You Got Your Anachronism in My Period Piece!
by Danielle Ackley-McPhail
Words are funny things. You think you know what they mean…and then bam! A colloquialism sneaks up and bites you…well, you get the idea.
Language is like a secret code. The same word can mean ten different things to ten different people. And you want to know what makes it worse? They change. Language is not static, it is fluid. Tell a man from the eighteenth century that he looks gay and he might smile and nod in agreement. Tell a man that today and watch out, he’s likely to punch you. And it isn’t just time that changes words, they can have different connotations from region to region and across social classes.
For instance take the word “fag;” did you know it has at least three different meanings?
- It is a derogatory term for a homosexual or an insult to any male.
- In Europe it is a slang term for a cigarette.
- It is a verb meaning ‘to tire.’
You can see, however, how using this word in any of its contexts could confuse some portion of the world population.
If you can master the trick of this linguistic metamorphosis you can write anything from homage to Shakespeare to a riff on Tennessee Williams just by choosing your words wisely.
It isn’t easy and you might think that it doesn’t even matter—say if you write fantasy, or mainstream, rather than historic or period fiction. But you know, no matter what you write, if you use the wrong word or phrase, or use the right one in the wrong context, you are going to yank that reader right out of your story quicker than you can blink.
Your job as a writer is to be aware of how your words might be taken, of the tone they are setting. For example, I’m currently writing a Victorian steampunk tale and I’ve chosen a formal language to convey that era:
The gentleman stared at her with shock and affront clearly visible in his gaze, if not his expression, but he did not argue and went to do as she bade. Clara allowed him a slight, encouraging smile before he looked away. That smile quite disappeared as she turned to the inventor upon whom she bestowed her patronage.
Words like affront, bade, bestowed, and patronage are not commonly used today, at least not in everyday conversation, but you can see how they have set a formal tone to this piece. Now, look at the same passage with more modern language:
The man stared at her with shock and outrage heating his eyes, though his expression was blank. Yet he didn’t argue as he went to do as she asked. Clara allowed him a slight, encouraging smile before he looked away. That smile disappeared as she turned to the inventor she sponsored.
You would never know from the second paragraph that this is a period piece though it conveys the same information.
Of course, most words are just words with no particular tie to a timeframe, but once in a while something will slip in without you even realizing it, such as calling a pretty girl a babe or mentioning penicillin when your story is set before 1928. Some of that can be combated with research, as for language, try reading a sampling of things actually written in the time period you want to replicate, or visit the region where you are setting your work, if it is a modern piece. This will let you pick up on phrases and slang peculiar to that area.
Now most of us are not going to pull out the dictionary ever time we type a word to make sure it was in usage at the proper time or that it doesn’t have some embarrassing alter-meaning that can’t be distinguished from the one intended by context, but in most cases it should be evident if you read your work aloud if something among the wording sounds off. You can also enlist a friend or two to read through and point out anything that made them stumble while reading.
And remember watch your language…after all, you might not be saying what you meant to.
If you have a moment, drop me a line, let me know if you have any recommendations for expanding the above article, or examples of words with divergent meanings.
I'd also like to know if there are particular writing or publishing topics you would like to see covered here. You can comment to one of the posts or drop me an email at greenfirephoenix @ aol . com.