lexical choice

We were watching a western on dvd last night (I cannot resist Robert Duvall in a western. I can’t see anybody but Gus McCrae when he’s on the screen, and Gus is one of my all time favorite fictional men.

/cue quote/: I met a wonderful new man yesterday. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything/end quote.

Where was I. Oh yes, lexical choice. If you write historical fiction you’re always on the alert about getting simple vocabulary right. They didn’t use the term ‘strep throat’ in the early 1800s, because the strep bacillus hadn’t been isolated or identified. So your character does have strep (and thank dog, because back then strep killed a lot of people); your character has a putrid sore throat.

Some lexical anachronisms are bound to slip through, no matter how hard you (or your editor) look for them. Most of the time you won’t even realize it’s an anachronism until a reader who happens to be an expert in sleigh bells or trapping or kitchen implements of 1820 gets in touch and let’s you know where you messed up.

Maybe five people who read the book will catch that kind of error, but most of us who write historical fiction would prefer not to make the mistake in the first place.

So when a historical term comes to my attention that is new to me, I always look it up and think about it for a while.

Yesterday evening Robert Duvall requested that his nephew bring him some convenience paper from town. The Mathematician and I looked at each other and shrugged. A few scenes later it turned out that convenience paper was an early term for commercially made toilet paper. I haven’t had time yet, but I’ve got this on my list of words to check and sooner or later I’ll go on a quest. There may even be a website about the history of toilet paper, or a Wikipedia article. There are millions of people out there with all kinds of interests, and they are happy to share their knowledge with you. Usually.

Are there any historical lexical items which you learned about through a novel or a movie?

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10 Replies to “lexical choice”

  1. 1. Not quite what you asked, but I finally understood The Battle of New Orleans by reading Queen of Swords. Until then it was just one more thing decades ago in high school under the list of “don’t bother paying attention.”

    2. Still not quite what you asked, but similarly, at your recommendation I’ve just read City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin. Definitely a great read. Now I understand better post-WWI Germany and the events leading up to WWII.

    3. How small pox vaccinations were done in the early 1800’s.

    4. That tuberculosis can occur in places other than the lungs.

    P. S. Yeah, I didn’t answer your question, but I did answer mine!

  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toilet_paper

    So, OK, the librarian in me lives even during summer vacation and I looked it up. Really more than I needed to know about the alternatives to using toilet paper but it gives me new appreciation for the roll of Scott Tissue in my bathroom.

    Back to your question: I think most of what I’ve learned from books regarding historical lexical items deals with medical terms although I have the vague recollection that plant names may fall under that category too. I can’t give you any specific examples though. I’m in the process of moving and all of my books are currently boxed up.

  3. Good call with the TB, asdfg.

    Consumption fits the bill for me. Or galloping consumption. Which apparently is TB on a horse. It might have been Anne of Green Gables I first read this term in.

    Hydrophobie from Old Yeller.

    Soiled Dove, I heard this on some John Wayne movie or other.

    Prambulator. Or maybe shortened to pram, in Peter Pan I think…

  4. For the life of me I can’t recall the name of the book where I first came across the term ‘the clap’ but it sure got me curious enough to look it up and learn more than I ever really wanted to know about Gonorrhoea.

    I’m fairly inquisitive by nature I think and do often look up hitorical people and events that I come across in fiction – I guess that’s one of the reasons I love that genre so much.

  5. I really noticed the ‘putrid sore throat’ in your books and appreciated that’s exactly what it would have seemed like. Much more evocative than ‘strep.’

    I haven’t noticed any particular phrases or words, but I’ll be more alert to them now. I wondered if maybe the way we talk about weather now (‘a Colorado low’ or ‘heat wave’) is how they’d talk about it “in the olden days.” Interesting. We just take some of that meteorological jargon for granted, and now I’m wondering the origins of the word “blizzard” and what the heck they called such a thing prior. Snow storm I guess. A bad one.

  6. I agree with Karen J, most of the things I notice are medical terms.
    Diana Gabaldon’s the Outlander series has allot of these.
    Lockjaw – which is tetanus. It was simply named after one of the symptoms of tetanus.
    A chill in the liver – I still don’t know what this means in today’s medical terms. I never did the homework on it. But supposedly it could be deadly.

  7. I grew up with the words lockjaw and hydrophobia being used. We didn’t know what tetanus or rabies were.

    We also ate crawfish, aka lobster. Yes, there’s a difference, but we didn’t know it. Bottom suckers = catfish.

    Chimley = chimney. Chester drawers = chest of drawers (I thought a man named Chester had invented it until I saw it in print.) Chamber pots were put inside commodes, a piece of furniture, when not in use. Toe dancing = ballet. As a girl looking to becoming refined, one “took toe and tap.”

    Stingeries = stingrays. Alligator pear = avocado. Never seen those in print.

    Nor’eastern is still used as a storm off New England. Frog strangler = heavy wind and rain. Get shet of X = get rid of X. That’s enough!

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