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Thread: Those pesky anachronisms

  1. #1
    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    Those pesky anachronisms

    I wrote a scene in my McCarthy-era story in which a character says "It's not my first rodeo." As I do every time I write a colloquialism* like this, I immediately questioned its authenticity to the period. I did a little research, and sure enough, this phrase is most likely to have entered mainstream popular culture in the movie Mommie Dearest in 1981, and then in a country song in 1990.

    Now, Mommie Dearest is about Joan Crawford, who was more or less a contemporary of the character I gave the line to, but that's not really a convincing enough connection to justify my character's use of the phrase. So I'm cutting it.

    LE SIGH. I really liked the exchange, the rodeo line and the other character's response to it. But it's got to go.

    So here we are: Have you ever fell in love with an anachronism and known with deep regret that you would have to kill it?

    * As another matter, I find this character uses too many expressions of this sort, and I'm cutting them wherever I run across them and giving her less canned-sounding ways of expressing herself. So really I have two good reasons to get rid of this line.

  2. #2
    Resist. Love. Go outside. Marlys's Avatar
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    Oh, yeah. I swear when I write historical, I spend half my time looking up words and phrases in the OED to see if they were current yet.
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    Vickichuuuuuuuuu Ehlionney's Avatar
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    This is for the lesbian romance, right?

    Actually, the only thing I've ever considered writing outside sci-fi/fantasy was going to be historical queer fiction. And the reason I ended up deciding that it would never be an option for me, was specifically because of anachronisms. The more I studied queer history in the US, the more I discovered that people within the queer community were EXTREMELY ignorant of the difference between drag-queens/butches and trans folks. Like, to the point that lots of people who would identify as trans now were basically pigeon-holed into identifying as gay/lesbian by default back then it's still a thing these days, even in the queer community, but at least we're starting to figure it out.

    In the end, as interesting as the concept of writing about trans people in the 20s or 40s (the idea of beautiful trans women in flapper dresses and dashing trans men in zoot suits really appeals to me hehehe) the actual process of stripping modern knowledge of trans issues from my writing was pretty painful.
    Show me your cute queer/LGBT stories please :O

  4. #4
    practical experience, FTW TellMeAStory's Avatar
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    As I LIVED through the McCarthy era, might I suggest something like "Not my first time 'round the block?" "Not still wet behind the ears?" "Wasn't born yesterday?" "Didn't just fall off the turnip truck?" ---or, as you suggested, cutting such expressions, though they do add flavor when used wisely.

  5. #5
    Seashell Seller Layla Nahar's Avatar
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    I was watching a Japanese historical tv show and a character was kidnapped with chloroform. I'm doubtful (not sure, but doubtful) that there was chloroform on hand in Edo Japan...
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  6. #6
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin Devabbi's Avatar
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    This happens to me all the time when writing fantasy. I can't remember a specific example, but anytime I go to write any kind of colloquialism, I have to stop myself and come up with something else. A character wouldn't say "I don't know him from Adam" if the Bible was never written in this universe, y'know? Coming up with my own colloquialisms, slang, and cuss words was the funnest part of my world building, though.

    In terms of anachronisms, pockets are the bane of my existence. Pockets didn't begin to be sewn into clothing until the 18th century, and when you're writing fantasy that's "around" the 15th century, well... no pockets. I decided I didn't care, because it's fantasy and I doubt anyone would fact-check me, but I had a bit of a procrastination crisis over it.
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  7. #7
    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ehlionney View Post
    This is for the lesbian romance, right?
    It's a story about lesbians, and there are some love affairs in it that form and end, but it doesn't fit the genre conventions of romance. But ... yes.

    Actually, the only thing I've ever considered writing outside sci-fi/fantasy was going to be historical queer fiction. And the reason I ended up deciding that it would never be an option for me, was specifically because of anachronisms. The more I studied queer history in the US, the more I discovered that people within the queer community were EXTREMELY ignorant of the difference between drag-queens/butches and trans folks. Like, to the point that lots of people who would identify as trans now were basically pigeon-holed into identifying as gay/lesbian by default back then it's still a thing these days, even in the queer community, but at least we're starting to figure it out.
    I'm not sure I would call this ignorance, so much as existence within a different social milieu with different social constructs. I believe that it is problematic to overlay current notions of gender on the interior life of people who lived then based upon their behaviors and the things they said within that milieu. You can't really know how someone would have identified if they had a different range of self-conceptions available to them. In a sense, this is the same thing you are saying, when you say you struggle with writing about people in the 1920s whom who you would conceptualize as trans, when they wouldn't have used that framework to understand themselves and their relation to others.

