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Thread: Those pesky anachronisms

  1. #26
    down the rabbit hole of research... CWatts's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by benbenberi View Post

    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.
    How fascinating. At least Miranda and Olivia are Shakespearean, but using that to justify them in the middle ages is like naming a Victorian character Jayden.

    That reminds me, when did Old Testament names start being used by Christians? I know they were Jewish-only in medieval times.

  2. #27
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    In England, Old Testament names were very popular among the Puritans, but I don't think they were much in use by English Christians before then. Medieval Scots and Welsh liked "David," but David was also a saint's name so it's a category outlier.

  3. #28
    Herder of Hamsters AW Admin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CWatts View Post
    That reminds me, when did Old Testament names start being used by Christians? I know they were Jewish-only in medieval times.
    That's not really accurate. Onomastics is a very specific Medieval field, with lots of good resources, mostly tied to language/culture (i.e. Celtic names etc. )

    But the Dictionary of Medieval Names is a decent resource for European names.
    Last edited by AW Admin; 05-25-2017 at 10:19 PM.

  4. #29
    Swan in Process Siri Kirpal's Avatar
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    Sat Nam! (Literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

    About things that sound anachronistic but aren't: We ran across the word "bummer" in a 1915 diary (US West Coast). I thought it was much later.

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  5. #30
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    I drive myself absolutely crazy during the final line edit - when I have the final MS in front of me and I know it's my last chance before the book goes to the presses. I highlight all and every word I think might be a problem and obsessively check back and forth. As a reader of historical fiction, I know what sport it is to gleefully find anachronisms in the books you're reading, but it's a little nerve-wracking being on the other side of the fence.

    So far pretty good - 3 historical novels published, about 350,000 words total and in 2 1/2 years only one reader has caught an actual anachronism - I used the word germ in an 18th century context. People back then knew the concepts of infection and quarantine and such but they wouldn't have used the word germ, just the idea. Ooops.

  6. #31
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    I wanted a character to be "fizzing like a soda siphon". Alas, the soda siphon was invented a mere three years AFTER the story took place. Sooooo close!
    He now fizzes like champagne.
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  7. #32
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    This is one of the things that makes Hist. fiction pretty hard - how do you make sure that what you write isn't out of time/place? Some examples of "common life" I struggle with are usage of time, tools, food. What I'm doing is for most parts I avoid talking about details about specific food (I can get away with fruits for example, or say 'bread'), for time I still stick with minutes/days; for tools I do a generic research and stay within the confines (e.g. copper, iron used? ok good, then work with them.)

    But even after all that no doubt experts will find mistakes and say 'what? that makes no sense because people didn't do/think/ X then!'
    First time writer. Go ahead, rain on my parade!

  8. #33
    practical experience, FTW Tanydwr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AW Admin View Post
    But the Dictionary of Medieval Names is a decent resource for European names.
    (Randomly browsing the forum and then...) Thank you!! I pretty much collect names (more for my fantasy novels, since my only historical novel is Regency), and this not only has lots of new ones, but it has etymologies as well. So thank you for sharing a brilliant resource.

    On topic - I agree that the later you get with a time period, the more you want it to sound realistic, especially the dialogue. I'm currently struggling with the urge to use contractions in my Regency novel - Jane Austen used only a tiny number, and usually to portray the less elegant characters. At the same time, it can make dialogue sound a little stilted to a modern reader. So I've sort of half-decided to use contractions in familiar contexts - friends chatting at the club, sisters in their rooms - and mostly for things like It's, I'll, Meg's (as oppose to 'Meg is'), I'm, You're, although it's very tempting to use 'tis! More formal conversations in mixed company or before social peers or parents is contraction-free. Thus the use of contractions can indicate closeness between characters (useful for a romance) and the lack = distance.

    But yes, I have spent many hours procrastinating to find less modern turns of phrase as well! Glad to know I'm not the only one who obsesses over things like that.
    Amateur etymology: an excellent way to complicate your novels.

  9. #34
    practical experience, FTW greendragon's Avatar
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    For those unaware, there's a great resource (and enormous timesuck!) called etymonline - where you can look up a word and see from whence (and when) it dates. It's great for words, not so much for phrases, though.

    Writing historical fiction/fantasy, I swear I spend more time there after my first draft than anywhere else.

