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Thread: Vocabulary control

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Vocabulary control

    As writers of historical fiction, how concerned are you with verbal anachronisms in your text? If it's an issue for you, how consistent are you with rooting out the metaphors & similes that post-date your setting? How much effort do you make to use vocabulary that belongs to your period and to avoid all the words that don't?

    Mary Robinette Kowal posted an interesting piece a couple of years ago about her own vocabulary control issues for a novel set in 1815, including a long list of words she banished.

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    Back to purring Nekko's Avatar
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    I've been writing historical fiction too short a time to feel qualified to answer this question. I'm curious to see how some published authors in the genre answer.

    But, since I can't help myself, I'll throw my two cents in.
    I do make an effort to keep idioms and words out of my WIP that post date it by about 100 years - I try to keep them within the same century. I don't check every word, but some seem to click on my internal radar as being questionable. Those I check.

    When I've posted bits of my work in other SYW threads, I've been called out on trying too hard to make the dialogue fit the time - but this may well have more to do with not being consistent across all the characters, so it stands out even more.
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    never mind the shorty angeliz2k's Avatar
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    I've attempted to come up with a cogent answer to this several times now and wasn't happy with any of my answers.

    It's all about balance. I do make a concerted effort to make sure I'm not using anachronistic words/idioms. I think that's as important as doing research on clothing, food, and housing.

    HOWEVER, a little give and take is necessary. If a modern word doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, then I don't feel it's worth it to write around that word.

    Many people seem to think everyone in the past spoke with unrelenting formality. I think part of that comes from the fact that all we have are their written words, and part of that comes from the fact that many people just aren't familiar enough with the words to see the little jokes behind them. People weren't unrelentingly formal. There was life behind their written words, even if it's hard to see at times. As historical fiction writers, I think it's our job to make those words come alive for modern readers. Formality can be softened by the narration around it, or the formality can be dialed back a little to allow the humanity to show.

    Sorry, that's off the point a bit.
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    practical experience, FTW mayqueen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by angeliz2k View Post
    It's all about balance. I do make a concerted effort to make sure I'm not using anachronistic words/idioms. I think that's as important as doing research on clothing, food, and housing.

    HOWEVER, a little give and take is necessary. If a modern word doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, then I don't feel it's worth it to write around that word.

    Many people seem to think everyone in the past spoke with unrelenting formality. I think part of that comes from the fact that all we have are their written words, and part of that comes from the fact that many people just aren't familiar enough with the words to see the little jokes behind them. People weren't unrelentingly formal. There was life behind their written words, even if it's hard to see at times. As historical fiction writers, I think it's our job to make those words come alive for modern readers. Formality can be softened by the narration around it, or the formality can be dialed back a little to allow the humanity to show.
    I completely agree. My approach is to catch obvious anachronisms and then just write with a natural feel. I know several well-known HF authors have said similar things, but one of Ariana Franklin's historical notes has always stuck with me. She said that people sounded modern to each other. So, I keep that in mind. I don't want to include things that will pull the reader out of the dialogue (like obvious modern sayings or words) and I don't want to write so stiffly and faux-Shakespearean that the reader can't get a feel for the characters.

    I think sometimes HF writers make the mistake of trying so hard to avoid sounding modern that they write in these terribly contrived and convoluted ways. Unless you are consciously mimicking, say, nineteenth century Victorian prose for a good reason, you probably should write in a way that sounds natural to you.

    I have so far written only stories set in the early middle ages in England, Ireland, and Scandinavia. It's pretty hard to write "authentically" in terms of rooting out post-date words. So I just stick with the obvious stuff. (My biggest stumbling block is always swears and oaths. I throw in contemporary swear words and use period-sounding ones I've pulled from poetry contemporary to the time or HF novels.)
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    New writer since 07/2012. Cornelius Gault's Avatar
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    I have part of my Science Fiction story written as journals. This particular chapter is set in the 1800-1850 time period. So, to make it more realistic, I read some stories written during that time period and pulled out key phrases that I could use within my journals.

