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.
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.
Climax (as the grand finale of the sex act) –1918
Room and board–1955
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.)
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):
Claws on Silk –isn’t exactly a straight historical, but we strived to keep the language and customs accurate.
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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.