  10. #35
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    Quote Originally Posted by Versailles View Post
    So far pretty good - 3 historical novels published, about 350,000 words total and in 2 1/2 years only one reader has caught an actual anachronism - I used the word germ in an 18th century context. People back then knew the concepts of infection and quarantine and such but they wouldn't have used the word germ, just the idea. Ooops.
    Actually, they might have, although not in the clinical scientific sense used today. From Prismnet.com: germ: Disease-producing agent, 1803, in this very modern-sounding quotation from a medical journal: “The vaccine virus must act in one or other of these two ways: either it must destroy the germ of the small-pox...or it must neutralize this germ.” (The word means “seed”, as in germinate, and the example of plants spreading was the best analogy for disease infection.)

    SO-- if it was used in a medical journal in 1803, it could well have been used conversationally earlier.

    I've just gotten through the first five or so chapters of a hilarious wonderful book called MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS by Susanne Alleyn, which gives all sorts of examples of anachronisms to avoid, including tomatoes in ancient Rome. It's a hoot!
    Last edited by MAS; 08-09-2017 at 07:11 AM. Reason: punctuation and clarity

  11. #36
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    Quote Originally Posted by Devabbi View Post

    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'll admit that I just let the pockets slide in pre-industrial era, secondary-world fantasy. There's no reason they couldn't have gotten the idea before the 18th century and sewn pockets into coats, skirts and trousers, after all. Things don't have to happen exactly the same way in a fantasy world, and I make my own modifications to fashion and culture anyway.

    For me, my love of certain aesthetics will drive these kinds of decisions. I'm too in love with the image of a certain characters slouching into the room with their hands in their pockets. Which is one reason I enjoy fantasy.

    With purely historical fiction, or historical fantasy that is meant to take place in the real world, then one is stuck combing for those kinds of anachronisms.

    I do take some pains to omit idiomatic references that a reasonably well informed reader will associate with a real-world person, place, thing, or event, like someone making a "Herculean" effort or something. But there's always a blurry line, since we also employ the translation principle when writing in a fantasy setting (or a historical time or place where they spoke a different language). Sometimes the desire to avoid anachronisms can go overboard, especially with words like "volcano," where there really isn't an alternative word.

    Quote Originally Posted by MAS View Post

    I've just gotten through the first five or so chapters of a hilarious wonderful book called MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS by Susanne Alleyn, which gives all sorts of examples of anachronisms to avoid, including tomatoes in ancient Rome. It's a hoot!
    Another problem is some things we think we know about the way people lived in earlier times turns out to be possibly untrue (like the assumption that it was the norm for girls to be married in their teens before the 20th century), or that no one ever bathed in the middle ages.

    There is some evidence that some women, at least, used undergarments akin to a modern brassiere. Whether this was commonplace or not is up in the air, but in times and places when people made many of the things they used in daily life from scratch, some individuals might have gotten the idea to modify their own clothes in various ways. Maybe some women did wear underpants (or clouts) of a sort, at least at certain times of month or if riding astride.

    This kind of thing can be a real headache for writers of historical fiction who did do their homework about what was plausible in a given time and place, yet people tell them they are wrong.

    A bit like the reader who told me they couldn't possibly have microscopes in an early modern type setting. They could and they did, though they weren't nearly as effective or versatile as modern ones. There's a challenge with using a word (and the word microscope goes back to the early 17th century too) that most people associate with something very modern while showing the reader what the implement was actually like in that kind of setting.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 08-09-2017 at 08:26 AM.
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  12. #37
    practical experience, FTW TellMeAStory's Avatar
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    I'm about to commit one. One of my characters reflects on the impracticality of paper handkerchiefs a few years before they were introduced. It's paper napkins that came first. Did you know that?

    I'll be confessing the "fudge" in my afterword. Hope I'll be forgiven.

  13. #38
    Unpredictable preacher Minister's Avatar
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    So is there established technique for dealing with something that is typically viewed one way by the average reader (or even fairly informed reader), but the writer's research has shown to be different? (The microscope example is excellent.) I'm running into this all the time with my critique group and my novel set in late 14-century Bohemia. Their concept of the setting is driven by what they've seen in movies, or what they've read in cursory treatments of western European politics, or even picked up from fantasy novels. So they keep picking up on things that throw them momentarily out of the story (e.g., my referring to Charles IV as both king and emperor (he was king of the Bohemians and the Holy Roman Emperor); the fact that a prince was NOT necessarily a son of the king). When writing commercially, are better off simply avoiding places where we know common conception does not match historical reality? Or are there ways to subtly inform readers that the historical reality wasn't what they thought it was - without needing a footnote or a story-marring lecture? Or if we are trying to write commercially, is it better to grit teeth, sigh, and write what people expect instead of what really was? Personally, I love learning from historical fiction, and I just about live for a well-written historical note at the end of the book. But you can only put so much there, and the book has to be compelling enough to get people to the end for it to matter at all. So what works?

