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.


  1. And while you’re at it, feel free to substitute Latin for Greek.

  2. I almost agree with you. People who believe that historical characters should behave according to current-day standards don’t want history; they want romanticized fantasy. Serious writers shouldn’t cater to them.
    However, I have three counterpoints:
    1) Writers, especially ones who haven’t written The DaVinci Code have to cater to their publishers. If a writer did use offensive language, their publisher might pressure them to remove it even though they used it in the interests in historical accuracy.
    2) Because most writers avoid using such language, I would find it distracting if I happened across an author who did. I would be pleased to find someone interested in accuracy, but it would interrupt the narrative for me.
    3) This is actually a point that comes up in anime fandom: when you’re writing about characters who don’t speak English, the dialogue is essentially a translation. Many people believe that it makes no sense to partially translate the dialogue, leaving a few well-known Japanese phrases intact.
    One could make the argument that the language in a historical novel (especially if the setting is far enough removed that it would be hard or impossible to understand) is translation. If that’s the case, choosing “native” over one of the offensive terms is just translation. I think that even so, this sacrifices accuracy, but I can see where people who might make this decision are comign from.
    [begin tangent]
    I think it’s interesting that there’s such blatant racism in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I wonder how people would have reacted if Hermione was discriminated against by the antagonists not because she’s a muggle-born, but because she was black?
    I think it’s clever of Rowling to address racism in fantasy terms. I wonder if it was intentional (if she’s trying to convey a message) or just a convenient way to torment the protagonists.
    [end tangent]

  3. I wonder if it really makes sense to talk about “accuracy” in this context–I think it’s more a matter of following convention. To say, as the article does, that Shakespeare somehow “messed up” when he had bells tolling in ancient Rome or when he talks about the coast of Bohemia seems to me to be missing the point in a very fundamental way. The Elizabethans and Jacobeans simply didn’t recognize the same conventions that most current historical fiction does. Unless you’re writing a really serious pastiche in the language of the time and place you’re concerned with (which is almost impossible to do well), I don’t think there’s any principled way to say some expression is accurate or not–none of it is accurate because the language is different and the whole mentality is alien. It’s purely an aesthetic question and no dictionary can help: look at Christopher Logue’s Homer or Derek Jarman’s movie about Caravaggio–they revel in anachronisms, but I don’t think that makes them somehow “inaccurate.” It’s a really fascinating topic, and it applies equally to translation and to historical fiction.

  4. I agree about Shakespeare, which is why I left that element out in my quotes. She’s confusing two different things. But we no longer have the cheerful obliviousness to historical differences of the Elizabethans, and I think we should do our best to present the people of the past as they were, rather than as projections of what we wish they had been.

  5. aldiboronti says

    “We no longer have the cheerful obliviousness to historical differences of the Elizabethans.”
    Certainly not when it comes to costume and setting, etc. But with people we cheerfully accept, nay demand, that, the heroes and heroines of popular fiction, no matter what period it is set in, are fully equipped with 21st century mindsets. Only the villains are permitted to share the prevailing opinions of their times.

  6. aldiboronti makes an interesting and important observation; I’m posting about it on my own blog.

  7. You’re right, of course; the tolling bells aren’t an example of language anachronism and I shouldn’t have muddied the waters that way. This:

    But we no longer have the cheerful obliviousness to historical differences of the Elizabethans, and I think we should do our best to present the people of the past as they were, rather than as projections of what we wish they had been.

    is what I meant to say, but you put it much more elegantly. Thanks.

  8. Turns out sara had two followup posts: “to go with the cake: more links than a sausage factory” and “anachronistic heroes.” Her conclusion in the latter (responding to aldiboronti):

    So the writer of historical fiction has only a few choices. Sidestep the problem by never having the protagonist (a) encounter anyone of another race or (b) talk about the news of the times (the morally ambiguous don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach); cast the progatonist not such much as an anachronism but as one of the rare individuals of his or her time and place, ala Clarkson; find a way to write a protagonist who confronts current sensibilities but in such a way that the modern reader is willing to accept it.

    Let me point out, just to be clear, that this difficulty extends far beyond the matter of slavery. For most of known history men in general and many women have not been supportive of women’s rights; religious freedom was considered a bad idea; labor practices were atrocious; and the list goes on.

    I still find the issue a fascinating one; most readers seem unable to accept the past as it was, and I can’t help but wonder what they would do if transported back into it.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    It would then be their turn to be suppressed and denied a hearing.

  10. It is a serious error to put contemporary sentiments into the mouths of characters who appear in works of fiction that are supposed to represent personages of the past. Even then, there is no absolute uniformity of opinions now or in the past. There were ‘racists’ in the past, and there still are today. It would be a mistake to assume, however, that expressions used in the past were reflective of attitudes. Read some of Stanley’s accounts of his travels in Africa, for instance:

    If one were to write a novel about him, a sort of ‘fictional account’ of his travels in Africa, one would be quite well advised to stick to the kind of language he actually used.

