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?