WORDS OF 1815.

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!)


  1. I’m surprised by “cad”, myself. But not by “tailgate.”
    Also, I plan to use a modified version of this sentence to explain every difficult editorial decision I make from now on: “I decided that it was descriptive enough that I could justify saying that it had been coined by this point in a world with magic.”

  2. The beauty of it, especially for those of us who write SF and fantasy, is that we make shit up. Mary seems to have done a remarkably admirable job of toeing the line on period language. I have a friend (Mary probably knows her as well) who writes alt-history Regency period fiction and, although I couldn’t say if she’s as strict about the language, she’s very careful about other period details. Because of course fans are the most famously anal of all, and if you make a mistake you are in for a round a notes telling you where you went wrong.

  3. Frankly, this makes little sense to me, especially for the narrative. You might as well write an English-language novel set in contemporary Russia and put all the dialogue in Russian. Authentic, certainly; reasonable, not.
    Now obviously you don’t want Jane Austen characters looking things up on Google, so anachronisms of content are to be avoided, but anachronisms of form? Not worth the trouble.

  4. Atention to detail allwayspays of.

  5. Attencioun to Detaile allwaies pays off.

  6. Cowan: I think it’s just cool. It’s not an ethical imperative or anything. One doesn’t do this kind of thing out of an abstract need to respect History, but because it adds to ambiance and fan enjoyment, like a well-researched medieval RPG or renaissance faire. Personally, I’d love to see more fiction with an-anachronic (why can’t I say “chronic”?) vocabulary, spelling, typography, punctuation.

  7. Frankly, this makes little sense to me, especially for the narrative.
    I understand your point and agree with it to a certain extent (in fact, I’ve made it myself in other contexts); obviously if you press this approach too far (and I’d say the early nineteenth century is about as far as you can press it—see the Aubrey-Maturin novels for a superb example of how well it can work), it would fail. It would be ludicrous to try to write about the fourteenth century in Middle English. But as long as it’s an individual choice (and not a genre-wide mandate that would force people unequipped for the task to stumble around trying to fulfill it) and as long as it’s sensibly applied (as seems to be true in her case), I see no harm in it, and it can be fun for both author and linguistically inclined reader.

  8. I think it’s a terrific idea, but Sometimes the word did, but meant something different. “Blink” for instance…, how does the JA-spellchecker flag words like that?

  9. Frankly, this makes little sense to me, especially for the narrative.

    It can be distracting when they get it wrong; e.g. Neal Stephenson put ‘bloke’ into the mouth of an seventeenth-century Englishman in one of his Baroque Cycle novels, which felt anachronistic to me, which prompted me to look it up, and indeed the OED’s first citation is from 1851. Though I certainly wouldn’t have noticed a lot of the examples she cites.

  10. Leonardo: an-anachronic (why can’t I say “chronic”?)
    Non-anachronistic, anachronistic, anachronic, diachronic, synchronic, symphonic.
    “Anachronistic” is much more frequently used than “anachronic”, although they should mean the same. Someone who writes “anachronic” is flexing his voc abs.

  11. It would be awesome to try to write about the fourteenth century in Middle English FTFY
    Thanks Grumbly. My “anachronic” was a mistranslation from Pt. “anacrônico”, which is more common than “anacronístico” (237000 vs. 1500 on google at the moment). Traps.

  12. aquilluqaaq says

    It would be ludicrous to try to write about the fourteenth century in Middle English.
    What about those passages of ENHG in Mann’s Faustus?

  13. Inkwell? Inkpot? What about the Inkhorn Controversy?

  14. John Emerson says

    In Daisy Miller Daisy says of her disreputable Italian boyfriend:
    But there’s Giovanelli, leaning against that tree. He’s staring at the women in the carriages: did you ever see anything so cool?
    Judging by the other appearance in the book, “cool” meant “bold” and sometimes “harsh”.
    Daisy Miller.

  15. Ruth Beebe Hill translated the manuscript of Hanta Yo from modern English into an archaic Lakotah dialect. When translating back into English, she used 1806 Webster’s Dictionary as a cross check.

