June 2011


Tripped up by words. 

In my one Regency story I have a charcter talking about how hard the snow is falling; he calls it a blizzard. Nice, traditional English word, I thought. Imagine how cross I was to recently discover that not only is “blizzard” a late nineteenth century word as applied to weather, it’s American in origin. What right had it to trip me up like that? 

Trouble is, it’s too easy to just assume things about language. Yes, I look up brands to see if they’re contemporary for my heroes (that’s why Orlando can’t snaffle jelly babies) and I check out phrases, too (which is why Helena couldn’t say “Goodnight Vienna”) but some words seem so obviously “old” that I don’t bother. Perhaps I should, but when to stop? 

I guess for most of us there’s an internal sort of check which means we’re fine if we’re writing post 1700. If the word/phrase is in Shakespeare or the King James Bible, then we’re safe.  So I can use punk, “eye for an eye”, ‘’beggars description” and the like to my heart’s content. Plumber, spectacles,  barricade, shuttle; they’re all nice safe words.  Some are surprises, too – skyscraper goes back to the Age of Sail, and was then used as a nickname for things like tall hats. Dunce, admiral, stationer – all these words can be traced back a surprisingly long way.

Clearly there are some obvious words which a writer could never use in a story set earlier than the twentieth century – bikini, Quisling, green in the sense of concerned for the environment, gay in the sense of sexuality., tank in any sense other than a storage receptacle. But there are some phrases which could catch you out. “The cat’s whiskers” comes from the days of radio, so couldn’t be used to describe something really good in Regency days. Nor could your Victorian spy be brainwashed. He could, however, have gone to see a floodlit rugby match, although they weren’t necessarily called floodlights then. 

Aren’t words confusing, or is it just me getting old?

I’m hugely indebted to Lee Benoit for mailing me with some pictures she noticed in an archive for the athletic departments at her old university.

These lovely – and very modern looking lads – appear to be the 1870 baseball team. The guy sitting down, second from right, looks just like Steve Borthwick.

And this lad from 1880 looks like he could just have stepped out of my Sky Sports screen!

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