History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 June 2009

Accuracy or Intelligibility?

Recently there has been a lively discussion about this topic on a loop for historical writers. It was kicked off by one writer’s horror upon discovering that “foyer” (OED: The entrance hall of a hotel, restaurant, theatre, etc. 1915 ‘BARTIMEUS’ Tall Ship iv. 77 There were at least half a dozen mothers in the foyer of the big..hotel.) was not a period word for the Regency setting of her novel. The proper term historically is “hall” (OED: The entrance-room or vestibule of a house; hence, the lobby or entrance passage. 1663 GERBIER Counsel 10 The Hall of a private-house, serving for the most part but for a Passage.), which led many to realize with growing horror that “hall” (in the way we use it: a corridor in a building which allows access to multiple rooms) is also not period. (OED: orig. U.S, An entrance-hall or passage leading to various rooms in a house or building. 1877 J. HABBERTON Jericho Road 173 It passed through the narrow hallway which separated the cell from the jailor's apartments.)

It’s one thing to avoid words that encompass ideas that are themselves anachronistic for our setting, such as mesmerized (OED: To subject a person to the influence of mesmerism; to lead or direct by mesmerism; to hypnotize. 1829 R. CHENEVIX in London Med. & Physical Jrnl. 6 222, I mesmerised the patient through the door.), sadistic (OED: Of, relating to, or characterized by sadism; cruel. 1892 C. G. CHADDOCK tr. R. von Krafft-Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis iii. 79 The perverse sadistic impulse, to injure women and put contempt and humiliation upon them.) or surreal (OED: Having the qualities of surrealist art; bizarre, dreamlike. 1937 Burlington Mag. Jan. p. xiv/1 Some ‘surreal’ influence haunts the regions of the Black Forest.). It’s harder to know what the best choice is when faced with using the modern term for something mundane (such as “hall”). If accuracy is the ultimate goal, then another word should be used “passage” (OED: A corridor giving access to the various rooms or divisions of a building, ship, etc., or running between two rooms; a gallery, lobby, or hall. a1525 Bk. Sevyne Sagis 2344, in W. A. Craigie Asloan MS (1925) II. 75 Ane preve passage for to mak.), corridor (OED: A main passage in a large building, upon which in its course many apartments open. Also fig. Cf. COULISSE 4. 1814 BYRON Corsair III. xix, Glimmering through the dusky corridore, Another [lamp] chequers o'er the shadow'd floor), but IMO, accuracy must be balanced with intelligibility. Somehow, as a woman of the 21st century, “passage” or “passageway” simply don’t make me picture a “hallway”. Passageways lead to oubliettes and smugglers’ dens and secret rooms.

I know. I know. I over think these things, but what do you think should rule the day: accuracy or intelligibility?

17 Comments:

Blogger Erastes said...

I agree, you can't use sadism at the wrong time, but the concept would have existed. My editor gave me a list of 100s of words not in use in 1642, (it must have taken her ages) from sadism to presumably and we reached an accord in the end that if it was relatively close it was likely in the language even if it hadn't appeared in print, and things like "presumably" were silly to get worked up about.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I do use hall now instead of foyer and passage instead of hall. But one thing I know is from conversation with readers is that they do not care what word I use as long as the story is worth reading.

As a reader there are a few words that will pull me out of the regency story -- "ego" being one of them. The last time I ran across this was in Sophia Nash's RITA winner, A PASSIONATE ENDEAVOR and while I noticed the misuse I could I kept right on reading and apparently so did the judges!

So to sum up: I want accuracy when it matters (but can overlook it if the story has hold of me) and intelligibility the rest of the time.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

What's wrong with "vestibule"? It seems to be an appropriate term and about the right period. At least in this specific example.

But generally, is there a way to strike a balance? If the period-appropriate word is out of use or has a different modern meaning, could you include a short description or dialog that teaches the new word?

I'm not a writer so I don't know what constraints you might have to work within.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Hi Scott, I've done that -- used dialog to explain the regency meaning of a word but find it awkward to use so avoid it unless absolutely essential.

I came back to mention that I am doing page proofs and came across a word that I used and now wonder when it came into use -- "misfit" -- Websters says the meaning I am using dates from 1823 -- since my story is 1818 I let it stand but now wonder if it will make the reader pause, just like I did.

2:23 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Vestibule is a great option, though I've seem comments that for some readers it has a "church" connotation. I’ve been trying to let myself relax a bit more and not worry about my characters walking down a “hall”, so long as they’re not having a surreal flashback while they do it, LOL!

2:25 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I came back to mention that I am doing page proofs and came across a word that I used and now wonder when it came into use -- "misfit" -- Websters says the meaning I am using dates from 1823 -- since my story is 1818 I let it stand but now wonder if it will make the reader pause, just like I did.



OED Misfit

A garment or other article which does not fit (or suit) the person for whom it is intended.
1823 ‘J. BEE’ Slang, Misfits clothes which do not suit the wearer's shape. Hence, ‘'tis a misfit’, when a story, or some endeavour fails of its effect, then ‘it von't fit’

For a person being a “misfit” the usage is Victorian:

2. A person unsuited or ill-suited to his or her environment, work, etc.; spec. one set apart from or rejected by others for his or her conspicuously odd, unusual, or antisocial behaviour and attitudes.