    At any rate, all of this is exactly what interests me about the era and makes me want to write about it. The project began with exactly that question: What would these women have lived like? How would they have thought of themselves and their situation? I want to get inside the heads of my characters and understand how they perceive themselves within the world. The conversations I write between my lesbian characters, how they understand and talk about themselves vis-a-vis the rest of society - yes, absolutely, scrubbing these of my modern viewpoints is deeply challenging. The very challenge is what engages me most about the project. (Nothing wrong with responding differently to the challenge; each of us should write only what moves us to write. There are plenty other challenges I don't want to take on, myself.)

    I originally intended this thread to talk about more minor anachronisms (such as a character I saw in a recent movie who mentioned "the Interstate" when the movie took place before the Interstate highway system was established) than the deep conceptual ones you have raised; however, these are important and more difficult and I'm glad to ponder them in discussion.


    Quote Originally Posted by TellMeAStory View Post
    As I LIVED through the McCarthy era, might I suggest something like "Not my first time 'round the block?" "Not still wet behind the ears?" "Wasn't born yesterday?" "Didn't just fall off the turnip truck?" ---or, as you suggested, cutting such expressions, though they do add flavor when used wisely.
    Thanks. Yes, I know there are alternatives. It was not just the one line but the entire exchange, which doesn't adapt as well to these other choices. But yeah, as I said I will mostly cut these sorts of folksy colloquialisms as I am finding them grating and too-frequent on reread.

    All of that said, I might just have to add you to my list of people to poke when I have questions about authenticity of speech or address.


    Quote Originally Posted by Devabbi View Post
    This happens to me all the time when writing fantasy. I can't remember a specific example, but anytime I go to write any kind of colloquialism, I have to stop myself and come up with something else. A character wouldn't say "I don't know him from Adam" if the Bible was never written in this universe, y'know? Coming up with my own colloquialisms, slang, and cuss words was the funnest part of my world building, though.
    That's hilarious. I can see that happening and also that it would be fun world-building to come up with your own (not just 1-1 substitutions like "I don't know him from Zythrax" or whatever) and convey their meanings to your audience.

    In terms of anachronisms, pockets are the bane of my existence. Pockets didn't begin to be sewn into clothing until the 18th century, and when you're writing fantasy that's "around" the 15th century, well... no pockets. I decided I didn't care, because it's fantasy and I doubt anyone would fact-check me, but I had a bit of a procrastination crisis over it.
    I am learning a lot about girdles and stockings and hats and hair curlers and the differences between wool and crepe and gabardine and worsted and all sorts of things I never thought I would have to think about. I am always on the lookout for ways to convey period flavor without always resorting to cheap tactics like name dropping. ("Edith switched on the radio. 'My Darling, My Darling' was playing. 'Oh, I just love Jo Stafford, don't you?' she said." BARF.)
    Last edited by Lakey; 04-30-2017 at 08:03 PM.

  8. #8
    Likes metaphors mixed, not stirred Chris P's Avatar
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    One of my WIPs is a realistic sci-fi set in 1917 during WWI. For the histroical part, I had to find out that the British didn't refer to the Germans as "Jerries" until WWII, and that the Germans didn't have a specific word for "tank" until after the war ("panzer" didn't come into use until the 1920s, until which they used the cumbersome "panzerkampfwagon" or "grouppanzerwagon" which translates roughly to "armored personnel truck").

    For the sci-fi part, the inventor main character invents a holographic cloak for the tanks, but the word "hologram" didn't exist until the late 1920s. I could probably get away with it, so although I could fudge the existence of and physics behind the totally bogus "opaque light," I couldn't bring myself to use a real word that didn't exist for another ten years.
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    Swan in Process Siri Kirpal's Avatar
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    Sat Nam! (Literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

    In addition to TellMeaStory's list, you could go with "I'm not a spring chicken."

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  10. #10
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin Devabbi's Avatar
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    Just had this happen in today's writing session with the phrase "come in handy". Apparently it came about in the 1640s but that's still too late for my books. womp womp.

    Also, fun fact, apparently a "handy" in German refers to a cell phone! #thingswelearnontheinternets
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  11. #11
    practical experience, FTW MaeZe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Layla Nahar View Post
    I was watching a Japanese historical tv show and a character was kidnapped with chloroform. I'm doubtful (not sure, but doubtful) that there was chloroform on hand in Edo Japan...
    Yep. Google history says mid 1800s for chloroform in Japan and that is consistent with US history of anesthesia. So it would not have been available in the 1600s.

