historical v. political considerations

In part because of my academic background and area of specialization, I have paid a lot of attention to the evolution of the term ‘politically correct’. In the seventies it was used to describe something

“conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, especially. on social matters, characterized by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language, behaviour, etc., considered discriminatory or offensive…” (OED)

but it didn’t take long for the term to become so overextended. By the late eighties, to say somebody was ‘politically correct’ (usually with a sneer) was to accuse the speaker of parroting extreme liberal views without critical thought (whether or not that was true; the phrase was — and is — still used as a way to silence debate.)

For my part, I like to think that in most situations it’s just good common sense to avoid language that is exclusionary or biased — unless I’m hoping to evoke negative reactions. There’s a good chapter about these issues in a book by Deborah Cameron called Verbal Hygiene. Great book, terrible title.

So what does this have to do with writing fiction? A lot, unfortunately. First, in historical terms, it’s sometimes impossible to use the right historical lexical items because your readers — those of them who don’t know the language history, and even those who do — would find it so disturbing that they’d lose track of the story. You can have a nasty antagonist use any kind of slur and get away with it, but you can’t have a protagonist use any of the eighteenth century terms for natives of Africa without causing real problems for your reader. Nor can you simply use modern day terms, because they will stand out like proverbial sore thumbs. So what do you do?

It’s generally possible to structure dialog to evade the most problematic lexical items. Coward’s way out? Maybe. But to me this is one of those damned do/don’t things. Either you alienate your reader, or you commit anachronism. To use an example which is not quite so incendiary as most, consider the word girl.

In today’s world, a male executive who refers to his assistant as ‘his girl’ is (a) clueless (b) insensitive (c) sexist (d) deliberately provocative or (e) all of the above. “I’ll send my girl to get us coffee.” — Now there’s a sentence you’d put in the mouth of a character you don’t much like, or want your readers to like. But what if you’re talking about the year 1898? What would it mean then, in terms of how to read the character? For most readers, the answer to that question doesn’t matter, because they can’t get beyond their initial reaction.

The point (and I do have one) is that it’s hard to be historically and socially true to the language because your reader is stuck in her own time and place, and lacks the references she’d need to interpret. You’ll have to concentrate on other kinds of details to establish character, and keep a dictionary close to hand.

Another thing: Stephanie at Sillybean has pointed us to LanguageHat who points to this online database of magazines (Annual Register (1758-78), Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1843-63), Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-50), Notes and Queries (1849-69), Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1757-77), and The Builder (1843-52)) made available by Oxford. There is nothing so good as reading newspapers of the time you’re writing about to get a sense of the language.