    Even younger readers would be well to know that not everyone thinks alike or speaks alike, or that even ‘heroes’ spoke in ways that might seem less than ‘angelic’.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Stanley was an arsehole whose actions rightly drew criticism from contemporaries.

  12. John Cowan says

    drew criticism from contemporaries

    Notably his most prominent victim, Dr. L. I. Presume. (“Is that your real name, Dr. Presume?” he said snottily.)

    characters who […] represent personages of the past”

    But that is ambiguous. If you mean actual personages of the past, then it is indeed a distortion, but fictional or even actual-but-obscure personages don’t, as you say, have to have typical attitudes of their time and place. Early 20C America was far more racist than early 21C America, but my father (1904-1993) was no racist by anybody’s standards, even after he became senile and paranoid about “n******rs” stealing from him.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    There are more asterisks in that than are used to code “nigger”. You must be referring to something else. I’m dying to know who has been stealing my stuff !

  14. John Cowan says

    Sorry, Stu, you aren’t senile enough.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    Not enough ? The impudence ! Statistically, at 73 1/2 I’m in the top percenile of Ancient Ones at languagehat.

  16. You may be ancient, but are you justified?

  17. Stu Clayton says

    Tammy Wynette !? That “justification” business is a big talking topic for many American protestants. I regret any grief I may cause Calvinist company by dwelling on this outrageous subject.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    I appreciate the thought, Stu. However, I think I will be able to contain my grief. (Sniffs bravely.) Dwell on!

  19. David Eddyshaw says
    August 30, 2022 at 5:24 pm
    ‘Stanley was an arsehole whose actions rightly drew criticism from contemporaries.’

    So what? Were his ‘contemporaries’ angels? No-one is perfect. And exactly what great feats did these ‘contemporaries’ accomplish? If you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.

    You might want to read that book:

    I don’t find anything all that objectionable in it, for its time.

    This passage is hilarious:

    April 1st.—To-day the Expedition suffered a loss in the death of the grey Arab horse presented by Seyd Burghash, Sultan of Zanzibar. The night previous I had noticed that the horse was suffering. Bearing in mind what has been so frequently asserted, namely, that no horses could live in the interior of Africa because of the tsetse, I had him opened, and the stomach, which I believed to be diseased, examined. Besides much undigested matama and grass there were found twenty-five short, thick, white worms, sticking like leeches into the coating of the stomach, while the intestines were almost alive with the numbers of long white worms. I was satisfied that neither man nor beast could long exist with such a mass of corrupting life within him.

    In order that the dead carcase might not taint the valley, I had it buried deep in the ground, about a score of yards from the encampment. From such a slight cause ensued a tremendous uproar from Kingaru—chief of the village—who, with his brother-chiefs of neighbouring villages, numbering in the aggregate two dozen wattled huts, had taken counsel upon the best means of mulcting the Musungu of a full doti or two of Merikani, and finally had arrived at the conviction that the act of burying a dead horse in their soil without “By your leave, sir,” was a grievous and fineable fault. Affecting great indignation at the unpardonable omission, he, Kingaru, concluded to send to the Musungu four of his young men to say to him that “since you have buried your horse in my ground, it is well; let him remain there; but you must pay me two doti of Merikani.” For reply the messengers were told to say to the chief that I would prefer talking the matter over with himself face to face, if he would condescend to visit me in my tent once again. As the village was but a stone’s throw from our encampment, before many minutes had elapsed the wrinkled elder made his appearance at the door of my tent with about half the village behind him.

    The following dialogue which took place will serve to illustrate the tempers of the people with whom I was about to have a year’s trading intercourse:

    White Man.—”Are you the great chief of Kingaru?”

    Kingaru.—”Huh-uh. Yes.”

    W. M.—”The great, great chief?”

    Kingaru.—”Huh-uh. Yes.”

    W. M.—”How many soldiers have you?”

    Kingaru.—” Why?”

    W. M.—”How many fighting men have you?”


    W. M.—”Oh! I thought you might have a thousand men with you, by your going to fine a strong white man, who has plenty of guns and soldiers, two doti for burying a dead horse.”

    Kingaru (rather perplexed).—”No; I have no soldiers. I have only a few young men.”

    W. M.—”Why do you come and make trouble, then?”

    Kingaru.—”It was not I; it was my brothers who said to me, ‘Come here, come here, Kingaru, see what the white man has done! Has he not taken possession of your soil, in that he has put his horse into your ground without your permission? Come, go to him and see by what right.’ Therefore have I come to ask you, who gave you permission to use my soil for a burying-ground?”

