Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Language Usage in Historicals


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.



paz said...

Oh my. Your copy editors appear to be literalists, and not very enterprising.

I am more familiar with "first recorded usage" than with first recorded dictionary appearance. Dictionaries, and the people who compile them, are notoriously conservative. A word must be used for sometime, and by many, before the dictionaries will recognize them. Language innovators will always be asynchronous with such texts. I am sure Sebastian was such an innovator ;-)

Beth said...

I remember watching a Buffy episode once, since in the past. All the words one of the characters used, so far as I know, were around then. However, the way he used them was obviously modern (it was a time travel story).

OTOH, sometimes language from the relatively recent past can be hard to understand, e.g. "Sat a gee" in the Pirates of Penzance, which needs to be explained to many people in modern audiences.

So I am with you, it's a story, not a linguistics lesson.


Rachel Walsh said...

Good points, Candy. When I want to use a word in my historical fiction that borders on being anachronistic, I tend to go just go with it, on the grounds that it must have been in common use for at least a few years prior to becoming officially documented and dated in dictionaries and the like ...

Good luck with the copy edits. Hope you don't tear out too much hair!

Lynnd said...

I agree with paz on this one. A word is often not included in a dictionary until it has been seen "in print" a certain number of times. A word might have been part of everyday language long before that, but journalists and writers don't use it because (then as now) they're afraid of the language nazis.

Having said that, I like when historical authors bring back words that have fallen out of the common usage - tatterdenalion and cyprian among them.

cs harris said...

Paz, I do try to remind myself to be appreciative of her efforts. The truth is, she caught me using at least two expressions that I couldn't believe crept through my own edits.

Beth, that is the problem, when a writer can't use her own language but can't entirely use the language of her book's period, either. It can get so frustrating!

Rachel, after looking at some of these words, I realize just how off these official origin dates can be.

Lynnd, I think that was especially true in the 19th century, when so many writers (even letter writers) were self-consciously composing in a literary style that was very removed from everyday speech.

Firefly said...

That Candy, is one of the reasons I enjoy reading your books. You do try to write in the language of the day, hard though that can sometimes be I'm sure.
One of the most off putting things is, whilst reading a book set in a bygone era, is coming across authors who use modern words & phrases i.e. "LIKE" & "BEYOND" among others.
That as far as I'm concerned, is it!! I stop reading, buying or even borrowing their books from a library!
Can't wait for your next Sebastian St Cyr book.

Charles Gramlich said...

One of the nice things about writing fantasy fiction is you can get away with most anything, as long as it doesn't sound too modern.

Judith Starkston said...

The blooper I'm always catching myself making is referring to measurements of time that simply hadn't been conceived of yet in the 13th century BC... Months, okay since based on the obvious natural cycles, but "instant" definitely not. Then there's "moment"--surely very brief spaces of time were thought of even if they didn't have a technical way to measure.... Fortunately for me, in the translation from ancient languages into English, no one is going to check what year a word came into usage, I just have to make those subjective decisions about whether a word feels too modern. Lots of debates there.

Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

Context is always a good rule of thumb, I think. If the "correct" word can't be interpreted via context and throws the reader out of the story, then what's the point, you know?

And I do think tatterdemalion may now be my new favorite word.

cs harris said...

Firefly, I can't image an historical author using "like"! But I must admit I'm sometimes shocked at expressions I unthinkingly use, so I do appreciate my copyeditor pointing these things out.

Charles, believe me, by the time I finish with these copyedits I'm always thinking, "I want to write a contemporary!"

Judith, hmmm, I must admit I never thought about the use of "moment" and "instant."

Barbara, it is a lovely word, isn't it?

le fleur said...

Oh my heck, this post is so perfect. I am writing a book for the first time ever (I'm extremely novice) and am coming across this very problem. So, taking a break, I came to your blog because I was curious about how you figure out all the historical writing and details in your books and you'd posted this blog. It must have been inspiration for you, although you probably would use the word "frustration" rather than "inspiration". Thanks for that though.
On your post though, I do agree it's important to keep it accurate, at least to the point that it feels authentic. But if the reader has to keep going to their dictionary to look up words, it might detract too much from the story.

ps. how do you figure out how people spoke anyways?

cs harris said...

le fleur, at the moment I think "frustrating" is the word!

I do think you're right, that "feeling" authentic is the important part, rather than splicing hairs over specific dates. As for how people spoke, I've noticed that while most people wrote letters and journals in that very mannered style we associate with the 19th century, there are also many collections of letters and journals in which the writer is far more relaxed and chooses to write as I assume they spoke. The difference is glaring and very telling. I'm reading a journal now in which the author sometimes writes in that self-conscious, mannered style, and sometimes sounds as if she's simply talking to a friend.

Steve Malley said...

I do not envy you that task... :)

Alison said...

I must admit that I mourn the disappearance of the hyphen in modern writing. Most especially when I see the word "coworker" which I automatically pronounce in my head as "cow-worker"

cs harris said...

Steve, I'm not kidding when I say it's my least favorite part of this job.

Alison, what drives me nuts is the modern tendency not to capitalize words I was taught to capitalize. I'm told it's because newspapers discovered that it slows people down. Now there's a good reason....

DonWms said...

I have a question. In the Civil War period (1861 -1865), when a leter is dated "June 16 instant", WHAT DOES THE WORD INSTANT MEAN?

Anonymous said...

What does "instant" mean in a date in the 19th century?

vp said...

What an interesting post! I just want to say thanks for putting so much thought into this, many writers don't and it shows. I'm not really a language nazi, but it does bother me when writers use very modern phrases in a historical setting. Other than that, I'm usually willing to roll with it.

cs harris said...

DonWms, I have never seen that. How strange. I'll keep an eye out for it, though.

vp, I have to admit that as hard as I try, I'm sometimes shocked at the modern expressions I unthinkingly use, and am thus very, very grateful to copyeditors. There is so much to focus on when writing.

le fleur said...

In response to your comment, I think that is very interesting. It is probably just like today though, if I'm writing to my friends then I am much more casual than if I am writing something for school or work. (I admit, I am guilty of writing in only lowercase, and my only excuse is laziness.)
So the question, when writing a book, which language to use. I guess it depends on the book?
I find it very interesting though that in a journal there is both styles of writing.

Kaye said...

I was delighted when a friend of mine suggested I read C. S. Harris' St. Cyr series. I am on the fifth one and am hooked. My favorite authors are Georgette Heyer and Anne Perry, so you fit in very nicely with these two ladies.
I loved this post on language usage. I'm a new writer and just beginning to scratch the surface of when certain words came into usage. I find the language of the Regency and Victorian era simply fascinating.
Thank you for the timely blog and all the hours of reading pleasure.