13 Sept 2014

Historical Saturday #2- Its Only Words......

Alright, I know I haven't done one of these posts for months- so much for my plan for a weekly feature, and initially, this post may have little to do with history, but bear with me...
It's Only words.....or words outside their place, and why

The English language is a wonderfully versatile animal, always changing and evolving. To borrow from a movie "the English have a language that is rich and beautiful, and blessed with infinite variety- why should we not use it all?" Those who have studied other languages like Greek will know this well- with one word in Greek having many English equivalents.
New words are added every year to the dictionary- but some are sadly lost- when was the last time you heard someone say 'festooned' or 'forsooth' outside a Shakespeare play?
I like words too- I actually took English Language to age 18, and almost wish I'd studied it  alongside Medieval History at University. Perhaps it's because of an assignment of years ago that I have a certain interest in etymology - or the history of words, its certainly though it that I got to know of a wonderful resource for language Geeks- the Online Etymological Dictionary .
Since I began reading Kindle books I've also made use of the New Oxford American Dictionary, which comes free with Kindle- both come in handy for an activity I occasionally indulge in- I must confess it- word checking.
I do, when reading historical fiction or fantasy use these resources to look up words that do not seem right for the time period- just to be sure. Alright, so a few linguistic errors here and there are forgivable, but there are two faux pas that really get on my nerves.
1- Anachronistic Terms and Phrases 
Now don't get me wrong- I don't expect authors who write books set in Medieval England to have characters speaking Chaucer's English- or Middle English as its known- or Shakespearean English, but I also find language that it 'too jarringly modern' distracting, and having the potential to damage the credibility of the historical setting and of the characters within it.
So here are a list of a few words I've encountered in books over the years, and their origins- which will hopefully demonstrate why its wise to avoid them.
'Okay'- 19th Century- America
This one was from a Medieval Fantasy novel. Yes, I know Fantasy is in a sense freer than Historical Fiction- but having Medieval people saying 'Okay', is a major faux pas- because using this word makes it hard to take them seriously as - Medieval People. Why? because the origins of this word lie firmly in the 19th century. See the dictionary entry for more information.
Admittedly one fan of the novels in question did try to argue that this word was used by the  Native Americans- and 'bought back' by the Spanish- but she provided no proof, and I frankly don't buy it at all.
'Bucko'- 19th Century- Nautical Slang
This little treasure was used repeatedly by a Scottish character in a novel set at the time of the 3rd Crusade (the one with Richard the Lionheart) in the late 12th century- so definitely wrong. In all honesty, it was the first time I'd ever encountered the word, which I assumed was used because it sounded 'British' alongside 'bloke' and 'bl**dy'. It seems to be a term that is more commonly used in Ireland- but does not belong in the mouth of a 12th century Brit- for the origin is 19th century Nautical slang-the same century that gave us 'bloke'.
So words that are considered stereotypically British today, do not work in every period. See the entry here.
'Cute'- 19th Century- American
'Ah' you might say 'but cute is an old word'. Yes, the word from which it is derived is old- but the sense of meaning good looking or attractive dates from the 19th century and 'cutie'  from the 20th. So having a Medieval person ask if a person is 'cute' is not right..... See the entry here.
'Prankster'- 20th Century- American
Those seeking a term for a person who enjoys playing tricks on others in a novel set in the Middle Ages may wish to opt for something different- and this one sounds modern anyway. Though the word 'Prank' is older, the original meaning was different. See the entry for details.  
2 - Americanisms/ Stereotypes in Britain
I've read my fair share of Regencies in the last few years, and I have to say, they can be a persistent
offenders- but I fear this seems to be a common drawback of books set in Britain penned by American authors, who are not, perhaps, entirely familiar with the British version of our shared language. Here are some common mistakes:

Someplace- Instead of the more commonly used British Equivalent- which is Somewhere 

Pants- In Britain this means underwear- the garment Americans would call 'pants' are here called Trousers. So it would have been  rather embarrassing for a 19th century English Lady to pass remark upon a Gentleman's 'pants'.

Go-  When used in conjunction with another verb, such as 'go tell', 'go see', or 'go find'. In Britain, it is more common to put an 'and' in between the two verbs- so we would tend to say 'go and find' or 'go and tell'.

Write - English ladies don't 'write' a person- they 'write to' them. Rather!

Ye - This archaic form of 'you', harking back to Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons not of Shakespeare), is one that readers may notice being used by lower class British characters in various parts of the country.
I encountered one novel in which it was used by a man in Dover, about the nearest part of the country to France. Yet today, this term is mainly only used in the West Country (Devon/Cornwall) and Scotland and Ireland.

I don't know if it was more commonly used 200 years ago, or is one of those fictional tropes- rather like the way that almost everyone who isn't an aristocrat has either a Scottish or a Cockney accent in Hollywood movies.

England and Britain - Alright, this may be the most important one. Britain is not repeat not a synonym for England- Britain is a land mass that consists of hundreds of separate Islands and three distinct countries- England, Scotland and Wales (see the map to the right) England is one of these countries. Wales and Scotland are not part of England- nor are they in England- but all are part of Greater Britain.
Yet a Scottish character in a novel set in 18th century America is as much British as his English neighbour- though only the English person is usually referred to as British in such books.
Now, having American characters conflate England and Britain is understandable and forgivable- but for Brits to do this as if they did not know the difference is a heinous error in my view. Its as bad as calling a Canadian an American....or saying Wales is your favourite part of England.

The above are only a few example, and perhaps I may be accused of needless pedantry, but I believe that a grasp of language, or linguistic nuances and differences may be of more importance to historical fiction than is generally thought.
 Maybe readers will disagree, or would like to contribute further examples, or simply express an opinion. Feel free to do so....

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