    W. M. “I want no man’s permission to do what is right. My horse died; had I left him to fester and stink in your valley, sickness would visit your village, your water would become unwholesome, and caravans would not stop here for trade; for they would say, ‘This is an unlucky spot, let us go away.’ But enough said: I understand you to say that you do not want him buried in your ground; the error I have fallen into is easily put right. This minute my soldiers shall dig him out again, and cover up the soil as it was before; and the horse shall be left where he died.” (Then shouting to Bombay.) “Ho! Bombay, take soldiers with jembes to dig my horse out of the ground, drag him to where he died, and make everything ready for a march to-morrow morning.”

    Kingaru, his voice considerably higher, and his head moving to and fro with emotion, cries out, “Akuna, akuna, bana!”—”No, no, master! Let not the white man get angry. The horse is dead, and now lies buried; let him remain so, since he is already there, and let us be friends again.”

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    No-one is perfect.

    So everyone is morally equivalent?

    I don’t find anything all that objectionable in it, for its time.

    You need to read more widely.

  21. “David Eddyshaw says
    August 31, 2022 at 10:14 am
    No-one is perfect.

    So everyone is morally equivalent?

    I don’t find anything all that objectionable in it, for its time.

    You need to read more widely.”

    Oh really? I read a lot, from Trollope to Spillane and everything in between.

  22. No-one is perfect

    Ah, the classic excuse by those who desire to defend the indefensible. Here are some Stanley quotes (obviously you won’t be interested in quotes by others):

    “The savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision.”

    “Only by proving that we are superior to the savages, not only through our power to kill them but through our entire way of life, can we control them as they are now, in their present stage; it is necessary for their own well-being, even more than ours.”

    “For the half-castes I have great contempt. They are neither black nor white, neither good nor bad, neither to be admired nor hated. They are all things, at all times. … If I saw a miserable, half-starved negro, I was always sure to be told, he belonged to a half-caste. Cringing and hypocritical, cowardly and debased, treacherous and mean … this syphilitic, blear-eyed, pallid-skinned, abortion of an Africanized Arab.”

    You will doubtless say that everyone felt that way back then, but that is not at all true. You might have an easier time of it if you simply accepted that good writers can be bad people and/or have bad politics; that is how I am able to read Eliot and Pound, Hamsun and Céline, Trotsky and MacDiarmid, all without raising a sweat.

  23. Stanley accomplished a great deal. I find his writing superb. I do not care a whit about his politics, social status, or anything else. I was using his account as an example of English-language non-fiction writing of the 1870s. The point was that if someone were to create a ‘fictional Stanley’ (or 19th-century African explorer), the fictional Stanley should sound like the real one, ‘warts and all’. The writer should ‘get under the skin’ of his ‘model’ and try to recreate the language of the time and place through reading such writings. Do you understand now?

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    I do not care a whit about his politics, social status, or anything else

    I’m interested, then, that you reacted in the way that you did to my perfectly true statement that he was an arsehole who was condemned by contemporaries for his arseholishness (statements not in fact incompatible with “accomplishing a great deal” or indeed with being capable of “superb writing.”)

    [Personally I am unmoved by his “accomplishing” the claiming of the Congo for Leopold, and am not at all impressed by his writing style, but this is peripheral to your point.]

  25. I neither affirm nor deny anything about his character, having never met the man. I find his writing stylistically superb, and his narratives entertaining. That’s what is relevant here. Few today can write as well. Maybe you should stick to Stephen King.

    By the way, I can recommend Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? as an excellent read. Here is a gem:

    ‘One morning, at about eleven o’clock, the parlour-maid came up to Alice, as she sat alone in the drawing-room in Queen Anne Street, and told her there was a “gentleman ” in the hall waiting to be seen by ber.

    We all know the tone in which servants announce a gentleman when they know that the gentleman is not a gentleman.

    “A gentleman wanting to see me ! What sort of a gentleman ?

    Well, Miss, I don’t think he’s just of our sort; but he’s decent to look at.”

    Alice Vavasor had no desire to deny herself to any person but one. She was well aware that the gentleman in the hall could not be her cousin George, and therefore she did not refuse to see him.

    “Let him come up,” she said. “But I think, Jane, you ought to ask him his name.”

    Jane did ask him his name, and came back immediately, announcing Mr. Levy.’

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    I neither affirm nor deny anything about his character

    Good. That is a step forward. Once you have got over hero-worshipping the man for the brutality of his “achievements” (“what great feats did these ‘contemporaries’ accomplish? If you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs”) you may come to a soberer judgment of his modest literary attainments.

  27. I don’t ‘worship’ him or anyone else, but he did accomplish some very difficult things that persons of perhaps milder temperament could not have.

    Monty Python’s scathing satire of Australian ‘Bruces’ perhaps says it best:

    Rule 1 – no pooftahs. Rule 2 – no member of the faculty is to maltreat the abos in any way whatsoever (if there’s anyone watching). Rule 3 – no pooftahs. Rule 4 – I don’t want to catch any of you not drinking after lights out. Rule 5 – no pooftahs. Rule 6 – there is NO Rule 6. Rule 7 – no pooftahs!