  16. Since Mr. Cowan dropped by my website to offer the same comment, and since I think the conversation is interesting, I thought I’d share my reply here as well.
    You wouldn’t write a novel set in Russia in Russian (if writing for an English market), because that would make it impossible for an English-speaking reader to comprehend. You would, however, make it as Russian in flavour as possible with idioms and sentence rhythm in order to capture the feel of the place.
    The same is true with writing something set in 1815 but one has much more leeway in how “authentic” one can get before it becomes incomprehensible. For instance, I wouldn’t write, “She staid back,” even though that is more period accurate than “She stayed back” because the word “staid” has taken on new meaning in modern English. It would confuse the readers.
    The challenge is to find the balance between comprehensibility and anachronism. If readers are thinking, “My! That’s an authentic word” it will take them out of the story every bit as much as an obviously modern word would.
    The Regency and the Napoleonic era in general have very staunch fans who know the language. Now I do think that one can be much more relaxed in the narrative than in dialogue, but even so– why not take the trouble? As long as I don’t make reading it harder, it seems to me that an attention to detail can serve the story. How? By making me think about the period more attentively. Language shapes the way one thinks. By geeking out about the language I can reflect that period, and so long as I remember that I am writing for modern readers, I can do so without sacrificing readability.
    Mostly though, I did this because I’m a giant geek and love language.
    AJP Crown: “Sometimes the word did, but meant something different. ‘Blink’ for instance…,” how does the JA-spellchecker flag words like that?
    It doesn’t, sadly. This is just something that I catch when I’m looking up the word because Miss Austen didn’t use it. For words like check, figure, staid, and prospect, I just have to have read a lot in the period and hope that I picked the shift up. There will still be errors though. Always.

  17. Thanks for dropping by, Mary, and I’m confirmed in my view of the good sense of your approach. I hope the book does well!

  18. John Emerson says

    I’ve been told that readers of genre Western novels are fanatical about authenticity, and that authors get enraged letters saying things like “In 1879 the county seat was moved from Smallville to Littleton!” or “That model of revolver was not put on the market until 1891!”
    Awhile back I read Frederick Manfred’s “Grizzly Man”, which is now relegated to the genre western category. It was a perfectly fine book, albeit 100% non-modernist, and gained interest from the fact that the almost-unbelievable story was true.
    Manfred’s real name was Feike Feikema. If he’d been a modernist he would have used it and everyone would have thought that it was fake.

  19. Anyone whose interest was just a bit later and who limited himself to the vocab of Thos Carlyle would be well supplied with words.

  20. marie-lucie says

    I love puppetry. Does Mary do historical puppet shows too?

  21. aquilluqaaq: What about those passages of ENHG in Mann’s Faustus?
    Interesting question – what about them ? They are passages only, unlike what Ms. Kowal is doing (as I understand it). Mann doesn’t use ENHG for “straight-on narrative”, but in a distancing, parodic way – especially when the Debbil speaks, if I remember rightly. I read Doktor Faustus twice, but that was 20 years ago.

  22. Mostly though, I did this because I’m a giant geek and love language.
    Now that’s an excellent reason that I have all the sympathy in the world with!
    As for cool, thus spake the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford:
    2. a. Of a person or a personal attribute, quality, etc.: not affected by passion or emotion, dispassionate; controlled, deliberate, not hasty; calm, composed.
    b. spec. Of the blood, as the seat of a person’s emotions or passions. Freq. in in cool blood: without excitement; (esp. with reference to violent or cruel action) not in the heat of passion, with calm deliberation; = in cold blood.
    c. Of a thing or action: characterized by or exhibiting calmness, composure, or a lack of passionate emotion.
    d. Of a person, an action, or a person’s behaviour: assured and unabashed where diffidence and hesitation would be expected; composedly and deliberately audacious or impudent in making a proposal, demand, or assumption.
    Sense 2a goes back to Beowulf: Gyf him [sc. Hroðgar] edwendan æfre scolde bealuwa bisigu bot eft cuman, ond þa cearwylmas colran wurðaþ, roughly “If change should ever come to him and relief from the distress of his afflictions, and his boiling worry become cooler“.

  23. Lincoln, in his Cooper Union speech:
    …you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool.
    Obviously “bold” or “insolent,” as in the Daisy Miller quote. OED’s sense d.

  24. marie-lucie: Mostly I do original work, but when I do readings from my novel, I also perform a version of the popular 1784 shadow puppet play, The Broken Bridge.

  25. In the ’60s, much of what American youf considered to be “cool” was considered by its parents to be outrageous and impudent. Society had one leg in 2.a. and the other in 2.d. – or perhaps “brain hemisphere” rather than leg.

  26. …and here it is, I think.

  27. Inkwell -> inkpot
    I now know why the Ink Spots called themselves that. I think.

  28. John Emerson says

    We’ve discussed it before, but IIRC the contemporary meaning of “cool” came from the music/drug community and originally had to do with not doing anything to bring excess police attention (granted that you were committing crimes) but got stretched to just mean being a proper insider and contributing group member.
    But I also remember that there was disagreement.

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