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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 December 2011

Word Abuse

A few of us were having a grand old time on Twitter recently with the OED. Yes, we’re geeks of first order. It was brought on by my semi-regular #RegencySlang postings, wherein I highlight words from A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785/1811; yes the editions are different). I’m often surprised by words that were clearly in use at the time. Bedfordshire, for example (as in “I am for Bedfordshire”, i.e. going to bed) seems very modern to me (it’s also one of the words that’s in the 1811 edition, but not the 1785 edition). I also like to highlight strange or fun words that I think should be added to our collective Georgian/Regency vocabularies. Beau Trap is one that I love. It’s that loose stone in a cobble street that splashes dirty water onto your shoes and stockings when you step on it. Brilliant! And Bedizened (over-dressed, awkwardly ornamented, gaudy). Sounds like “bedazzled” and I think in context any reader would get it (as in this quote from the OED: “I took him for a Captain, he's so bedizen'd with Lace.”).

The discussion segued (as happens on Twitter) into a mea culpa discussion about words that we knowingly use even though they’re not period. One of my main contenders is Mount. The act of climbing into the saddle (1330) or sexual intercourse (1475) are both perfectly period for my 18th century settings, but—and this is a big but for me—the use of mount as a synonym for horse is Victorian (1856). Even knowing this, I use it anyway, as I tend to write “horsey” characters and the need for synonyms is pressing.

I don’t make this decision lightly. It comes down to whether or not I think the usage breaks the historical mood and is likely to make the reader stumble and think, “When the hell was this book set again?”. And I don’t think it does. I think you could get away with “His mount snapped his teeth at the rider beside them.” in a book set in Roman Britain as well as a 21st century Texas.

Are there any words that you know aren’t period, but you can’t resist using? Come on, fess up?

From the OED


a. intr. To get up on to the back of a horse or other animal (occas. on a person's shoulders) for the purpose of riding. With on, upon, †to.

c1330 (1300) Arthour & Merlin (Auch.) (1973) 9230 Þo mounted Arthour, Bohort, and Ban Wiþ alle her wi't compainie.

a. To climb on to (a partner or mate) for the purpose of sexual intercourse. Also intr.In early use freq. with punning allusion to sense 13c; and in quot. c1564 to sense 5b.

a1475

[implied in: a1475 in F. J. Furnivall Jyl of Breyntford's Test. (1871) 31 The leste fyngere on my honde Is more than he [sc. the penis], whan he dothe stonde‥Sory mowntyng come there-on. [at mounting n. 1]

a. orig. colloq. A horse, bicycle, etc., on which a person is mounted or which a person rides or drives; a horse, etc., provided for riding.

1856 ‘Stonehenge’ Man. Brit. Rural Sports 363/1 The jockey‥receiving information from the trainer as to the peculiarities of his mount.

3 Comments:

Blogger Rose Lerner said...

I definitely occasionally use sex words I know are anachronisms if I can't come up with period ones that I don't find distracting or convoluted. In PENNY I talked about the laughter and sex that my hero shared with his ex-mistress, and I use "sleep with" in LILY. I also used "suck" to refer to oral sex in PENNY even though that wasn't used till the twenties (after trying VERY hard to find a good concise alternative that sounded like something you might actually say in the heat of the moment, unlike "pleasure him with her mouth"). Sex is definitely an area where I'm willing to compromise strict historical accuracy, because the sensibilities have shifted so very much. Fanny Hill is hot, sure, but...NONE of those scenes would impress me in modern erotica. If you even just compare sex scenes now to the ones being written ten years ago, so much has changed. And if a reader is thrown out of a sexy scene by unexpected or incongruous phrasing, I think it can be hard to recapture that mood.

2:30 AM  
Blogger Barbara Monajem said...

I've used 'mount' for a horse. I don't know whether 'bloody' was used as a swear word in the Regency, but I use it anyway. Same goes for 'blasted.'

I do tend to subtract 10-20 years or more from the dictionary's date of first recorded use, depending on the word. Sometimes the first recorded use seems likely to be close to the first spoken use, sometimes not.

Not only that, dictionaries aren't always right. One dictionary I consulted said 'corridor' wasn't period, and then I found it in The Mysteries of Udolpho... shrug.

And, as Rose said, sometimes it's not so much the words that matter as how and where they're used...

9:45 AM  
Blogger Grace Burrowes said...

I call this the Great Cufflink Debate. Cufflinks have been around since at least the early Georgian period, but the term "cufflink" is late Victorian. The period appropriate term would be "sleeve button," which now has a different meaning from cufflink. Purist readers will be thrown out of the scene if I choose "cufflink" for my Regency hero's attire; non-purist readers will be thrown out of the scene if I use "sleeve buttons." I can use sleeve buttons with enough context to make the meaning plain, but then I'm not writing romance, I'm writing a vocabulary lesson.
Madeline Hunter can use the period correct term and make it clear in context because she is a genius. Me, well, my guys usually wear cufflinks, on the theory that most readers aren't purists of that degree.
And the debate rages on...

4:56 PM  

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