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    This, I think, we can probably agree on; it has often occurred to me that the reason that contemporary Brits are not out exploiting the rest of the world in the manner of their forebears is not because they are morally improved so much as that they just aren’t up to it any more.

    Incidentally, I like this throwaway observation from Stanley’s WP page:

    “His contemporary image in Britain also suffered from the inaccurate perception that he was American.”

    (One has to draw the line somewhere, after all. An American! Dreadful.)

  29. Well, he was more American than British. Fought in the Civil War and all that:

  30. I will truly salute the man who buries a diseased horse in my yard without asking permission; tells me that a) it’s for my own good and b) I have no guns and he does so that’s that; and finally tells the whole world how stupid I am, in dull and lumbering prose.

  31. Wale, wot’s ‘e to do wif’it den? You callin’ ‘im a blighta?

    Oose dull and lumbrin pose dya mean, guvnah?

    ‘eres a right lodder o’ puddin:


  32. David Eddyshaw says


    Quite so.

  33. PlasticPaddy says

    I think it is not a question of Europeans not being “up to it”, it is more a mix of several things, e.g.:
    1. The difficulty of making occupation or conquest pay.
    2. The difficulty of committing atrocities that will not quite soon become public knowledge.
    3. The examples of successful resistance starting with Toussaint L’Ouverture and including figures like Mandela and Gandhi.
    4. The presence of a social net, as an alternative to shipping off to the Colonies or joining the armed forces.

  34. David Eddyshaw says


    Indeed. I agree with all your points.

    Historically, I think #1 was actually the most important; the suppression of reports of atrocities is still fairly feasible; #3 tends to founder on

    Whatever happens, we have got
    the Maxim gun, and they have not.

    (That brave paragon of all the manly and literary virtues, Stanley, could vouch for this.)

    #4 is a good point, though I suppose a proper Truss-style Britannia Unchained Tory would say that this is the whole reason for our current regrettable lack of virtus (if they knew the word.)

  35. In Cockney:

    I think it ain’t a question o’ Europeans not bein’ “up ter it”, it is more a mix o’ several buggers, e.g. I’ll get out me spoons.: 1, i’n it? The chuffin’ difficulty o’ makin’ occupation or conquest pay. 2. I’ll make us all a nice cup a’ tea. The chuffin’ difficulty o’ committin’ atrocities that will not quite soon become public knowledge. 3. The chuffin’ examples o’ successful resistance startin’ wiv Toussaint L’Ouverture and includin’ figures like Mandela and Gandhi, i’n it? 4. The chuffin’ presence o’ a social net, right, as an alternative ter shippin’ off ter the bleedin’ Colonies or joinin’ the armed forces, do wot Guvnor!


  36. John Cowan says

    at 73 1/2

    Come back twelve year hence, Miranda, and we’ll discuss it.

    Stanley accomplished a great deal

    So did Adolf.

    Well, Miss, I don’t think he’s just of our sort; but he’s decent to look at.

    Ahhh, the voice of genteel antisemitism.


  37. You can accomplish burying a horse carcass even more easily by asking nicely beforehand.

  38. Y says
    August 31, 2022 at 2:20 pm
    You can accomplish burying a horse carcass even more easily by asking nicely beforehand.

    We don’t know what the circumstances were. I just found the passage very entertaining.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s always entertaining to read accounts by armed men of their successful bullying of unarmed locals, especially with a bit of mockery of said locals thrown in. Such humour is ageless, for all that mealy-mouthed moderns pretend not to see it. One also appreciates the sheer verbal artistry of the passage. Dickens, nothing.

    The humour of this contemptible petty chiefling imagining that he had any rights to be considered in the face of an invader’s force majeur is exquisite. And the way he was forced into such a humiliating climbdown! I mean, people talk about Oscar Wilde as a wit, but that’s real, manly humour.

  40. Lars Mathiesen says

    David, it’s nice to see you abandoning your usual sardonic or even sarcastic manner in the face of real art.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    What can I say? I was just bowled over.

  42. PlasticPaddy says

    Post in haste, repent at leisure.
    For me, the anecdote does not show that Stanley was a monster or that the poster who cited the anecdote with approval was vicariously exercising cruelty against the weak (they may have even done it to provoke you). The anecdote shows me that abuses of power are more likely to occur where there is no check on the exercise of power by the strong against the weak. Many have died to create or defend societies / communities where there are such checks and many will die in the future for similar reasons. Others will remember them.

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    they may have even done it to provoke you

    True, true. IHBT. Still, better a trollee than a trolleur.

    Stanley, however, presents the anecdote, which purports to be autobiographical, for our amusement and approval of his firmness in dealing with uppity and ridiculous natives. He was a shit.