    The more believable, the better. You can't get away with just saying "thou" and "art" (which might not even be correct).

    I have read some stories on AW which I thought were using anachronistic language - this might be true of younger writers trying to place a story in the past, but yet appeal to younger writers.

    If it sells, fine for the writer. However, if I read a 17th-century story where the teenager said, "Jeez, man, what's up with that? Really?", I would stop reading immediately - that's just me. Why not put a minimal effort to at TRY to make it sound realistic and perhaps gain a few readers that were born before the year 2000?
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    If this thread is what I think it is, then to get a feeling of vocab during the war years (for me particularly), I watch movies and book created during that time or modern pieces. I know it is difficult for writers who have pieces before film, but watching movies during ww2 help with how my characters will sound and react.

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    never mind the shorty angeliz2k's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kelliewallace View Post
    If this thread is what I think it is, then to get a feeling of vocab during the war years (for me particularly), I watch movies and book created during that time or modern pieces. I know it is difficult for writers who have pieces before film, but watching movies during ww2 help with how my characters will sound and react.
    Yes. This is really the best way of getting the right feel, even if you don't get every obscure etymological point correct.

    For those of us writing before recorded sound, you read the written words (and extrapolate to the best of your ability about how these people would have spoken). If you read enough, you pick up the diction, sentence structures, and rhythms.
    "Cotton. Cotton until Kingdom Come."

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  8. #8
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    If there's a single anachronism in any of my historical writing, I screwed up big time, and so did the copy editor.

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    My rhymes are bottomless Hip-Hop-a-potamus's Avatar
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    I write in the period from about 1900 to 1940 or so, so I have to be very careful of my slang, because some of the folks who might be reading my work might still be alive.

    I recommend it constantly, but if you don't have one yet, get a Cassell's Slang Dictionary. It's a honking doorstop, but worth its weight in a precious metal of some sort:

    http://books.google.ca/books/about/C...AC&redir_esc=y

    It's got West Indies, Australia, UK, the States, South Africa, etc, and groups the words by century (for the more historical stuff) or by decade for the more modern stuff.

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    practical experience, FTW Lil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hip-Hop-a-potamus View Post
    I write in the period from about 1900 to 1940 or so, so I have to be very careful of my slang, because some of the folks who might be reading my work might still be alive.
    It's not the slang, but who would use it that you have to worry about. I came across a book set in the 1940s that had the heroine, a middle-class girl, using slang that would have been used only by a tough guy (or a tough-guy wannabe). Took me out of the story completely.

    It's never just the words. It's also who would be saying them. This is a problem especially for anyone writing about the 20th century. Readers may not have lived through the period, but they will remember what parents and grandparents said about it.

  11. #11
    never mind the shorty angeliz2k's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hip-Hop-a-potamus View Post
    I write in the period from about 1900 to 1940 or so, so I have to be very careful of my slang, because some of the folks who might be reading my work might still be alive.

    I recommend it constantly, but if you don't have one yet, get a Cassell's Slang Dictionary. It's a honking doorstop, but worth its weight in a precious metal of some sort:

    http://books.google.ca/books/about/C...AC&redir_esc=y

    It's got West Indies, Australia, UK, the States, South Africa, etc, and groups the words by century (for the more historical stuff) or by decade for the more modern stuff.

    Hip says four stars!
    Yeah, writing about Southerners in the mid-19th century comes with baggage that has nice little labels saying "Twain" and "Lincoln". It's not that anyone still living remembers how people spoke in the 1850's, but readers have impressions of how they should speak.
    "Cotton. Cotton until Kingdom Come."

    WIP 1: Britannia c.AD 60. Trunked.
    WIP 2: Paris, 1780s.
    WIP 3: Channing. Antebellum South, 1854 Now Being Repped by an agent!
    WIP 4: Novella. Civil War w/a hint of supernatural.
    WIP 5: The Cotton Wars [prequel].
    WIP 6: Sci-fi-ish. In progress.