  14. #39
    never mind the shorty angeliz2k's Avatar
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    Not to be too flippant, but . . . established by whom? There's no authority, so I'm afraid we have to wing it!

    In your example of Charles IV, use the correct terms, your reading-group's unfamiliarity with it be damned, quite frankly. Now, the issue may be that you refer to him as one or the other for no apparent reason, but that's another issue (you might want to choose one term and stick to it). In France, a prince of the blood was not a son (or grandson) of the king. I certainly wouldn't change the term I use because people who are unfamiliar with French titles don't understand that. It's the correct term/name. Prince Louis de Rohan is Prince Louis de Rohan, and he wasn't a close relation to the king.

    There are gray areas. For instance, the word "recipe" was once "receipt" and a "receipt book" was an actual Thing: it was a book filled with what we call recipes, bits of advice, clippings from lady's magazines, and so on. Do I use the more familiar "recipe book", which really gives the basic idea, or the more correct "receipt book"? I go for the more correct term.

    It seems to be a question of your audience. Your critique group may not be your ideal audience. Your ideal audience might not be thrown by these things, or if they don't understand something they might be willing to look it up and find out.
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  15. #40
    Unpredictable preacher Minister's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by angeliz2k View Post
    Not to be too flippant, but . . . established by whom? There's no authority, so I'm afraid we have to wing it!
    Oh, I know there's no "boss" of historical fiction. But established by whom? Successful authors of historical fiction - people selling books that are at once bought by many consumers and respected by people knowledgeable about their time periods.

    I see writing as craft just as much as art, and just as we have techniques for establishing and maintaining point of view, I'm wondering if there are identifiable techniques for communicating features of setting that run contrary to audience expectations. I have books on character and viewpoint, on grammar and plot. I've seen a lot of treatments and discussion on worldbuilding in scifi and fantasy. But I've never seen a book on communicating setting in historical fiction. Following these discussions has been really helpful to me, but I was wondering if there were specific principles that could be applied, or a book someone could point me toward.

  16. #41
    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    In my opinion, the ideal to strive for is to introduce the period details and concepts as integrally to the story as possible. That way you can inform your reader (who is presumably open to learning about the period, else why would s/he have chosen your book?) without getting into info-dumps or having your characters explain things that, to the characters, would not need explaining.

    For instance, with your Charles IV example, perhaps you can contrive early on to have a scene in court where a herald refers to him by his full formal title, that includes King of Bohemia and Emperor of Rome. Or you can have a character refer to him as such in a praiseful or a sarcastic or whatever-is-consistent-with-your-story way. That will remind (or inform) your readers that he had multiple titles, and further reference to him by those titles won't be confusing in the way you're worried about.

  17. #42
    never mind the shorty angeliz2k's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Minister View Post
    Oh, I know there's no "boss" of historical fiction. But established by whom? Successful authors of historical fiction - people selling books that are at once bought by many consumers and respected by people knowledgeable about their time periods.

    I see writing as craft just as much as art, and just as we have techniques for establishing and maintaining point of view, I'm wondering if there are identifiable techniques for communicating features of setting that run contrary to audience expectations. I have books on character and viewpoint, on grammar and plot. I've seen a lot of treatments and discussion on worldbuilding in scifi and fantasy. But I've never seen a book on communicating setting in historical fiction. Following these discussions has been really helpful to me, but I was wondering if there were specific principles that could be applied, or a book someone could point me toward.
    I totally understand, and sorry for being a bit flippant!

    Truth is, I don't know that there are any really comprehensive authorities on world-building in historical fiction. I'd suggest interviews and/or blogs of some of your favorite historical fiction writers, where they discuss their methods. Also, lots of reading--in fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction will give you an idea of the facts and the historical debates, and fiction will give you an idea of what readers are familiar with/expect and with how other writers have handled these sorts of issues. How much history can you expect your reader to come to the table with, how much do you need to gently build for them, and what misconceptions do you need to work against?

    It's probably the most difficult part of writing historical fiction: how much do I tell readers, when, and in what way? You don't want to confuse or frustrate your reader, but you don't want to pander to widespread but false ideas, either. I generally handle it much like I alluded to above: to the best of my ability, I give the history straight, with the assumption that my reader is an educated person with a general knowledge of the time period. I assume, for instance, that readers will know who R.E. Lee and U.S. Grant were. If it's something that your average college-educate person who paid attention in history might *not* know about, I give 'em clues. For instance, most people probably won't know what the Fort Pillow Massacre was, so when a character in my story references it, I give him a chance to explain what it was.
    Back in the query trenches.

