The Curious Incident of the Odd Words.

Something recently struck me about Wolf Hall (which I’ve almost finished): I haven’t had to look up any words. This is fairly astonishing for a historical novel; from Walter Scott on, novelists who dabble in the dead past tend to pound nails in its coffin not only with words like “thee” and “thither” and “accoutred” and exclamations like “Over God’s forbode!” but with quaint terms for long-forgotten objects and customs. (For a full-immersion experience, check out Skeat’s A glossary of Tudor and Stuart words, especially from the dramatists.) Even Ford Madox Ford, a fine writer whose Fifth Queen trilogy is one of the better pieces of historical novelry around, couldn’t resist tossing in some of ye olde wordhoard, as I posted here (aumbry, balinger, tulzie, et al.). Mind you, this passage from Alan Judd’s biography of Ford, quoted in the Wikipedia article linked above, is accurate:

He creates a version of Tudor English that is not only effective but does not in any way hinder the sense of reality. This is a considerable achievement; the use of a dated form of one’s own language always sounds the contrivance it is, unconvincing, artificial and slow. In order to work it needs to sound natural and in order for that to happen the author needs to have created a world or an atmosphere in the context of which it can be natural… The result in The Fifth Queen is vigorous and convincing, sometimes compressed poetic speech.

But it’s even more true of Mantel’s book, and I am in awe of how she pulls it off.


  1. I got distracted by something and stopped “Wolf Hall” after a few chapters, but my strongest impression was of how fresh the language sounded. I’ve always meant to read more Ford – I mainly know him from the way he shows up as a sort of avuncular curiosity in the biographies of everyone from Joseph Conrad to Robert Lowell.

    To shift genres a bit, I think George RR Martin does something similar to Mantel, in a way. His characters do often speak in a kind of Elizabethan pastiche, but there’s a sort of modern wind blowing through everything which somehow keeps his books from reading like “Ivanhoe”. Even if you don’t know what a pauldron or gorget or whatever are, it doesn’t slow you down, as a reader. I’m not even sure how to describe this skill, but I think it’s one of the reasons his books are praised as “realistic” fantasy.

  2. I’ve always meant to read more Ford

    I recommend it; I’ve read all his major works (the Fifth Queen trilogy, Parade’s End, and The Good Soldier, though the last-named I read years ago and need to reread), and he’s a wonderful writer. It’s not always clear what he’s up to, but patience is rewarded in the end.

  3. I disagree about GRRM, AG. He’s actually the first author that comes to my mind as guilty of using archaic terms in a clumsy and overeager way.

  4. I don’t mind GRRM’s archaic terms as much as the endless descriptions of clothing and meals.

  5. The 21C version of being paid by the word is being paid by the series installment, particularly in a market that sets both minimum and maximum sizes of individual volumes.

  6. Hilary Mantel discusses the use (and non-use) of archaic language in her Tudor novels here:

  7. Thanks, an excellent find! “But the past doesn’t respect the sensitivities of the present. The reader should be braced by the shock of the old”: indeed. I hate historical novels that focus on the sensitivities of the present, showing off how politically correct the author is.

  8. I think what immediately precedes that is very important:

    Sometimes my characters use terms that are wholly modern. The really important thing is that they shouldn’t express ideas they couldn’t have had and feelings they wouldn’t have had. They weren’t democrats. They weren’t feminists. They didn’t know about evolution or how far away the stars are. Their world view was religious. When they swore, they blasphemed; this shocks some readers.

    From what I understand, the now-famous line “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals” was almost removed from the script of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for anachronism, until someone pointed out that Benjamin Franklin knew them (and may well have invented them, though perhaps not for the first time).

  9. Jeffry House says

    The Fifth Queen Trilogy is available free in readable format here:

  10. I think George RR Martin does something similar to Mantel, in a way. His characters do often speak in a kind of Elizabethan pastiche, but there’s a sort of modern wind blowing through everything which somehow keeps his books from reading like “Ivanhoe”. Even if you don’t know what a pauldron or gorget or whatever are, it doesn’t slow you down, as a reader.

    I think you need to distinguish between using unusual or archaic words because you’re talking about unusual or archaic things, and using them just for the hell of it. “Gorget” is a perfectly cromulent word, and there isn’t really a good alternative to use, and if we all still wore plate armour, it’d be as readily recognisable and modern a word as “carburettor” or “laptop”. Not so “forsooth”.

