Friday, 4 October 2013

Blinding with Science or Charming with Curiosities? by Katherine Langrish


When one is writing historical fiction, problems of language often arise.  I don’t mean just dialogue, though that’s a perennial one which is solved in different ways at different times.  It was once thought colourful to go all faux-archaic and bespatter your characters’ speech with thees and thous, but the result was usually unfortunate: ‘Tush, tush, child, fie on thee for a wayward wench!’ Robert Louis Stevenson referred to this style as ‘tushery’: he tried it himself in ‘The Black Arrow’, but never thereafter, writing to his friend Henley,

The influenza has busted me a good deal; I have no spring, and am headachy. So I turned me to-what thinkest 'ou?-to Tushery, by the mass! Ay, friend, a whole tale of tushery. And every tusher tushes me so free, that may I be tushed if the whole thing is worth a tush. The Black Arrow: A Tale of Tunstall Forest is his name: tush! a poor thing.


Most historical writers now aim for an unobtrusive modern style, on the sensible grounds that ‘old fashioned speech’ sounded modern to those who used it.

But the other linguistic problem is what to do about obsolete or technical terms. Some time ago, friends of mine were having a conversation about words their editors had asked them to alter, or at least explain, in case children might be puzzled by them.  Among these were ‘colt’ (young male horse), ‘merlin’ (small hawk), and 'jesses' (the straps attached to the feet of a hunting hawk). When I was writing about Viking ships in ‘Troll Blood’, I was asked to weed out or explain much of the nautical terminology – ‘reefing a sail,’ for instance, and ‘a lee shore’ and other sailorly commands such as ‘luff’ or ‘jibe’.

Fair enough, you may think: we don’t want to be obscure. But do children really stop in their tracks – or worse, derail – when they come across an exotic word they don’t understand?  I doubt it. When I read an unusual word as child, one of four things would happen:

(A) I would semi-skip over it.  This is the best option for things like: “‘Luff, you lubbers!  Haul on those sheets!” roared the captain, as the sail went aback”. I didn’t have to know the exact meaning of the words; I could see that the ship was in difficulties and the captain was worried, and that was enough.  Luff and lubbers and aback, and their ilk, got stuffed into a mental category of ‘mysterious words that sailors use’.  (As does ‘ilk’, in fact, which I’m very vague about.) And that’s pretty well where they still are. 

(B) I would pick up the meaning from the context.  On reading that the Flopsy Bunnies fell asleep because lettuce is ‘soporific’, I didn’t go to the dictionary, neither did I make a conscious mental note that soporific must mean something to do with making you sleepy; the word merely took on a contextual colour, or flavour, which I would recall the next time I encountered it. Children are good at making these associative leaps because this is how they learn their own language anyway. It may lead to the occasional misapprehension, but such things are generally cleared up by experience.

(C) I would ignore the word entirely and carry on, which is what I still do if I’m reading The Waste Land or, say, a 19th century literary essay with bits of original Greek poetry dropped in here and there.

As a last resort:

(D) I would carry the book to my mother and ask, “What does this word mean?”

All four of these options are legitimate and I believe we ought to make sure children feel OK about using them. A healthy reader is like a healthy cross-country runner whose steady pace is not broken by obstacles and stumbling blocks.  A confident child reader should have the toughness and elasticity to leap over the odd unusual word and keep going.  And how are they going to acquire that confidence if every text they read has been raked and weeded? 


Real pleasure can be got from working out the meanings of obscure words and phrases.  Here is an example which may remind us adults what it's like to read something peppered with unfamiliar words:

Vincent was the first of Matthew’s two sons to reach Darracott Place, driving himself in a curricle to which were harnessed two magnificent black geldings, randem-tandem; and by the time Richmond, who had been looking out for him, let out a halloo and exclaimed, ‘Here’s my cousin at last! Oh, he’s driving unicorn! He’s the most complete hand!’ even Mrs Darracott, with whom Vincent was no favourite, felt a measure of relief.

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

First of all, I have no idea in what way a curricle differs from a phaeton or a barouche or a landaulet or any of the other carriages Georgette Heyer frequently alludes to, but I get the point that the type of carriage Vincent drives is as important as the type of car he would drive if this were set in today’s world. If her editor had told Heyer that all these technical terms were just too confusing, and had made her stick always to the generic word ‘carriage’, the book would be poorer. I might never have realised that carriages weren’t just a way to get around, they were status symbols, indicators of character.  I would have a less nuanced view of the Regency world.

