Every so often on writers’ lists a discussion will break out over the historical use of words. We fight over archaic terms like doth and hath, and we quibble over the origins of Heyer’s Regency slang, some of which she seems to have been made up. We pull out our Partridge’s Vulgar Dictionary and track down boxing cant. Mostly, we’re trying to obtain the unobtainable—an historically accurate fictional world that a modern reader can understand.
I know I’ve stumbled across any number of words that have totally different meanings today than two hundred years ago, but of course my lamentable memory can never recall them when I need them. (If you can think of some, click comment below and remind me.) I went web-surfing to see what I could turn up.
This site http://knowledgerush.com/kr/encyclopedia/List_of_archaic_English_words_and_their_modern_equivalents/ has a nice list of archaic terms and their origins, including medieval usages such as dost, hath, and goest that modern readers might understand but would despise reading unless they were heavily into poetry. It also mentions one that drives my editor insane— “gaol” instead of “jail.” I don’t see why that’s so hard to grasp. It’s the appropriate English term for the time. But she hates it, so I have to assume a lot of readers would feel the same. So now I avoid putting my heroes behind bars. I realize that if my characters called someone a “drab” or a “cove,” I’d have to include some clue in the sentence so today’s reader would read it as “whore” or “fellow” instead of “boring” and “water inlet.” It’s doable, if I want the historical resonance. But adding explanations slows the pacing and takes up valuable space, so I have to be careful inserting archaic verbiage. But I do love words like Cyprian and impure for ladies of the evening—so very rakish, right?
Another fun site is http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=a
I used that one to look up get, a word that is sadly overused in modern language and didn’t have the same meanings in Regency days. If you dig through the definitions, you’ll see that the original meaning of get was from 1200, “to obtain, reach.” That one still holds up today. But “to get” as in “I got it, I understood it,” didn’t come into use until 1892. “Getaway” is 1852, and “get-up” for costume is 1847. I’m sure I’ve found a dozen other ways to use get that I’ve had to excise from my drafts, but the sound is already hurting my head. Oh, and get as in someone’s offspring would be a Regency term that modern readers would have to look twice at before understanding, I suspect.
A word Mary Jo caught my Regency character using the other day was stoop. I come from a German-Dutch area of New York and we called our back steps “stoops.” But an English Regency character wouldn’t be familiar with the word. Does the modern American reader care?
Of course, it isn’t just individual words that we must screen with a magnifying glass and OED in hand to achieve our historical goals. It’s possible to create an historical ambiance using words we have today by combining them in a more leisurely, aristocratic pattern (Or leisurely Cockney or rural or whatever, if you're good at that). I consider speech patterns to be creating character more than historical language, but if it works…. My Regency hero in my current manuscript thinks “If guns were the solution to his problems, he had a vast array from which to choose.” Had I written that from the perspective of a modern hero, he’d be far more likely to say, “If blowing his brains out would solve his problems, he had an arsenal at hand.” All the words were in use in both periods, but I hope to convey a more historical tone by using more nuanced and less blunt language. Is it working?
And reading through the current WIP, I came across: Off guard, parenting, and banty hen. I’ve been warned about off guard, told that it’s a football term that wasn’t available in the Regency, but I can’t find it in the etymology or Websters. And it’s danged hard coming up with a synonym—He was caught off guard. He was caught asleep? <G> Not precisely what I meant! Parenting, of course, is blatantly contemporary, but just try coming up with a decent substitute. “Rearing a child is difficult” might be correct, but “Parenting is difficult” simply sounds better to my modern ear. Rearing approaches my definition of archaic, right along with doth and hath, but that's probably just me. And I seriously regret looking up banty hen because I’m going to use it anyway. No one says banty any longer, so it has a nicely historical flavor. It’s a corruption of bantam and may still exist in the hills of Appalachia, where some form of 18th century English still lingers. So I’ve convinced myself that my 19th century characters would have used the word, too.
Will my depredations upon classic Regency language cause my book to be flung against the wall? What jars you out of a peaceful read, sends you to the dictionary, or causes you to be so irritated you set a book aside?