    Martin is fairly light on the latter, with the exception of a few terms which are really more invented than archaic, like “sellsword” for “mercenary”. His characters speak generally in modern English.

    When they swore, they blasphemed; this shocks some readers.

    And they swear in modern English. See also the series “Deadwood” where the characters swore effusively and elaborately, but not in period style – however, in a way that the writers thought would give the same effect to us viewers as period swearing would have given in its day.

  11. Gassalasca says

    “I disagree about GRRM, AG. He’s actually the first author that comes to my mind as guilty of using archaic terms in a clumsy and overeager way.”

    I don’t. He does have these nods like *always* saying “he broke his fast” instead “he had breakfast” or “he breakfasted”, but that’s pretty much it. The general feel of it is modern but not in a way that is jarring or spell-breaking.

  12. “thee” and “thither” and “accoutred”… Well, it depends. Having been brought up on the King James Bible, I’m happy with ‘thee’ and ‘thither’, and as for ‘accoutred’, I can’t see what the problem is; it’s a rare or rarish word but not dead. I googled ‘Over God’s Forbode’, and as far as that is worth, it seems to occur only in Scott and an old glossary of 1767; so it’s not something that turns up all the time to annoy us. I think the real problem is that of finding a balance between genuine archaic usage – and the more archaic it is, the harder it is to understand – and something that gives a period flavour. If that’s what we want. My problem with Mantel’s Wolf Hall is that I found it impossible to follow; I could never remember who was who and what on earth they were going on about. The TV series was very good, though; they seem to have rescued it.

    ‘They didn’t know … how far away the stars are.’ … How many people today know how far away the stars were? My impression is that people at the time of the Renaissance had just as clear an idea of cosmology as we do; ours is more accurate, but theirs was held with as much conviction. Here I am influenced by C S Lewis’s Discarded Image.

  13. I believe it’s a matter of “quantity has a quality all its own”. Most people couldn’t tell you how far away the stars are in kilometers or anything, but I think they know they are waaaay out there, not in a shell of the fixed stars just past the orbit of Saturn.

  14. A freely available Hilary Mantel story (might need registration) with a contemporary setting at the LRB: “The School of English”. I haven’t read it yet.

  15. ajay – Good point. Martin has a very specific skill at making up memorable, convincingly parallel-medieval-world names, titles, and toponyms, but his dialogue is pretty modern.

    I’m constantly impressed by Martin’s names. A list of all his characters’ names would rank up there with lists of Dickens and Pynchon names, to me. I really enjoyed, for example, the sudden introduction of a giant named Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun. I don’t think we know anything about giant language or names aside from this one name, and it’s the sort of minor detail that helps make a fantasy world seem like it has actual cultures with their own linguistic history. Martin isn’t an obsessive linguist like Tolkien, but he knows enough to cram his books with these evocative names.

  16. Don’t forget Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg – Mag the Mighty! As for human names, my favorite is Beric Dondarrion.

  17. Sounds like 1 + 1 = 1 to me.

  18. I did notice some words in Wolf Hall that were new to me: slunk (adjective), cered, mercer, claggy, slaketub, wherry, sectary, battens (noun), lardo, pricket, bandog. But they were always made clear by context. For example:

    They are packing his gospels and taking them for the king’s libraries. The texts are heavy to hold in the arms, and awkward as if they breathed; their pages are made of slunk vellum from stillborn calves, reveined by the illuminator in tints of lapis and leaf-green.

    That explains what “slunk vellum” is, but it also subtly tells you something more: that this special vellum was common or important enough that there was a word for it. That made me curious enough to look up more about it. Supposedly, stillborn or aborted calves had extra-thin skin with minimal hairs, suitable for packing lots of pages into small books. But there’s an academic controversy: there couldn’t have been enough stillborn calves to make the thousands of medieval pocket Bibles that we know of. Did some of the skins really come from rabbits or squirrels? Recently some archaeologists did a protein fingerprinting analysis of 13th-century pocket Bibles and found that they were all indeed from cows, goats, and sheep, and they weren’t fetal. They concluded that the medievals must just have been much better at making ultrathin parchment than we thought, even from full-term calves.