  44. Coming soon, in the ScandiNoir section of your favorite bookshop: The Girl Who Buried a Horse in Her Neighbor’s Garden.

    (Has to be a girl, it’s how the genre works)

  45. If it has worms, I’ll read it.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    Scandi-Congo Noir …

  47. @LH, WP contains a fragment poorly translated from Dutch

    Stanley beschrijft met ontzetting de vreselijke taferelen die zich in Congo afspelen. Maar ook via andere bronnen komen verslagen binnen van gruwelijkheden en kannibalisme. Tegelijkertijd verschaffen deze ‘bevindingen’ het idee dat het donkere continent zich goedschiks of kwaadschiks heeft te onderwerpen. Uit zijn geschriften blijkt dat ook Stanley die mening is toegedaan.

    “Alleen door te bewijzen dat we superieur zijn aan de wilden, niet alleen door onze macht om hen te doden maar door onze hele manier van leven, kunnen we hen onder controle krijgen zoals ze nu zijn, in hun huidige stadium; het is noodzakelijk voor hun eigen welzijn, zelfs meer dan het onze.”

    The context, by Stanley:

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, that’s a standard imperialist trope. We are selflessly invading these people to save them from the horrors that currently afflict them. We will denazify the Congo! It is our humanitarian duty!

    niet alleen door onze macht om hen te doden

    See! We’re not just going to show our superiority by killing them! We have other methods too!
    (Presumably Stanley did not in fact say this in Dutch, though.)

  49. @DE, no, the Dutch text is in turn a translation from Stanley’s English in the link below.

    As for denzaification, I honestly don’t know why they started this war. It is bad for Russia.

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    I wasn’t getting at you, drasvi, or even at Russia, specifically. It was just a perfect modern example of a kind of propaganda that goes right back to the Romans, and (I dare say) further. The Brits were masters of it in their day, too. Many peoples have benefited immeasurably from our wholly altruistic violence over the past few centuries (especially those who survived it.) And think of all the lives that were saved by the neutralisation of Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction!

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks for the link (you have a truly enviable ability to track these things down); I think you have a point in saying that WP has taken the passage out of context (though my opinion of the man is not altered.)

    I note a few paragraphs above that snippet:

    In order to rule [Africans], and keep one’s life among them, it is needful resolutely to regard them as children, who require indeed, different methods of rule from English or American citizens, but who must be ruled in precisely the same spirit, with the same absence of caprice and anger, the same essential respect to our fellow-men.

    This is, of course, cant*, here deployed in the service of proclaiming why it is better for Englishmen (hurrah!) to rule Africa than for those horrid Frenchmen or Germans, or even that enlightened fellow Leopold, to rule them. But in fairness to the execrable Stanley, the bit that immediately strikes a normal modern person as unacceptable (“regard them as children”) was standard stuff in his day; indeed it can be paralleled almost exactly in the works of Albert Schweitzer

    (though he seems to have got better in time.)

    * The usual life advice applies when dealing with such people: don’t watch his mouth, watch what he’s doing with his hands.

  52. But consider how child-like many primitive societies are, indeed. Their belief in spirit-forces, ignorance of scientific principles, etc. They themselves use force against their perceived enemies. The stronger do prevail.

  53. David Eddyshaw says


  54. No, not at all. Why do you say that?

  55. The stronger do prevail.

    I’m getting a soupçon of Dr. Strangelove:

    And a computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross-section of necessary skills. Of course, it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition. Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time, and little to do. Ha, ha. But ah, with the proper breeding techniques and a ratio of say, ten females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present Gross National Product within say, twenty years.

    We will prevail! To quote Gen. Turgidson: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops!”

  56. David Eddyshaw says

    Is your essence pure, Melchior?

  57. No, but I do come from a poor country. A very poor country.

    My country is so poor…..

  58. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah. That accounts for it. I was wondering. You wouldn’t be able to afford Purity of Essence, then. You are to be pitied rather than censured. But I still don’t understand why you’ve got it in for Republicans. Remember that they are God’s creatures too.

  59. I wasn’t getting at you, drasvi, or even at Russia, specifically.

    @DE, I know.

    And whenever I mention the Iraq war, it is not to defend Russia (or criticize the West… if it is, it is not that “West” which is opposed to Russia, it is “West” as a part of humanity): I don’t care what people here think about Russia. I also mentioned the Syrian war, the Chechen war and the Libyan war, but I guess some people just didn’t notice what I said about Yeltsin and saw in the Syrian and Libyan parts attacks on a bad guy Putin and good guy Obama, deserved and undeserved respectively.

    It is just that my reaction to this war is fierce anti-militarism.

    I meant that to compare such excuses I need to understand what the fuck they wanted.

    If they conquerred Ukraine in one day it could be good for self-esteem of someone in Russia. But it is unrealistic. Putin could conquer Ukraine in 2014 for the same reason why Luxembourg can conquer Monaco.

