The OED and Me: On Choosing Your Words

I love the Oxford English Dictionary. One of the many reasons I married my husband was that a compact OED (the two-volume one, in the box with a little drawer for the magnifying glass) was part of the dowry he brought me.

I’m fascinated by tracing the history of a word’s use, by the richness that accrues when we know the different meanings and connotations it’s had over time. Last year I taught History of the British Novel and framed my course around “romance and realism.” On the first day, students looked at OED entries for terms like “romance” and “novel.” What we learned from that discussion added depth to our conversations all term (a romance isn’t just a love story, it’s an adventure, a tale of the supernatural … a lie).

Now my job gives me access to the online OED. Since I’m usually reading either on or near a device with internet access, I can look up a word in my book at any time. This is both a blessing and a curse. Here are some of the words I’ve stopped reading to look up in the past couple of days.

From a romance set in 1730s London:

  • lynch (as in, “the mob was going to lynch the informer”)
  • figure it out (“she couldn’t figure out why he would do that”)

From a ghost story set in 1922 England:

  • fire (as in, “he could fire her from her job”)

The first two are anachronistic (they first appear in print about a hundred years later). The third is not, but it’s American slang so still seems out of place for an early-20th-century Englishwoman. Actually, I might not have noticed the first two if they were not also American expressions.

This, of course, got me thinking about use of anachronistic language in historical fiction. I’m not totally opposed to it. Writing about the past is an act of translation. When I read a novel translated from another language, I don’t want a literal translation–idiomatic expressions that become incomprehensible when rendered into English, for instance. But I do want to feel I’m encountering a different place; I want prose that keeps the flavor of the original language and culture. Otherwise, why bother?

The same goes for historical fiction: the past is another country, not the 21st Century in costume. That’s a tricky balance for a writer to strike, as Rohan’s recent essay on the failures of George Eliot’s Romola, a historical novel set in Italy, makes clear. Eliot uses laughable phrases like “You come as opportunely as cheese on macaroni” and piles on irrelevant historical detail.

Like Rohan, I favor the novelist Hilary Mantel’s view on “The Elusive Art of Making the Dead Speak:”

A writer must broker a compromise between then and now, and choose a plain style that can be adapted to different characters: not just to their ages and personalities and intelligence level, but to their place in life. I use modern English but shift it sideways a little, so that there are some unusual words, some Tudor rhythms, a suggestion of otherness.

Ever writer of historical fiction has to make her own choice about how to deal with this problem. And readers will have different views on it, too. I know lots of romance writers pay attention to these things, because I see them talking about it on Twitter. And sometimes they make anachronistic choices that make sense for the story, or because the “correct” language is likely to be more distracting to the reader than an anachronism.

I probably notice these issues more than some readers, because I’m trained to pay attention to details of word choice and I’ve read a lot of novels written in the 19th Century, so I have a feel for period language. I don’t demand or even desire complete accuracy. I vaguely notice, for instance, all the Regency-set romances that use “nice” in its more modern sense (“she’s a nice girl”) or “like” where “as if” is more period-correct (“she felt like she was floating” vs. “she felt as if she were floating”). But those things don’t pull me out of the story and send me to the OED.

The examples I cited above bothered me because they seemed so out of place for the context that they jarred me out of the story. I lost my sense of immersion in the time and place of the novel. And if I can look it up, the author or editor should too.

Are there anachronistic word choices that bother you?

This entry was posted in genre musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The OED and Me: On Choosing Your Words

  1. jmc says:

    Lynch is one of my pet peeve words; I think most people (writers) don’t know the history of the word or its relative youth in comparison to the action/practice itself.

    I read “shazam” in a historical not too long ago, which made me cringe since it wasn’t created until the 40s by Marvel or DC comics, whichever owns Captain America.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Shazam? OMG.

      The (mis)use of lynch really elides American history. Maybe authors who do that should be compelled to listen to “Strange Fruit” on repeat for a couple of days. I’m sure they don’t intend historical erasure, but given that American historical romance authors already tend to avoid their own history, the effects are troubling.

  2. rmaitzen says:

    It really is a tricky thing, isn’t it, balancing between bothersome anachronism and tedious faux-antiquity. I do think Mantel manages brilliantly in Wolf Hall: the quality her speakers give off is sort of “if we were their contemporaries, this is what they’d sound like”, at once familiar and estranging.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t think I’ve read much that matches Mantel. I love the language of Byatt’s Possession, but I wonder if that would be true were I not thoroughly steeped in Victorian lit.

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    For me it depends on a variety of factors. First, I have to recognize the anachronistic word or words. I don’t always. Second, it has to be jarring. Generally, these things are synonymous. If I stop to think about the word being anachronistic, then that’s jarring enough. Third, it also depends on how frequently that happens. If it’s only a couple-few times in the whole book, I can get back to the “fictional dream” (to use a term borrowed from John Gardner). If it’s significantly more common than that, it becomes a real problem.