  19. Fascinating, thanks!

  20. Years ago I got to leaf through one of these books, a 13th-century bible, smaller than a standard Gideon’s, but thicker (it was for sale at Swann’s, a book auctioneer in New York; book dealers are more willing than libraries to let you paw rare books, for obvious reasons.) I assumed it was fetal vellum, but tried not to think about it. An amazing, marvelous material, as thin as heavy writing paper but much stronger, with the smooth sheen of vellum. The letters were of course very small.

    Vellum is still made by traditional methods, for the much smaller market of contemporary calligraphers. I wonder if any of these vellum makers said to themselves when they read that study, “You could have asked me! I’d have told you that you don’t need fetuses to make this material.”

  21. Now I learn!

    In the 1960s, when I worked for the biologics division of Eli Lilly & Co., Lilly was one of the last pharmaceutical manufacturers that still made smallpox vaccine in the pre-tissue culture way, by scraping scabs off a dead calf. The cadavers were referred to as slunks, and in those days the OED wasn’t online because there was no online.

    Yes, slunk does turn out to be there — but not as a noun except in an unrelated Scottish sense (“a muddy or marshy place; a miry hollow”). See, however, the 1837 quote under the adjective: “Drum-heads are made..from abortives, or at least very young sucking calves called ‘slunk’ by the workmen.” Add a final s and there’s your noun, following the Lear process:

    He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
    Leastways if you reckon two thumbs;
    Long ago he was one of the singers,
    But now he is one of the dumbs.

  22. It’s under the adj.: “Of calves: Cast prematurely. Cf. slung adj.¹ 1”, from slink v. 3a, “Of animals, esp. cows: To bear or bring forth (young) prematurely or abortively.”

  23. And see (in my 1837 quote) “abortives,” which I’d consider a noun. But slunk doesn’t rate the OED dignity of being designated a noun.

  24. The OED does include abortive parchment under abortive, with quotations back to a1500, plus a sense ‘of vellum’ under uterine (seems like a missed opportunity for a cross-reference between them). It seems plausible that some miscarried calves did get used for parchment (and why is that any ickier than slaughtering a full-term calf? Never mind, emotions are weird), just not tens of thousands of them, probably not as many as are labeled “uterine” in catalogs now.

    Much more on the biological study of book materials from Science magazine: Goats, bookworms, a monk’s kiss: Biologists reveal the hidden history of ancient gospels. Bookworm DNA in the wormholes! Human DNA stuck to the pages, plus DNA of bacteria that live in human skin and noses! (They’re still trying to figure out how to distinguish centuries-old human residue from recent human residue.) It really makes you realize how an old book is not only a thought-bubble floating down the river of time but something made and used by human hands, a whole community of them, starting with the cowherds.

  25. I learned this meaning of “slunk” (noun) from William S. Burroughs. It’s the sort of word one would expect him to use.

  26. John Cowan says

    See Michael D.C. Drout’s Crazy Sheep DNA Project (2005a, 2005b, 2005c, 2007, 2009, 2010), which attempts to identify the scriptoria in which various MSS were copied using ovine DNA from the vellum used there, on the assumption that the sheep whose skins were used in a single place tended to come from a single flock.

  27. Trond Engen says

    The Institute of Genetic Philology.

    I was just thinking that extraction of DNA and proteins is going to revolutionize the study of provenance of human artefacts, and that the abilty to extract useable samples from small pieces of ancient material may make us able to reconstruct the devlopment and route of dispersion of all domesticated species even if the necessary genetic variety has been irretrievably lost in modern stocks.

  28. Possibly only amusing to me:

    In one of the sprawling chapters of Girl Genius, which takes place in the Incorruptible Library, the characters are analyzing a book by the great Mad Scientist van Rijn (possibly Rembrandt, but never referred to by that name), which is full of codes, ciphers, and hidden writing of all different systems. In the course of shining light of different wavelengths and polarities and chemical treatments and all the other analyses to expose the tricks:

    If you analyze these vellum pages really thoroughly, you get instructions on how to build a cow.

    (That is, I understood it to mean that they were digging so hard that they quite serendipitously cracked the genetic code)

  29. @Owlmirror: I don’t think the idea was that any of the Sparks had actually decoded the genetic instructions, but it was realized that all the information for creating a cow was, ultimately, contained in the vellum.

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