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  18. #43
    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    Here's a subtle and fun one I ran into yesterday. For reasons I won't get into, I was thinking of having a character think of the scientific name of the orangutan. I looked it up, and the Bornean orangutan is Pongo pygmaeus. Reading a little further, I saw that the current classification of orangutans into two species was established in 1996 (and is still under discussion). So my character, in 1951, probably would not have produced the name Pongo pygmaeus. She would have come up with whatever it might have said in, say, an issue of National Geographic or American Scientist in the 40s. I've done a bit more digging but haven't yet determined what that might be. The original classification by Linneaus was Simia satyrus. Might that have changed by the 40s? It's likely. So there's probably some third name which is the name that my character would think of.

    There's a 2014 book called Wild Man from Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan that will probably answer my question. It's not really worth a great investment at this point, however. The scene might change - I've already waffled many times on whether it's an orangutan or a baboon - or be cut completely. And it's not the kind of anachronism that even nonegenarian readers (should I be lucky enough to have any) would catch, unless they happen to have been taxonomists of primate species. It's good to know that the answer is findable, but I'm trying to set it aside for now - the manuscript says Simia satyrus for now. Maybe my character read Linneaus....

  19. #44
    practical experience, FTW greendragon's Avatar
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    Do remember that some people are slow to change. My grandfather insisted on calling jeans 'dungarees' all his life, long after that went out of fashion. Just because a name changed 'officially' doesn't mean everyone changed instantly.

    I sometimes laugh at my author group. My current WIP is set in 12th century Ireland, and they will occasionally ask if a particular word was used then. None of these words were used then! Modern English wasn't in existence then! At this point, it was still middle English, and still a strong mix of Norman and Anglo-Saxon. However, since my book must be written in modern English, some words may, indeed, jar the reader out of the illusion of medieval Irish life.

    There was one that they asked about, and I looked it up. The word was actually a word then (can't remember what it was at this point) - but if it threw people out of the story, perhaps I could find a different one... we have many to choose from!

  20. #45
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    Quote Originally Posted by greendragon View Post
    I sometimes laugh at my author group. My current WIP is set in 12th century Ireland, and they will occasionally ask if a particular word was used then. None of these words were used then! Modern English wasn't in existence then! At this point, it was still middle English, and still a strong mix of Norman and Anglo-Saxon. However, since my book must be written in modern English, some words may, indeed, jar the reader out of the illusion of medieval Irish life.
    And presumably most Irish people wouldn't have been speaking English anyway -- most would have spoken Irish except for the Norman conquerors who presumably spoke some form of French.

    My current WIP is set in early 17th-century Ireland (although my MC is an Englishman), and I'm trying to decide if I should use the word "whiskey"! The word wasn't recorded until the 18th century. The drink did exist before then; English-language sources mention "Usquebath", "uscova", or "usquebaugh", all of which come from the Irish uisce beatha, pronounced "iska baha" and translating literally as "water of life" (I have also found references to aqua vitae which means the same thing in Latin and appears to be referring to the same or at least a similar alcoholic drink).

    I'm torn between (a) using "whiskey" because the modern audience will know what it means or (b) calling by a more period-appropriate name to highlight that it is seen by the English as a "foreign" drink, e.g. (from the viewpoint of my English character):
    "The liquid smelled of turf and alcohol. She called it something that sounded like wiksa ba. "
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  21. #46
    practical experience, FTW greendragon's Avatar
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    Perhaps mention once the Irish spelling (uisce beatha is actually fairly well-known as a name for it among those that love Irish history, at least) and then mention that most call it whiskey, and go from there? Or make a bastardization between the two - wuiskay

  22. #47
    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by greendragon View Post
    Do remember that some people are slow to change. My grandfather insisted on calling jeans 'dungarees' all his life, long after that went out of fashion. Just because a name changed 'officially' doesn't mean everyone changed instantly.
    This is a good point, and made me think a bit. My character is not a naturalist; she's a college-graduate housewife, an intelligent person who reads widely and has a sticky memory for facts. So, for instance, if she read an article about primates in a 1948 issue of National Geographic, she'd probably remember whatever scientific name was used in that article - which would presumably reflect the latest science. To your point, though, if she had read the old name somewhere else, previously, and no new information had replaced it in her mind, she'd be just as likely to remember the old name. So it's probably fine as is, using the older name. (And the line might not even survive edits so I've already overinvested in it for now!)

