Unless your story takes place after 1941, you can’t have your characters ‘up a creek.’ I certainly thought that phrase sounded like Appalachia mountain or Ozark Mountain Hillbilly slang from way before the 1940s, but it isn’t.
Sometimes, I wish I wrote contemporary for the freedom to use any vocabulary word and all the slang I wanted!
The day I decided to stop writing my Young Adult romance novel and start writing historicals.....I became paralyzed after only a few paragraphs. I felt as if I was having to look up every single word and phrase. Stopping every five minutes to chase the elusive date of origin was crippling. I wasn’t a good enough writer to get a story out on paper if I was interrupting myself every five minutes. I asked a few historical writers what they did, and they all encouraged me to forget about it, write that first draft, and fix later.
And I did. But boy did I have quite the time weeding out every anachronistic word. Once it’s on paper, it becomes harder to “see” since it’s now part of the story you lovingly created.
I have avoided reading my published novels after the day I read aloud my freebie novella Love by the Letter to my husband on a long drive and he said, “Isn’t saying ‘turn on the stove’ wrong for the time?”
The second he said it, I smacked my head. Of course it was! I had more than ten people read that novella! Thankfully it was still ebook only and I got to fix it for the print collection “With All My Heart” before it went out on shelves!
The more you write historicals, the more you gain “vocabulary you can’t use” awareness. So I thought I’d share some tips and my online sources for looking things up, because http://www.etymonline.com/ will not always be enough.
Hopefully even a few of these will be new to more accomplished historical writers. And for those of you that write contemporary....you can just sigh in relief that you don’t have to worry about this!
First, any word you use that is beyond the basics probably should be looked up. Especially idiomatic expressions or slang.
If you find that the word was recorded a year or two after your book’s setting, you’ll have to judge whether or not you want to use it. Of course most words didn’t get recorded until people had been using it for awhile, so a few years before could be all right unless the history of that word is tied up with advances in technology or a war, and other things as that.
That’s why it’s a good thing to look up more than just the date in one source. For if your character is off in the boonies of the frontier and the new word came about because of people interacting with a telegraph, he or she might not even know the word if they were isolated. Or it might have been recorded, but rarely used until later. So how can you figure this out?
1. The easiest resource to check is http://www.etymonline.com/ I’m pretty sure most historical writers know about it, and it’s the first place I go. But what if it fails? And you should have more than just one source for anything research related unless you have some nice primary records from your actual setting.
2. If it’s a single word, you can check an unabridged dictionary.
3. If you don’t have a cute little hyper kid that you’re using yours to weigh down, or just plain don’t have one, I find that http://www.merriam-webster.com often has Etymology entries available for some words Etymology.com doesn’t have. Notice that Merriam Webster dates ‘pipe-dream’ 20 years later than Etymology.com.....hmmmmmm
4. Of course the OED online http://www.oed.com/ (Oxford English Dictionary) is awesome to check, but expensive. See if your library subscribes, and if not, you can always ask if they could. For not only does the OED tell you the etymology of a word, but it shows you the recorded usage. I’m right now begging my library to get a subscription!
5. If I didn’t find it in those sources, the recorded date is really close to my setting and I want to be assured it’s good, I need to find a phrase, or I need to know how likely it was used throughout the years, I can see at a glance with a chart if that word was in recorded use with Google’s ngram viewer. Click on an image to enlarge and see details.
|Google's ngram viewer|
But while we’re here. Ngram viewer can also come in handy for phrases. I searched for “bust a gut.”
|Google ngrams "bust a gut"|
And it can also help you decide between synonyms, what was likely more used in the years you’re looking at. In this case, I looked up all the different ways people refer to their mothers. Of course, this is only what has been recorded in books, and not actual speech, but it gives you a quick idea on the most likely word that would have been used.
Be sure to look in the link at the bottom labeled “about ngram viewer” because it shows how to clarify your searches. One particularly useful tutorial is how to differentiate a search for a word that can act as different parts of speech.
|Google ngrams parts of speech|
6. My other tool is Google’s Advanced Book Search. You’ll want to bookmark this because it is not as easy to find as it used to be. https://books.google.com/advanced_book_search
In the picture below, I’ve highlighted the areas that I use to search:
First, choose whether you want to enter a word, several words you want in proximity, or choose the exact phrase box for an exact phrase. Choose full view so it only pulls up public domain or Google owned books that you can examine thoroughly so you can see more than just the snippet and check to make sure the date Google claims the books to be from is truly is correct.
Now go down to the Publication Date section, make sure “Return content published between” is chosen and then put at least the ending year date. So if you’re setting is 1880, put that date as the last date, you can even choose a specific month of 1880 if you’d like. Then up in the top right corner, push Google search to get your results.
Now you can look through your entries and see if any of the dates are before your setting time where the snippet suggests the usage you want was indeed being used in that time period.
I chose to check out the 1862 text to make sure that the word was being used in the context I wished, and I pressed on the cover and went to the front to find a date and verify that it is indeed from 1862. Then you can cut a little snippet of that and keep it in your documentation/research files.
7. For the origin of highly idiomatic expressions, the best I’ve got is the UK Phrase finder, which isn’t always the best but sometimes I can get help there when I can’t elsewhere.
8. Print books, I’ve tried to collect cliche and slang dictionaries and other print books that might help, but they are usually not helpful and I only go to them as a last resort. But there is one that I do check fairly often, it’s called English Through the Ages, and you can pick up used copies on Amazon for cheap. It’s nice to have because though it doesn’t always tell you when the word came into use beyond the 50 year space you find it in, when you’re perhaps looking up an insult and you find your insult is no good date wise, you can flip back 50 years and find the insults or slang or emotion words from the previous time period and see if anything will work for you there.
9. In my manuscripts, I use the notes in track changes to keep my snippets proving that the word can be used in the time period because, though I might look it up while writing, invariably in some edit pass I’ll wonder if I verified it and searching my manuscript makes it easy to see if I did indeed look it up instead of doing the whole search all over again. Also, I try to be diligent to keep etymology in mind until the very last editing pass because I’ve had an editor add in an anachronistic word or two.
So, those are the tricks up my sleeve. Does anyone have any other venues to find word and phrase origins? I’d love to have a better place to look up idiomatic expressions than what I have. Please share your sources or the word you wish was used in your writing time period in the comments below! (If you’re a contemporary writer, you could share which archaic word you wished was more in use.)
~*~*~*~*~I’m giving away my new release, A Heart Most Certain, where I certainly attempted to make sure every word is appropriate for the time period, but if you see one that isn’t, just whistle nonchalantly and keep reading for me, all right?
|A Heart Most Certain|
Melissa Jagears really wished the word ‘jerk’ was an insult used in the late 1800s because really, there just is no good synonym for jerk, and evidently she writes a lot of jerky characters since she’s always searching for a time appropriate alternative that doesn’t sound downright silly. You can find her online atmelissajagears.com, Facebook, Pinterest, and Goodreads.
Please leave a comment if you would like to be entered in this giveaway. Winner announced in the next Weekend Edition.