Sara of storytelling has two posts on an interesting topic: when writing historical fiction (as she does), how far should you go in making the language realistic for the time described? The first, “Avoiding language anachronisms,” poses the basic problem:
The novelist has to find the balance between historical accuracy and the reader’s comfort level. There are extremes. On one end you might say that accuracy is everything, and damn the reader’s comfort; at the other, you might toss concerns about language accuracy out the window, and operate much in the way of Star Trek, where everybody understands everybody else, regardless of species or background…
The problem with lexical anachronisms is that they potentially destroy the fictive trance you work so hard to establish for your reader. It’s like ice water on the back of your neck on a hot day; you can’t not notice.
I thoroughly agree with the last bit, and I’m comfortable with damning the reader’s comfort, even in the context of her second post, “How to be right, and alienate your reader,” which discusses her exception to the general rule:
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… 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.
Personally, I would be willing to write off readers who couldn’t handle “the eighteenth century terms for natives of Africa”; if their sensibilities are that tender, they shouldn’t be reading about the past (and shouldn’t go visit most of the world). But I recognize that that’s an extremist position, and as a straight white male American I’m doubtless less susceptible to the power of disparaging language than most.