1860 R. W. EMERSON Beauty in Conduct of Life 262 The man is..borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors, and a misfit from the start.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Thanks for the replies, Mary and Kalen. This is a dilemma since a reader who is immersed in a story could be jarred by either a non-period term or a period, but unclear, term. It depends on the readers.

Perhaps this is a different question for another time, do you, as writers and creators, make conscious decisions about who you write for (knowledgeable about your period vs. more nostalgic about the romance of the period)? How do you weigh the choice?

2:36 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I try very hard to keep my manuscripts period correct, but it can be rather maddening at times! I tend to agree with Mary that so long as the story is well-written and not anachronistic over all I am fine with it. Still, I spend a lot of time immersed in research books, especially those written during the Regency to try and make what I write authentic.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

1. Intelligibility always trumps.

2. No one would notice in the case of "hall"

3. And anyway, didn't anybody participating in the discussion notice this OED definition, which to me implies some slippage between "hall" and "passage":

8. The entrance-room or vestibule of a house; hence, the lobby or entrance passage.
(The entrance-room was formerly often one of the principal sitting-rooms, of which many examples still remain in old country houses.)
1663 GERBIER Counsel 10 The Hall of a private-house, serving for the most part but for a Passage. 1706-7 FARQUHAR Beaux' Strat. I. i, The Company..has stood in the Hall this Hour, and no Body to shew them to their Chambers. 1790 J. B. MORETON W. Ind. Isl. 24 Do not keep loitering about the hall or piazza.


While as to glaring anachronisms -- after encountering "libido" and "genocide" (both in Regencies), I've given up caring or counting.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Kalen, thank you -- I'll change it after this break, if only to make up for the ones I miss completely (normalcy comes to mind -- I never thought to check that.)

Scott -- cannot answer that question because I can't decide. I tell the story I have to tell but it's my editor who tells me what works and what doesn't. Once we are both satisfied then I trust that if she is happy the reader will be.

LOL Pam -- this may be the only context in which I find "genocide" laughable. Where was the copy editor?

4:58 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great topic, Kalen! I try for period accuracy, though I know I make mistakes. Sometimes one can even deliberately decide to use an anachronism (Dorothy Dunnett uses "sadist" in the Lymond chronicles; presumably she knew it was out of period). "Hall" for corridor actually is a word that stops me as a reader. It's not only out of period, it's an Americanism used that way (according to my Oxford dictionary). I'm sure I used hall (and foyer) in some of my earlier books, but these days I use "passage" or "corridor."

Whenever I'm doing final edits, I have long lists of words to double check in my O.E.D. I have more lists when I do copy-edits and more when I do galleys. And I'm sure there are still tons that are out of period that I just don't think to look up...

6:34 PM  
Anonymous RfP said...

I suppose I come down on the side of accuracy, not because I'm a stickler for accuracy but because (though I'm sure you don't mean it this way) making things "intelligible" to the reader is reminiscent of dumbing down or homogenizing. If the reader isn't accustomed to the accurate word, does that word's strangeness detract from the book or does it create more awareness that it's a foreign or long past setting?

And for another argument:

"Somehow, as a woman of the 21st century, “passage” or “passageway” simply don’t make me picture a “hallway”."

But as another woman of the 21st C, I *do* picture a passage as a hallway, which illustrates how difficult it is to use intelligibility as the standard.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

If the reader isn't accustomed to the accurate word, does that word's strangeness detract from the book or does it create more awareness that it's a foreign or long past setting?

A sci fi reader is trusted to figure out the vocabulary as she goes along. Perhaps a reader of historicals might be as well.

But only if a historical author is willing to be something of a teacher -- as a sci fi author is, through repetition, consistency, and context.

Which means that vocabulary is only the icing on the cake. I don't think it matters much that you call a passageway a hall, if you haven't also rendered a world where the architecture is palpably different from what the reader encounters in her 21st century life -- AND somehow made this difference intelligible in terms of your characters' way of moving through space. Which might be as much a matter of prose rhythm and p.o.v., as of a word choice that someone is always happy to pounce on.

10:49 PM  
Blogger mnemosyne's afterthought said...

Both. Really. Both. But for me, accuracy first.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

A sci fi reader is trusted to figure out the vocabulary as she goes along. Perhaps a reader of historicals might be as well.



This is my take. I try to put my strange period words (often clothing terms) in context and hope for the best . . . I've received complaints, and one supposedly legitimate reviewer basically said she couldn't make heads or tails of my book (and thought it was filled with anachronisms *sigh*).

Something that drives me crazy though is when an author explains in the narrative what something is, as though the character is thinking about and analyzing something that is utterly mundane to them. Or when they explain the meaning of a foreign word EVERY TIME it shows up in the book, not just the first time. Both of these totally push me out of the story.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's my take too, Kalen. I learned a lot of the period words I know from reading, both historical fiction and novels that were written in an earlier time period. I agree with Pam that words aren't enough in and of themselves to create a different time and place, but to me they're the building blocks of creating a world, so it's important to me to try to use words that fit the world I'm building.

10:35 AM  
Blogger parlance said...

Tracy, I agree that Dorothy Dunnett was such a master of her period that if she used "sadist" it would be because there's no word that would convey her meaning so clearly to a modern reader.

As a reader, it seems to me that intelligibility is the main thing.
Usually language has changed a lot since the period that you're writing about, so I'm happy to read modern English, as long as there are plenty of accurate historical terms mixed in smoothly so I know you have researched your period and that I can therefore trust you as a writer.

6:14 AM  

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