If you’ve ever wondered how historical novelists deal with the issue of period vocabulary, here‘s one writer’s answer. Mary Robinette Kowal (novelist and professional puppeteer) writes:
Glamour in Glass is set in 1815 and I wanted to have the language fairly clean of anachronisms. The challenge came in trying to figure out what words didn’t exist yet. So I decided to create a Jane Austen word list, from the complete works of Jane Austen, and use that as my spellcheck dictionary. It flagged any word that she didn’t use, which allowed me to look it up to see if it existed.
Sometimes the word did, but meant something different. “Blink” for instance, at the time meant to look through half-lidded eyes, or to open the eyes as if upon waking. The action we mean by it… “nictate.” Yeah… Not so much with the “She nictated at him.”
Once the word was flagged, I looked it up in the OED to double-check the meaning and the earliest citation. If the word didn’t work, then I used the OED’s historical thesaurus to find a period appropriate synonym.
That’s an excellent approach, and I was surprised by some of the results in her word list: who would have guessed that manipulate, condone, meaningful, and inkwell were not part of English vocabulary in 1815, nor for decades after? (For the last, they used inkpot.) I wish more writers followed her example. (Thanks, Derryl!)