    I think another factor is the flow of the author’s writing and the way I respond to their tone or voice. Sometimes that can mask anachronisms. For example I found the language in Hoyt’s The Raven Prince and Mallory’s Seven Secrets of Seduction very jarring (I’ll never forget the reference to a “sex manual” in the latter), but Julie Anne Long’s books, which have their share of anachronisms, somehow work better for me. It’s something about her voice, and the way I respond to it.

    In her latest book, though, had the hero starting a dance fad that seemed completely contemporary, and I could not go along with that. That was not a language anachronism, but something so jarring to the supposedly historical context that it punctured the fictional dream for me.

    As to the topic of how writers of historical novels should approach this, it depends very much on the time period in which their books are set. So far my historical stuff WIP has been set in late Victorian England, and I also have one short story in the Edwardian era. Therefore I’ve been able to draw on the vocabulary of that time period more than I could if I were writing something set in say, the 14h century. At this point, I don’t have the confidence to attempt translating the language of the 14th century to a contemporary reader.

    Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart is set during the 14th century and in the original edition, some of the dialogue contained some words in Middle English. It took some effort to try and interpret them from context, but I enjoyed that experience. Other readers struggled with it more (I have one friend who is a huge Kinsale fan but has never been able to get through the book), and a more recent print edition included a glossary in the back. The new electronic edition contains two versions of the book, one with the Middle English and one without.

    This is an interesting topic. There are some anachronistic words that have gained such prominence in historical romance (for example “sex” which during the Regency was used to mean “gender” but not “intercourse”) that it’s challenging not to use them. I find that word jarring, personally, but I suspect there are readers who miss it when it’s not there.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I completely agree that “it depends,” and in writing a post I wonder if I sounded like I had firmer lines than I do.

      Mostly, for me, too, a few are OK, a lot an issue. And of course I don’t know what I don’t know. If the 14th century were THE hot historical romance period, I’d be swallowing it all! Except potatoes.

      I will ignore a lot or not be jarred if I’m in love with the author’s voice or something about the story. I read two Longs and I was warned by reviews that they were mistorical, so though I *noticed* problems, they didn’t really stop me from being immersed in the books. (they do make me wary about what I try from her, though). Whereas with the two in the post, one was early on, before I got sucked in. I’ve spotted other problems, but I’m liking it enough that I don’t care anymore. The other was meh anyway, so the anachronisms bothered me more. Plus “lynch” is just not a neutral kind of error, at all, as opposed to “figure it out.”

      I DO notice “sex,” along with “making love,” used in the modern sense. At this point, I’ve just accepted it as part of the coded sex language of the genre.

      • Yeah, agreed. “Making love” meant something like courting, didn’t it? But I’m not bothered by the use of it in its contemporary meaning, and have even used it that way once or twice, when it was hard to come up with an alternative that didn’t sound awkward. I find “sex” more jarring in a 19th century context, but both are anachronistic.

      • I use sex and making love because I haven’t found period alternatives I like. (I’m still looking.) Gender, by the way, irks me in historicals. I’d never use it unless discussing Latin nouns.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I think this is a case where anachronism makes sense. The first time I encountered “making love” in the sense of “wooing” in a book I was rather confused!

          I agree about gender. Not just the word but the concept, in the modern sense, is anachronistic.

  4. Meri says:

    Normally I don’t notice anachronistic language unless it’s really glaring. However, I once read a book set in the mid-18th century in which a secondary character made a brief reference to doing something with “some creativity”. At the time I was doing research related to creativity at university, and was looking at various definitions – including the one in the OED. Consequently, it seemed to me an unlikely choice of words.

    As is the case with other types of mistakes in books, I think you have to be either sensitive to errors or have some sort of domain-relevant knowledge that makes them stand out.

    I agree with Janine’s observation that sometimes an author’s style and flow can mask anachronisms, though of course I’m now blanking on examples.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, reading in a historical period you know well is a lot like reading a contemporary where a character lives in your city (but author doesn’t) or has your job.

  5. willaful says:

    I’m particularly bothered by psychological terms/buzzwords.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      What, you don’t like Regency dukes with big egos? (kidding, I don’t think I’ve seen anything that egregious, but I know what you mean).

      • willaful says:

        I can’t call specific examples to mind, unfortunately, but I’ve seen usages just as bad.

  6. kaetrin says:

    I’m in the “it depends” group too. The ones that tend to bother me the most are modern/slang phrases which do tend to stand out in historicals. I don’t always notice, but if I do, it does tend to make me a little wary/mistrustful of what else might be wrong in the story. I mentioned one such phrase I came across in a review a little while back, but stuffed if I can remember it now!

Comments are closed.