  60. @Stu: Just on an asterisk-count basis, it would appear that John C. may have been bowdlerizing “neighbors.” Not sure why he considers that a taboo term, but de gustibus non est disputandum.

  61. It is just that my reaction to this war is fierce anti-militarism.

    Same here, entirely separate from the issue of who’s to blame. War is bad, I don’t care what the issues are.

  62. Just re the complex legacy of the Belgian Congo – up in Alaska the most likely challenger to beat the incumbent Senator Murkowski (still probably the favorite in November) is rival Republican Kelly Tshibaka, who has the support of those Alaska Republicans who find Sen. Murkowski too moderate or otherwise problematic (which was a reasonably common point of view among Alaska Republicans long before the Trump phenomenon FWIW). What kind of a surname is Tshibaka, from an ethnolinguistic standpoint? Well after some googling, it turns out to be her married name (her maiden name was Hartline), and was brought to North America in 1966 by her father-in-law, who, after finishing up at an instruction-in-English boarding school run by American Presbyterians in the Kasai region of what was in the process of being renamed Zaire, came to the U.S. on a scholarship to attend Dartmouth.

  63. Congolese historical geography is no bed of roses (Wikipedia):

    On 14 August 1962 Kasaï Province was divided into five new provinces: Lomami, Luluabourg, Sankuru, Sud-Kasaï and Unité Kasaïenne. On 25 April 1966 Luluabourg and Unité Kasaïenne were united to form Kasaï-Occidental, while Lomami, Sankuru, and Sud-Kasaï were united in the new province of Kasaï-Oriental. In the period that followed, Kasaï District was located in Kasaï-Occidental province. It was bordered by Lulua District to the southeast, Kwango District to the southwest, Sankuru District, Tshuapa District, Kwilu District, Mai-Ndombe District, and the nation of Angola in the south. The capital of Kasaï district was the town of Luebo. The city of Tshikapa lay within the district, but was independently administered. It is now the capital of Kasaï Province. Territories were Dekese, Ilebo, Kamonia, Luebo and Mweka.

    Kasaï-Occidental was split in 2015 into the Kasaï-Central and Kasaï provinces.

  64. @hat, yeah there was a reason I used the fuzzier term “region.” The Presbyterian mission station with the school was/is Bibanga, which is said to currently be in Kasai-Oriental Province unless those internet sources are one set of boundary changes behind the government …

  65. >my reaction to this war is fierce anti-militarism

    Yes, but I’d have given Stanley’s interlocutor a few hundred Maxims anyway. Opposing the militarism of the bully takes priority over demilitarizing the victims.

    Though perhaps Plastic Paddy said it better:
    >Many have died to create or defend societies / communities where there are such checks and many will die in the future for similar reasons. Others will remember them.

    (All while acknowledging that it’s often less clear who the bully is than in Stanley’s case or in Putin’s.)

  66. It was bordered by Lulua District to the southeast … Sankuru District, …. in the south.” – Sounds as if Lulua is to the east of Sankuru (while Luluabourg is Western Kasai and Sankuru is Eastern Kasai).

    (just speaking of roses. I understand that a map could resolve this particular confusion)

  67. @Ryan: Fortunately by the time the Belgians bugged out in 1960, the world was full of well-meaning philanthropists who assured that every conceivable faction and sub-faction in post-independence Congolese political disputes would be well-armed.

  68. Yes, but I’d have given Stanley’s interlocutor a few hundred Maxims anyway.

    Reminds me some military interpreter who found in Mozambique Russian T-34s fighting against German … were it Panthers or Tigers?
    Anyway, the emblem of Mozambique makes everything clear.

  69. Once I was tempted to think that if we armed and trained all women in a certain Syrian city…
    The idea is that it is people who want guns who have them.

  70. to track these things down” – the first book Google offered me was The Savages of the Ards. The Ancient and Noble Family of the Savages of the Ards.

    I think you have a point in saying that WP ” – I am not sure I was saying it. The sufficient and maybe necessary reason for posting it was that it was English to Dutch to English translation. Maybe I would have said somethign anyway.

  71. Trond Engen says


    Scandi-Congo strikes again.

  72. “don’t watch his mouth, watch what he’s doing with his hands.”

    @DE, it makes sense if we interpret “doing with his hands” as what he was actually doing in Africa (and how he actually treated local people).

    It sort of matters.

  73. Stanley led armed expeditions. It can already be a bad idea, regargless of its behaviour. If gives you lots of opportunities to be an asshole (other than writing books and expressing views on colonisation).

    James Sligo Jameson, heir to Irish whiskey manufacturer Jameson’s, bought an 11-year-old girl and offered her to cannibals to document and sketch how she was cooked and eaten.” says WP.

