Literary Archaeology: Words, Words, Words

Jon Black

Language changes over time. Consider the following examples:

  • “The very first thing I noticed was my awareness of the susurrus of the house and rock, now one with the sea’s slow movement.” August Derleth, The Mask of Cthulhu (1958).
  • The word whisky signifies water and is applied by way of eminence to ‘strong water’ or distilled liquor. The spirit drunk in the north is drawn from barley … it is strong but not pungent and was free from the empyreumatick taste or smell.” Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands (1775) (Not fiction, but it’s what I happen to have at hand.)
  • “When I did hear the motley fool thus moral on the time, My lungs began to crow like chanticleer, That fools should be so deep-contemplative, And I did laugh sans intermission.” Shakespeare, As You Like It. (1599).

Go back much farther and you’ll bump into questions of mutual intelligibility…already thorny and ponderous by the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and absolutely opaque by the time we hit Beowulf.

The point to all of this is that different times and places have very different methods of speaking–and ones that we as readers can identify even if we don’t know all the rules.

Using archaic or obsolete words, phrases, or manners of speaking are a potent tool for writers of historical fiction and historical fantasy. It adds color, flavor, and can provide useful shorthand. Dropping period vocabulary or idioms into conversation or description help set time and place.

While some authors (and their loyal fans) will disagree, for most readers a little period language goes a long way. Remember the goal is to draw readers into your work and make the setting more colorful and vibrant. Your goal is not to send your readers scrambling for reference material after every third word, like Middle Schoolers encountering Shakespeare for the first time!

For me, the most effective formula is to lay it on a little thick at the beginning but then only periodically afterward (and ramp it up a little bit whenever there is a scene change that would feature a similar shift in language).

Fortunately, a number of resources are available to help you get the most of out of period dialogue and vocabulary … with minimum investment of time and money.

Online Resources                                                                     

A search will turn up any number of clickbait articles with headlines like “You won’t believe these 20 shocking words nobody uses anymore.” They’re fun, they’re not necessarily wrong, but caveat emptor, baby! A more targeted search, including the name of the era and possibly a few weightier terms such as “lexicon” or “vocabulary” will bolster the quality of your results. Of course, if you want the platinum standard, it’s hard to get more authoritative than the OED, which maintains its own lexical graveyard at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/archaic-words.

Books

If you’re willing to lay out a little cash, a number of books on the topic are available as well. I have a fondness for W.R. Runyan’s 1,001 Fun and Fabulous Forgotten Words and Phrases and, especially, Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten English. The latter takes a quality-over-quantity approach, drawing on Kacirk’s talent for tale telling as it digs deeply into the etymology of each word presented.

You can also try a more targeted search leading you to things like Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words From the Fourteenth Century.

Getting really deep into it.

Remember, most of the books are written with a broad audience in mind. Any serious writer or philologist will look at some of the entries in these books and say “People don’t know what that means?”

Period Resources

There’s no reason to limit yourself to what other contemporary writers and historians have said about the era you’re writing in. You can go directly for sources from the period in question.

Period Books

When trying to use period language, an obvious angle is to look at the books of the time. Want the sound of a world-wise, and rather world weary, nineteenth century American? Look at Twain’s words. Hoping to cop the elegant language and sharp slang of Lost Generation dilatants? Dive into Fitzgerald, Barns, Joyce, or, for a more harrowing take, Elliot. Need to channel the feverish musings of a brooding intellectual in the last days of Tsarist Russia? Look no further than Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Journals and Diaries

Of course, there is a limitation on using period books in this fashion. All fiction and most non-fiction presents a stylized reconstruction of natural speech that is designed to impact the reader in some way. For a real emphasis on authenticity, focus on journals and diaries. These sources are the most felicitous to the way people of a given time period actually thought and spoke.

The Samuel Johnson quote above is instructive in this capacity. Nothing beats Johnson and Boswell for capturing the tone of a witty erudite gentleman of eighteenth Britain, especially one believing his words are relatively private.

A surprising number of such texts are available without having to dive into a distant archives (though, if you want to, go right ahead).

A special variation on this theme are transcripts. If you want to know what a meeting of the Royal Geographic Society in 1837, and the kind of people who attended it, sounded like, you can go look it up! But remember, any event that merits a transcript was probably sufficiently formal for that to be reflected in how people spoke as well. Don’t confuse it for casual conversation or the language of the street–any more than people using Robert’s Rules of Order would be a good insight in twenty-first century colloquial English.

Thesauri

Peter Mark Roget, creator of the modern Thesaurus

One of my favorite possessions is a 1962 Thesaurus that I consult regularly for sheer novelty value. Without it, I never would have known that a “standpatter” was an obstinate person or that “green good” could refer to either groceries or counterfeit. If you can’t find a thesaurus that perfectly matches your project, do not despair. Because the goal of a thesaurus is to present a reader with all the optional synonyms, words often continue to appear in a thesaurus for a decade or two after they’ve fallen out of common use. Modern thesauri date only from the mid-19th century, you’ll need to look at one of the sources above.