them? I suspect chain gangs. I changed "guttersnipe" (1869) to tatterdemalion, which is true to the period but will doubtless send my readers scurrying for their own dictionaries.
The truth is, words frequently enter the English language because they fill a vacant niche. What did we use before we borrowed schadenfreude from the Germans? And is there another word that quite conveys the image of starburst (1959)?
So I change queried words when I can find a way around them. But if I can’t come up with something that says what I want to say without sounding awkward or imprecise, I’ll leave a word—like self-congratulatory (1833)-- even though the dictionaries say it wasn’t yet in use. Because I’m writing a story, not a dictionary.