    I sometimes laugh at my author group. My current WIP is set in 12th century Ireland, and they will occasionally ask if a particular word was used then. None of these words were used then! Modern English wasn't in existence then! At this point, it was still middle English, and still a strong mix of Norman and Anglo-Saxon. However, since my book must be written in modern English, some words may, indeed, jar the reader out of the illusion of medieval Irish life.

    There was one that they asked about, and I looked it up. The word was actually a word then (can't remember what it was at this point) - but if it threw people out of the story, perhaps I could find a different one... we have many to choose from!
    Have you read Hild, by Nicola Griffith? It's set in 7th-century England, or thereabouts, and she does a very nice job of integrating some old-English vocabulary into the narrative. I mean, I am sure there are some readers who found it grating, but to me it added a lot of flavor.

  23. #48
    never mind the shorty angeliz2k's Avatar
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    How large a role does this play? It might not be worth it to spend the time/space explaining it to your reader, in which case just calling it "whiskey" might be the simplest thing to do. If you want to emphasize the fact that the English character hasn't encountered the stuff, I think a quick back-and-forth would clue the reader in: *Character is introduced to this new alcoholic drink.* "I'm sorry, what did you call it?" "Uisce beatha." "Whisk ba?" "Uisce beatha." "Wee sky?" (Although this feels like something that would work better in a medium like TV where we could hear it.)
    Back in the query trenches.

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  24. #49
    Resist. Love. Go outside. Marlys's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by autumnleaf View Post
    And presumably most Irish people wouldn't have been speaking English anyway -- most would have spoken Irish except for the Norman conquerors who presumably spoke some form of French.

    My current WIP is set in early 17th-century Ireland (although my MC is an Englishman), and I'm trying to decide if I should use the word "whiskey"! The word wasn't recorded until the 18th century. The drink did exist before then; English-language sources mention "Usquebath", "uscova", or "usquebaugh", all of which come from the Irish uisce beatha, pronounced "iska baha" and translating literally as "water of life" (I have also found references to aqua vitae which means the same thing in Latin and appears to be referring to the same or at least a similar alcoholic drink).

    I'm torn between (a) using "whiskey" because the modern audience will know what it means or (b) calling by a more period-appropriate name to highlight that it is seen by the English as a "foreign" drink, e.g. (from the viewpoint of my English character):
    "The liquid smelled of turf and alcohol. She called it something that sounded like wiksa ba. "
    I'd go with 'usquebaugh,' which I think is fairly well known to readers of historical fiction (that's where I first learned it). Just add some context so people who haven't encountered the word before will get it.
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  25. #50
    Likes metaphors mixed, not stirred Chris P's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by greendragon View Post
    Do remember that some people are slow to change. My grandfather insisted on calling jeans 'dungarees' all his life, long after that went out of fashion. Just because a name changed 'officially' doesn't mean everyone changed instantly.

    I sometimes laugh at my author group. My current WIP is set in 12th century Ireland, and they will occasionally ask if a particular word was used then. None of these words were used then! Modern English wasn't in existence then! At this point, it was still middle English, and still a strong mix of Norman and Anglo-Saxon. However, since my book must be written in modern English, some words may, indeed, jar the reader out of the illusion of medieval Irish life.
    My grandmother called the refrigerator an "icebox" until she died in 2007, easily 50 years after the iceman stopped cometh-ing to replace the ice in the wooden ice box.

    Regarding words not used at the time, it doesn't bother me if the story setting occurs before modern English as we would think of it (not in the strict definition of "modern English," which officially includes Shakespeare) came to be. Imagine if every period piece had to use period dialog! Same thing with translations. From about 1800 on, though, I hold a much higher standard. I wrote a US Civil War short story and determining whether "sniper" or "sharpshooter" was used in 1862 caused me some angst.

    One pre-modern use that threw me, though was in the translation of (I think) either the Iliad or the Odyssey where someone says "That's a feather in your cap." Although many cultures use feathers to denote one accomplishment or another, the phrase originated from observing Native American practices. I brought this up to my teacher, who found other translations used other idioms for the same phrase. It drew me out, but I'm sure the earliest-known version of the story uses an expression that wouldn't mean much to us today, so what else would the translator do?
    Join any time! Take the 2017 AW Reading Challenge. Pick 12 books from a list of topics and read/discuss with us throughout the year.

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