    Sadly, the Urban Thesaurus was disappointing. There's a market there though for someone who can design a better algorithm.

  12. #12
    deceives Tocotin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MaeZe View Post
    Yep. Google history says mid 1800s for chloroform in Japan and that is consistent with US history of anesthesia. So it would not have been available in the 1600s.
    Technically, Edo period = 1600 – 1868, so there is a slight possibility there was chloroform available in 1860s Japan, in very specific circumstances.

    But then, Japanese historical TV shows are notorious for anachronisms and inaccuracies. My professor, who was an early Edo period specialist, loved to make fun of them. My friend's professor, a Kamakura-Muromachi era specialist, was routinely asked to offer his expertise for NHK dramas and such, but his advice was usually disregarded to the point that he often asked for his name to be erased from the credits. Common misconceptions about history and everyday life are so deeply rooted that it is impossible to show certain historically accurate things without severe backlash from the viewers.
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  13. #13
    never mind the shorty angeliz2k's Avatar
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    Interesting discussion! I have this same problem with idioms sometimes. I can't think of one off the top of my head, but a lot of phrases that seem standard to us didn't come about until the late 19th or early 20th century, so I've had to work around them in my Civil War/Antebellum WIPs. Still, there are plenty that were around, so I can play with that, which makes me happy because it lends itself to a more colloquial tone. I was even happier when writing during WW1 because there were so many more idioms I could use, and since I was writing British characters, I could use British idioms, too.

    Ah, I thought of one. Pansy. I wanted to use the word as an insult, with all its implications. It's anachronistic to the 1850's, but there was really no other word that carried enough punch and meaning for the moment. I still have some qualms about leaving it, but I think it needs to stay.
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  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW Twick's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Devabbi View Post
    Just had this happen in today's writing session with the phrase "come in handy". Apparently it came about in the 1640s but that's still too late for my books. womp womp.

    Also, fun fact, apparently a "handy" in German refers to a cell phone! #thingswelearnontheinternets
    I think you can justifiably say if the first written evidence is 1640, the origins may well be much earlier. Not to mention that if your characters would really be speaking Middle English, any dialogue in written in modern English is technically a translation. So, they might not say "come in handy" precisely, but they'd likely have a way of expressing the concept. One which modern readers would have no way of understanding or relating to.

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    Crazy like a fox, or just crazy? Ramsay's Avatar
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    I'm sorry for coming to the party late, but I just discovered this thread. I'm writing a novel set in the Edwardian Era, around the turn of the century. Man, it's amazing the words and phrases we take for granted. For instance, the term "weekend" didn't come into use until after the time of my novel. Who knew?


    One thing I've found helpful is to read things written from that era. Not just novels, but non-fiction books and people's letters. I'm keeping a list of sayings from that era so that my characters will sound authentic.
    "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he's not safe. But he's good."

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    blue eyed floozy shakeysix's Avatar
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    I watched a crime documentary --one of those re-enactment programs--about a crime committed in the mid sixties. The whole town suspected a near by commune of poisoning a respected local politician. I can't give many particulars on the show. The hippies were all calling each other "Daddy-O" so I had to turn the damned thing off. --s6

  17. #17
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Twick View Post
    I think you can justifiably say if the first written evidence is 1640, the origins may well be much earlier. Not to mention that if your characters would really be speaking Middle English, any dialogue in written in modern English is technically a translation. So, they might not say "come in handy" precisely, but they'd likely have a way of expressing the concept. One which modern readers would have no way of understanding or relating to.
    This is a good point, and why I think it's actually harder to research word use set in the more recent past, when people were essentially speaking modern English but with different turns of phrase and word usage, than in a more distant setting where the writer is translating into our modern dialect. I notice linguistic anachronisms set in the more recent past more for this reason. If someone in the early 1800s uses a word like "collaborate," for instance, which wasn't coined then. In a setting where they'd be speaking something other than modern English, I can assume the word "collaborate" is a translation for whatever term was used then to refer to "working together." I expect a story written in, say, Victorian London, to recreate the way people actually spoke in that time and place.

    Though there are plenty of other anachronisms that can creep into a novel set in an earlier period, or even a secondary-world fantasy novel for that matter. One that drives me crazy is when a character in a pre-industrial setting feels the "adrenaline coursing through their veins." That word not only didn't exist prior to 1901, but the concept of hormones and neurotransmitters as we understand them today wouldn't have existed prior to the later 19th century either, let alone been incorporated into such a "go to" catch phrase for the sensations associated with being excited or agitated.