  74. David Eddyshaw says

    The truth re Jameson seems to have been more complex (though horrific on any showing):

  75. PlasticPaddy says

    I believe that Mr. Jameson may have been combining his Study of Native Custom with an Attempt to cultivate in himself and his Interpreter a Practical Knowledge of Native Alternatives to Irish Whiskey, with a View to the Improvement of not only the Excellence of the Whiskey, but also its Perceived Wholesomeness and Goodness for Africans who are accustomed to such Alternatives. This goes some Way towards explaining the Confusion of the Accounts of the two Men, but the Fact that Mr. Jameson needed to make a Sketch from Memory of the Horrid and Deplorable Scenes he had witnessed whilst under the Influence of the Intoxicating Native Drink requires more Thought.

  76. David Eddyshaw says

    I have myself long suspected that Irish whiskey can only lead to cannibalism. I am glad to say that my house contains only wholesome Scots whisky. (I did have a bottle of some Welsh stuff, which was a present, but turned out to be actually rather nice. So far it has not led to anthropophagy, as far as I remember.)

  77. I would expect Welsh wisgi to lead to choral singing.

  78. David Eddyshaw says

    May have done …

  79. ‘Ullo’

    ‘Wots all this then?’

  80. One must also be mindful of ‘register’ (language for various occasions and environments), as well as language that reflects social rank. If one is writing an historical novel involving Jack the Ripper, for instance, one would be well advised to read contemporary accounts written in newspapers, police reports, and so on. A good example of this is found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where an ‘old man’ in Whitby speaks:

    He is a funny old man. He must be awfully old, for his face is all gnarled and twisted like the bark of a tree. He tells me that he is nearly a hundred, and that he was a sailor in the Greenland fishing fleet when Waterloo was fought. He is, I am afraid, a very sceptical person, for when I asked him about the bells at sea and the White Lady at the abbey he said very brusquely:

    “I wouldn’t fash masel’ about them, miss. Them things be all wore out. Mind, I don’t say that they never was, but I do say that they wasn’t in my time. They be all very well for comers and trippers, an’ the like, but not for a nice young lady like you. Them feet-folks from York and Leeds that be always eatin’ cured herrin’s an’ drinkin’ tea an’ lookin’ out to buy cheap jet would creed aught. I wonder masel’ who’d be bothered tellin’ lies to them—even the newspapers, which is full of fool-talk.” I thought he would be a good person to learn interesting things from, so I asked him if he would mind telling me something about the whale-fishing in the old days. He was just settling himself to begin when the clock struck six, whereupon he laboured to get up, and said:—

    “I must gang ageeanwards home now, miss. My grand-daughter doesn’t like to be kept waitin’ when the tea is ready, for it takes me time to crammle aboon the grees, for there be a many of ’em; an’, miss, I lack belly-timber sairly by the clock.”

    He hobbled away, and I could see him hurrying, as well as he could, down the steps. The steps are a great feature on the place. They lead from the town up to the church, there are hundreds of them—I do not know how many—and they wind up in a delicate curve; the slope is so gentle that a horse could easily walk up and down them. I think they must originally have had something to do with the abbey. I shall go home too. Lucy went out visiting with her mother, and as they were only duty calls, I did not go. They will be home by this.

  81. That’s a delightful passage — I really should read the book one of these days.

  82. It seems ‘masel’ means ‘myself’.

    Other words are a complete mystery to me.

  83. PlasticPaddy says

    Fash = get angry/excited?
    would creed aught = would believe anything
    crammle aboon the grees = climb/scramble aboon = down, grees = steps
    lack belly timber = get hungry?
    sairly = very much

  84. Fash = get angry/excited?
    would creed aught = would believe anything
    crammle aboon the grees = climb/scramble aboon = down, grees = steps
    lack belly timber = get hungry?
    sairly = very much

    I suspected ‘would creed aught’ meant what you said, all right. The others were much less clear.

  85. fash even is in wiktionary; I remember seeing “(not) getting fashed about something” in contemporary English texts.

  86. I take it he’s saying that it will take him time to scramble up the steps, and that he doesn’t have food in him and it hurts.

    The DSL is quite helpful with Northern English dialect like this: belly-timber is ‘food’ (an exceptional use of timber/timmer, which normally means ‘wood’). Sairly, sarely is what happens to sorely ‘painfully’ when it doesn’t go through the Midlands change of /aː/ to /oː/ that separates Scots tae from English toe. Aboon/abune is above, here ‘up’, and grees is aphetic for degrees, meaning the steps that are mentioned later. In Scots it normally refers to social ranks, metaphorical steps.

    As for crammle, I can find nothing, but it looks to me like scramble with the regular change /mb/ > /mm/ (see timmer above, and standard thumb, limb in final position) plus cluster simplification.

  87. From the Publications of the English Dialect Society (1883), “Glossary of the Dialect of Almondbury and Huddersfield,” p. 32:

    Crammle (pronounced as written), to twitch, or squeeze, into a small compass. Thus a shoe is crammled down at the heel. It also means to hobble, or creep, in walking.

