I don’t want my historical characters spouting off words that hadn’t been invented yet. How about in the narrative? I don’t like that either. The story loses flavor, gets watered down.

I don’t lose sleep fretting about anachronisms, but the thought gives me an uncomfortable, itchy feeling between the shoulders.

As a reader, I hate getting pulled out of a story and the word from another, later decade is like a clumsy head-hop or mucked-up punctuation. You forgive a couple as long as you can keep track of the action. Too many, or a real bloomer (British informal; 1900s, a stupid mistake), and you notice the writing, which means you don’t stay in the story.  Maybe the wrong word doesn’t turn my book into a wall-banger—except for the most sensitive readers – but obviously I want to avoid it.

Lucky for me, I have a conscientious, amazing beta-reader (and my Loose Id editor, Sandra, is amazing too)  The beta just sent back a manuscript set in 1870. As always, she highlighted some words that weren’t commonly used during the story’s era.

I’m not shocked to see that arm wrestling is from the 20th century.  Some of these words slipped past me in the narrative. (It’s easier for me to hear anachronisms in dialogue.)  Other words were something of a surprise.

My reader uses Merriam Webster and I recheck anything funky with my huge old Oxford English Dictionary (Balding as an adjective? Really? Yes, really. But of course the word bald has been around forever “His heed was ballid and schon as eny glas “—Chaucer in the 1380s)

Here’s my list and you tell me if you would have guessed these words weren’t around in the mid-1800s.



Arm wrestling–1973


Climax  (as the grand finale of the sex act) –1918

Room and board–1955


Pinz nez–1876

Last minute–1920

Bear hug–1921

High brow–1903

Near miss–1940

Success story–1925



string quartet–1875

spur of the moment—1948

This didn’t show up in my manuscript but here’s my favorite: hello/hallo/hullo. That word was around as a way of calling attention to something as in “hello, what’s this?”  or “halloo the fox!” but it only became popular as a greeting with the use of the telephone. Before that, people would probably say “good morning” or “good afternoon”.

So when a Victorian gent greets a woman with “hello” it’s a “Well! Hey lookie at this, what do we have here?” sort of a remark. He’s a rudesby (Archaic. Insolent, unmannerly or disorderly fellow. Dating from the 1500s)

The wonderful beta reader also points out words like “uh” or “oof” These are listed as 20th century words, but I leave them alone. Just because a sound doesn’t show up in writing, doesn’t mean people weren’t making them.  The same with some slang; I give myself twelve-year window with many words. I figure it shows up in the language long before it appears in print–there was no Urban Dictionary jumping on new words back then.

Here are some words that I checked while I was doing my edits–because, really, these words can’t be more than a hundred years old.  Turns out I could leave them in the manuscript and, if anyone wrote complaining, I could point them in the direction of Merriam Webster.

Okay – Came from the USA in the 1840s.

Kibosh – 1834 (British. I thought it was an Americanism.)

Sidewalk –1739

Stereotype — 1817 The first reference to “stereotype,” in its modern, English use was in 1850, in the noun, meaning “image perpetuated without change.” (the word cliché, on the other hand, didn’t make it into English until nearly the 20th century)

Kate Rothwell also writes as Summer Devon. Read more about her books (or buy them for your Kindle):

Somebody Wonderful (Zebra Debut)

Claws on Silk –isn’t exactly a straight historical, but we strived to keep the language and customs accurate.

Seducing Miss Dunaway (a Victorian Romance)

Want to know more about my books? Visit my webpages: http://summerdevon.com or http://katerothwell.com
Or my blog: http://katerothwell.blogspot.com

Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/KateRothwell

And you can “like” Summer’s facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/S.DevonAuthor

Want to win a copy of one of her books? You get a choice of any Summer Devon or Kate Rothwell ebook. Leave a comment here on the blog telling her which word you were surprised to find wasn’t as old as you thought it was, or what word is older than you thought. Contest will be open until Sunday at 9 a.m. Eastern Time and a winner announced later that day.

Kate Rothwell: Word Anachronisms
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18 thoughts on “Kate Rothwell: Word Anachronisms

  • October 19, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Hi Kate. I also write historical (well…I’m a new writer in historical)set in the victorian era in London and I find I sometimes have to go back and check the thesaurus often to make sure the words are correct escpecially if they are not words we use on a daily basis. The enlgish language(british that is) is so confusing, if that is the correct word for it, at times. What is the best advice you can give me for that specific issue. Is there a specific site I can look at? I have looked for a book called the vulgar tongue but can not find it anywhere. It was a referal from one of the speakers from a workshop I attended on historical facts. Do you have any other advice or any other resources I can look at related specifically on language from the victorian Era?
    Thank you for taking the time to write on Leahs blog. She’s a fantastic writer and I am honoured to be a member of TRW along side with her.

    • October 19, 2011 at 1:44 pm

      Hi Guida!

      I have the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue — you can download it here for free through the Gutenberg project or through Google books. (It’s copyright free, since it was published originally in 1811. So no worries that you’re getting it from a pirate site.) If you prefer a hardcopy, there are used versions available through Alibris or Amazon’s used sellers.