    Even more challenging is using a word that was in existence, but had a very different connotation, or even denotation, in that historical period. One that rarely gets called out is "nice," which is a pretty old word, but one that has changed greatly in meaning over the centuries, only settling into its current meaning (agreeable or pleasant or thoughtful) in the late 18th to mid 19th centuries.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 05-21-2017 at 02:35 AM.
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    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ramsay View Post
    I'm sorry for coming to the party late, but I just discovered this thread. I'm writing a novel set in the Edwardian Era, around the turn of the century. Man, it's amazing the words and phrases we take for granted. For instance, the term "weekend" didn't come into use until after the time of my novel. Who knew?
    I love stuff like this. I love being made to really think about ordinary usages that we normally don't think about at all.


    Quote Originally Posted by Ramsay View Post
    One thing I've found helpful is to read things written from that era. Not just novels, but non-fiction books and people's letters. I'm keeping a list of sayings from that era so that my characters will sound authentic.
    Oh, yes - and you get more than language usage from such sources, but quotidian details about life, too. What kind of food do your characters eat, what are their clothes made of? Absolutely invaluable.

  19. #19
    practical experience, FTW snafu1056's Avatar
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    Apropos of nothing, I can still remember the first time I ever heard someone use the expression "get a life." It was on a TV show in the early 80's. The character saying it was a teenager, so I guess it was still hip young slang at the time (I wasnt a teenager yet so I wouldnt have known). Today it's pretty common, but back then it struck me as such a weird phrase that I never forgot it.
    Last edited by snafu1056; 05-21-2017 at 09:39 AM.

  20. #20
    Toughen up. gothicangel's Avatar
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    My favourite anachronism to date is tomatoes in Roman Judaea.

    One the subject of colloquialisms and phrases, that's the nice thing about writing Roman fiction, no-one speaks English so I escape about 95% of this problem. I do have fun playing with language though, so instead of a 'pen-pusher' its 'stylus-pusher.'
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  21. #21
    Sophipygian AW Moderator Alessandra Kelley's Avatar
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    I lost my suspension of disbelief in a book set during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1893 when one character called another a "snob".

    That word's evolution has a really interesting history. It existed at the time, but it didn't mean anything remotely what it means today.

    I worry a bit about using modern slang to convey a sense of milieu in stories set in the far past in other countries. But then, I also don't want to convey a sort of flowery preciousness by literally translating phrases of the time into modern English. That seems to lead to a sort of pseudo-Biblical Arabian Nights style of writing that loses the earthiness of many interactions.

  22. #22
    Swan in Process Siri Kirpal's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by gothicangel View Post
    My favourite anachronism to date is tomatoes in Roman Judaea.
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    I once saw tomatoes in a YA novel about Dante. Uh, no.

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  23. #23
    Keeper of Fort Blanket L.C. Blackwell's Avatar
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    What's interesting is to find something you think should be anachronistic--only it isn't. For instance, the words "cash" and "duds" appear in The Lyon in Mourning as mid-18th century usage, and thanks to a post from Two Nerdy History Girls, I now know there was a recipe for real actual potato chips published in 1816.
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    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Siri Kirpal View Post
    I once saw tomatoes in a YA novel about Dante. Uh, no.
    Dorothy Dunnett, who was usually very good about research, made repeated reference to maize in mid-15c Africa. Like tomatoes in Italy, it's hard to imagine the cuisine of the region without it. But facts is facts...

    Quote Originally Posted by L.C. Blackwell View Post
    What's interesting is to find something you think should be anachronistic--only it isn't.


    That's the "Tiffany" problem. Tiffany is a perfectly valid, well-documented medieval name (with Greek roots). But it's got such strong contemporary associations, there would be howls from readers if a serious medieval historical novel featured a woman named Tiffany, while the highly anachronistic Amanda, Miranda, Olivia and Pamela would probably pass without notice.
    Last edited by benbenberi; 05-25-2017 at 05:14 PM.

  25. #25
    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    With respect to language and usage - I bought a subscription to the online Green's Dictionary of Slang so that I could get access to its full database of citations. It's been extremely helpful for confirming that a particular sense of a particular word or phrase was in use in my time period. It's a good supplement for the contemporaneous books, television, and movies that I'm always devouring (as I mentioned above). And it can be useful for those of you whose time periods didn't produce television or movies.

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