  88. So, where did Stoker get this, so that he could construct this quote? Was he a native of the area?

    I figured out that ‘I must gang ageeanwards home’ meant that he had to hurry home (‘gang’ being archaic for ‘go’). I figured ‘ageeanwards’ meant ‘hurry back’.

  89. Ah, here we go — Joseph Wright, The English Dialect Dictionary: A-C (1903), p. 770:

    CRAMBLE, v. and sb. Nhb. Cum. Wm. Yks. Lan. Chs. Stf. Der. Not. Lin. Also Cor. Written crammal Wm.; crammel Cum.¹ Wm. w.Yks.; crammle n.Yks.²³ e.Yks.¹ w.Yks.¹³⁵ [kra’ml.] 1. v. To walk with difficulty, as one with rheumatism, corns; to hobble along stiffly, feebly, awkwardly; also used fig. […]
    2. To creep or crawl on hands and knees; to scramble. […]
    3. Of shoes: to tread out of shape; also intr. to get out of shape. […]
    4. To squeeze into a small compass. w.Yks.³
    5. To crumple. […]

    Citations and more senses at the link.

  90. So, where did Stoker get this

    Probably from Wright or a similar work; dialect studies were all the rage at the time.

  91. Aye, he’d a knowed behaps a little o’ thees wurds a’rightee, nar’ tho ’nuff to wrait a ‘tire sppech!

  92. A Glossary of Words Used in Swaledale, Yorkshire (John Harland, 1873), p. 2:

    Ageean, again. Ageeanst, against.
    Ageeanwards, adv. towards. ‘It flew ageeanwards o’ me.’ to the place where I was standing.

  93. Keith Ivey says
    September 9, 2022 at 12:40 pm
    A Glossary of Words Used in Swaledale, Yorkshire (John Harland, 1873), p. 2:

    Ageean, again. Ageeanst, against.
    Ageeanwards, adv. towards. ‘It flew ageeanwards o’ me.’ to the place where I was standing.

    But that doesn’t seem to fit the idea of going home.

  94. David Marjanović says

    and standard thumb, limb in final position

    Thumb is a failed etymological hypothesis: the b is fake, compare German Daumen.

  95. “I must gang ageeanwards home” = “I must go towards home”

  96. The -b on limb is also fake, if it’s a tree limb. That kind of limb is inherited from Germanic and never had a -b in pronunciation, but the spelling was influenced by limb ‘edge’ < French < Latin limbus.

    Other cases of excrescent -b (un-etymological, spelled where it was never pronounced): crumb, numb.

  97. That kind of limb is inherited from Germanic and never had a -b in pronunciation

    I’ll be damned, so it is: “Old English lim strong neuter” (OED, unupdated; first cite Ælfric Homilies I. 274 Gif an lim bið untrum, ealle ða oðre ðrowiað mid þam anum). If I knew that, I’d forgotten.

  98. …the regular change /mb/ > /mm/…

    But then, humble < humilis, Thompson < Thomson etc.

  99. David Eddyshaw says

    … Kusaal lɛmmid “tastes” versus Mooré lembdẽ, Kusaal yammʋg “slave” versus Mooré yɛmbga

    (Actually, I’m not altogether sure what the direction of change was, historically, here: I’ve tended to assume that the Mooré /mb/ is the original, especially as *mb -> mm is an actual synchronic rule in Kusaal, but there are also reasons to think that Mooré has undergone *nn -> nd and *mm -> mb.)

  100. the regular change /mb/ > /mm/

    That was only a regular change in English at the ends of words. When followed by a liquid, the change is generally in the other direction (at least, in English and French): nasal + liquid > nasal + stop + liquid. From English Pronunciation by E.J. Dobson:

    § 434. In late ME and ModE there is a tendency for ‘inorganic’ or ‘excrescent’ stops to develop after nasals; this is the result of a premature closing of the nasal passage, so that the release of the oral stop is a distinct articulatory process and is heard as a distinct sound.
    (1) Before another consonant
    § 435. Glide stops are common, and in some cases become the regular StE pronunciation, between a nasal (especially one which ends a syllable) and a following consonant (especially syllabic [l] and [r]).

    /ml/ > /mbl/ : bramble (< same root as broom), gamble (ultimately < game), shambles, nimble, thimble, crumble, mumble, rumble, stumble

    /nr/ > /ndr/ : thunder, kindred (also influenced by kind)
    /nl/ > /ndl/ : spindle

    And the same developments within French produced chambre, nombre, trembler, humble (< Latin camera, numerus, tremulare, humilis) after losing a vowel between m and l or r.

  101. David Marjanović says

    Ah, the b in thumb could be a morphological spelling, copied in from thimble.

    crumb, numb

    Oh, yes – Krümel, benommen.

  102. Reading a biography of Stanley by Tim Jeal.


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