  • October 19, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Great post, Kate. My biggest beef with historicals is less with specific vocab (I can overlook the occasional tomato in medieval England or a pince nez on a Prinny wanna-be) than it is the heros and heroines who sound like they should be on 90210 or Jersey Shores rather than Almacks. Followed in close second by a gratuitous Scottish burr! 🙂

  • October 19, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Hi Kate, my surprise word was none of yours but the one about “when pigs fly”. I thought for sure that it was being used erroneously when I come across it in several books. Seems I was wrong about that one. Best wishes on your books. I am begining to think I will never finish my first book. There is so much to learn about the early Regency era.

  • October 19, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    That was fun, Kate. The newer ones don’t surprise me nearly as much as the older ones that really didn’t seem that old — kibosh? I would have put that at the 1920s or later.

    I have a book you’d find invaluable: Juba to Jive, A Dictionary of African-American Slang by Clarence Major. It’s much more far-reaching than the title would suggest. So, some examples:

    Booboo or boo-boo (in the sense of an error): 1950s.

    Ho (for whore) — 1890s!

    Rookie or rooky, for an experienced person, only goes back to the 1920s, and rubber (for a condom) originated in the 1940s.

    He gives citations, often multiple citations, for each entry.

  • October 19, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    I did not know ‘sidewalk’ had been around so long. I can understand ‘trail,path,etc.
    I love the Scottish burrrr……I started reading when Scottish romance books were most popular, now I miss them…(hint,hint)?
    I have found printing errors before, should I let the author know? I do not want to be a pest about it, I figure people are looking for stuff anyway. I do not think it takes away from the story it is just somethin I notice.
    Thank You for sharing your writing talent. I enjoy it with each book.

  • October 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Leah and Kate, thank you so much for your help. You guys rock.
    Kate is Seducing Miss Dunway your latest book?

  • October 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    I think Claws on Silk is a little more recent? Maybe?

    I have a contemporary release in December and a m/m historical (with Bonnie Dee) in January –both with Samhain.

  • October 22, 2011 at 12:31 am

    Lovely! An article after my own heart! I wrote a blog on the subject not long ago, after reading a book set in the early 20th century where the single heroine was referred to as “Ms.” (That only came into general usage after the 1960s.) The only way we were able to handle it was to mentally substitute “Miss” every time we saw it. Other than that, the book was wonderful–great plot, terrific emotion, great heart. But the author’s use of “Ms.” almost kept me from reading it, which would have been a great shame.
    Thanks for the additions to my list of anachronisms! 🙂 (And if you need a gamma reader in addition to a beta reader, feel free to ask!)

  • October 22, 2011 at 12:40 am

    PS I think the one that surprises me the most is string quartet. I know Mozart wrote some small chamber pieces, and could have sworn some were for string quartet. Perhaps it’s the nomenclature that dates from 1875, and before that was called “…for two violins, viola and cello.” 😀

  • October 22, 2011 at 12:58 am

    Oh, and um… it should be “we strove to keep the language and customs accurate.” This adding of -ed to certain verbs to make them past tense has only occurred in the last couple of decades. Ergo, strive, strove; weave, wove; stride, strode… but not cease, ceose! 😀

  • October 22, 2011 at 8:58 am

    This is why it’s so much fun to write in the future, where you can do anything you like… 😉 Seriously, though, I truly would’ve expected “room and board” to be older than that. I mean, aren’t boarding houses older than that?

    And guns are DEFINITELY older than that, so were they just shooting people randomly in the Old West instead of pointing them around in warning? Hmm, I could approach this situation this way: “STOP SNORING!” says John Wesley Hardin, glaring down at the sleepy man he held at gunpoint… but naah, warnings are for wimps. I think I’ll just shoot him.

    Yeah, works for me.

  • October 22, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Loved this blog. Kibosh was a big surprise. When I am judging contests I often have to reference words that have not been researched. I am a word lover. Use it right or don’t use it.

    Best Wishes, Kathi h

  • October 22, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    I’m rather surprised that ‘climax’ has been used in that capacity for so long. I would have thought it a more recent definition.

    Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing!


  • October 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    here you go, Meg —

    (from etymonline) Climaxed; climaxing. The meaning “orgasm” is first recorded 1918, apparently first used in this sense by Scottish birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes (1880–1958) as a more accessible word than orgasm.

  • October 22, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    I see some batty responses to this post. All very interesting! 😀 (Amazing what some people will do for a rubber bat collection! LOL)

    Yes, Amelia, boarding houses are definitely older than that! I guess it was merely the phrase that hadn’t been in general use. Grinning at your JW Hardin story!

  • October 24, 2011 at 10:41 am

    The contest is now closed — and the winner, chosen by random.org’s random generator, is Betty A. Jones. Congratulations, Betty, I’ll be forwarding your information to Kate to arrange your prize.

    Thanks to everyone for taking the time to comment — I always find it interesting how quickly words become part of our accepted vernacular…

Comments are closed.