    My Blog: MARIE ANTOINETTE'S DIAMONDS:

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    Formerly Phantom of Krankor. AW Moderator Torgo's Avatar
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    Has anyone taken a dictionary database that has first-use citations and hacked that into a word processor? I would envisage that in the same way you can set the language of your document, you could also set the date - so that it would flag anything that was out of place?

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    Formerly Phantom of Krankor. AW Moderator Torgo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hip-Hop-a-potamus View Post
    I write in the period from about 1900 to 1940 or so, so I have to be very careful of my slang, because some of the folks who might be reading my work might still be alive.

    I recommend it constantly, but if you don't have one yet, get a Cassell's Slang Dictionary. It's a honking doorstop, but worth its weight in a precious metal of some sort:

    http://books.google.ca/books/about/C...AC&redir_esc=y

    It's got West Indies, Australia, UK, the States, South Africa, etc, and groups the words by century (for the more historical stuff) or by decade for the more modern stuff.

    Hip says four stars!
    I know the lexicographer Jonathon Green well - in fact I had Christmas lunch with him! His Cassell has now been supplanted by the monumental Green's Dictionary of Slang, which is a three-volume dictionary with full citations. It's an incredible piece of work. At the moment you can access it online, at least partially, via www.oxfordreference.com.

    You can find Jonathon on Quora and also on Twitter (@misterslang). He's often on Quora answering slang-related questions, and I think if you asked him the odd thing on Twitter now and again he wouldn't mind.

  14. #14
    They've been very bad, Mr Flibble Mr Flibble's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Torgo View Post
    Has anyone taken a dictionary database that has first-use citations and hacked that into a word processor? I would envisage that in the same way you can set the language of your document, you could also set the date - so that it would flag anything that was out of place?
    I don't know about hacking it into a WP (nice idea though, I know someone who might eb able to do that) but I use the fantastic online etymology dictionary a LOT when I'm writing historical. I don't go too mad - I look up stuff that sticks out to me, but that usually brings up another word or phrase that's interesting




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    I am constantly concerned about accidentally slipping in language that is too modern in my writing. But since it is a medieval YA fantasy, I doubt people want to read how people really spoke. So I use modern language, but try not to use anything too modern. If that makes any sense.
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    Quote Originally Posted by TMCan View Post
    I am constantly concerned about accidentally slipping in language that is too modern in my writing. But since it is a medieval YA fantasy, I doubt people want to read how people really spoke. So I use modern language, but try not to use anything too modern. If that makes any sense.
    I have the same problem, if the setting predates Modern English, any words readers can understand will be anachronistic, including "and" and "the". But at the same time I don't want the 3rd-omni narrator to say "they were hanging out..." And I certainly don't want my characters to say "there we were, hanging out..."
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    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    In writing with a pre-modern setting (particularly if the language of the time/place is not modern English) I am not so much concerned with specific vocabulary words being authentic, since obviously there's some "translation" going on in the writing. But metaphorical language is more challenging, because there's so much of it that we constantly use in English. A lot of metaphors are so commonplace in modern language, we're not even aware them as such -- and yet the sports and technology and science of the modern age are everywhere. Noticing them is the first challenge. Replacing them is harder!

  18. #18
    My rhymes are bottomless Hip-Hop-a-potamus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lil View Post
    It's not the slang, but who would use it that you have to worry about. I came across a book set in the 1940s that had the heroine, a middle-class girl, using slang that would have been used only by a tough guy (or a tough-guy wannabe). Took me out of the story completely.

    It's never just the words. It's also who would be saying them. This is a problem especially for anyone writing about the 20th century. Readers may not have lived through the period, but they will remember what parents and grandparents said about it.
    Hollywood in the teens and twenties is a slang paradise. I don't really have that problem, since most people would have used it. I will have a slight difference between the new transplants and the old-timers, but part of the fun for me is figuring out if people would say something or not.
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