Second, knowing that a tandem is a bicycle built for two, I deduce that ‘randem-tandem’ means the horses are harnessed one behind the other rather than side by side.  This sounds flashy and difficult to manage, and sheds more light upon Vincent’s character and his young cousin’s admiration. As the book is not a fantasy, ‘driving unicorn’ does not for one moment fool me into believing that Vincent is actually driving a unicorn. Instead, I gather it to be a slang term for this same arrangement of the team, and Richmond uses it to show himself both knowledgeable and appreciative of his older cousin’s expertise. ‘A complete hand’ isn’t an expression in use today – a moment’s thought suggests that it comes from card games – but in context its meaning is obvious. Vincent is in control of his team and his life. He holds all the cards…


Heyer is magnificent at this kind of thing. It’s not tushery, either, because it works; it doesn’t get in the way. Instead of divorcing us from her characters, Heyer draws us in to share their world. Here’s an indignant young man complaining about the behaviour of the spoilt beauty he’s been trying to prevent from running off:

“She said she was going off to spout her pearls that instant, so that she could be gone from the place before you reached us!  She’d have done it, too!  What’s more, I wish I’d let her!”
            “I don’t wonder at it.  But you did not – which was very well done of you, sir!”
            “I don’t know about that,” he said gloomily.  “…The thing was, she’d put me in such a tweak by that time that I was hanged if I’d cry craven! Told her that if she tried to shab off I’d squeak beef – what I mean is, tell the landlord who she was and what she was scheming to do.  So then she threw the clock at me. That brought the landlord in on us, and a couple of waiters – and before I could utter a word, the little hussy was carrying on as though she thought she was Mrs Siddons!  Well, she’d threatened to tell everyone I’d been trying to give her a slip on the shoulder if I wouldn’t let her leave the room, and by God, she did it!”
            “Oh no!” exclaimed Miss Trent, changing colour.

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer


Could this be any clearer?  Well, it could.  Spout her pearls’ could be altered to ‘pawn her pearls’ for instance. But though I’ve never heard of ‘spout’ as a synonym for ‘pawn’ (or maybe 'sell'), the general meaning is clear, and the slang gives much more character to the young man’s speech.  The really difficult bit – ‘if she tried to shab off I’d squeak beef’ is glossed, ostensibly for Miss Trent’s benefit – and ‘a slip on the shoulder’ is also glossed by Miss Trent’s embarrassed reaction. The dramatic actress Mrs Siddons is presumably still well enough known for the allusion not to be obscure, but even if a reader hasn’t heard of her, it shouldn’t matter. The context does the job. It’s fun – it’s exhilarating – keeping up with Heyer’s lively stream of eighteenth century colloqualisms.

Instead of worrying about individual words and their supposed difficulty, let’s teach our children to throw themselves into a story and keep going to the end, in spite of the odd word they don’t quite understand.  Learning not to be afraid of strange words is exactly like getting down the length of the swimming pool without minding the odd wave that hits you in the face. 

You discover your own ability, and it’s more fun that way.



Picture credits:
The Black Arrow - cover, 1888, Wikipedia 
The Unknown Ajax - Heineman 1959, cover by Arthur Barbosa
The Nonsuch - Heineman 1962, cover by Arthur Barbosa


15 comments:

Austin Hackney said...

Hear, hear!

This very topic came up recently on another blog - I forget which. I hope it is a sign that there is going to be a backlash against the last twenty years of progressively 'dumbing down' children's literature.

Good Lord above, when I was a child I adored the discovery of new words and phrases! Wasn't that a healthy percentage of what reading was - and still is - all about?

How are children meant to expand their minds and develop their vocabularies and discover the rich possibilities of a well-turned phrase if they are restricted to a diet of prose made from an off-the-shelf vocabulary of three hundred words or less that everyone already knows?

Not to mention the fact that those who would have it that way have failed to understand a large part of the meaning of language and the subtle ways in which it communicates experience, texture, sense and significance: namely, through the sound and rhythm of words - not merely there intellectually attributed 'dictionary definitions.'

What, in the name of the gods, would these editors, politicians and self-styled 'educational experts' do with Jabberwocky? Or Riddley Walker? Or, for that matter, William Shakespeare? Chaucer? Dickens? These last authors all considered suitable reading for children when I was a child - and all challenged and delighted me and instilled in me a profound passion for language.

And what of Tolkien? Or Wodehouse? I ADORED the language - only partially understood - of Bertie Wooster's narratives!

And if the jargon of sailing must be expunged from West of the Moon, then surely it must also be expunged from Swallows and Amazons, too. And a fat lot of sense that would then make!

The editor who requests that I remove such language for such reasons shall hear from me naught but the following riposte:

"'Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor's-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck!"

And without doubt, will understand none of it.

Damn their eyes.


Austin Hackney said...

I wrote the above in such a fury that I let a dreadful error escape me: 'there' instead of 'their'

Apologies but I could barely see for red.

Ann Turnbull said...

Totally agree with you, Katherine - and Austin. Unfamiliar words delighted me as a child (and since I read much more than I spoke, I was famous for my mispronunciations when I tried to use them.) Some children MAY be made anxious by unfamiliar words because they have unfortunately been made to feel anxious about reading. But they can still enjoy having more challenging stuff read to them. It's not a reason to dumb down everyone's reading.

At around the age of 9 I discovered The Black Arrow and thought it the most exciting, romantic book ever - and I loved the 'tushery'! I re-read it recently and my favourite line is, "Alack!" cried Alicia. "I am shent!"

Libi Astaire said...

Thanks for a great post. I usually love it when I come across an unfamiliar word in a historical novel - it usually leads to my discovery of heretofore unknown information that I can file away for future use in my own Regency mystery series. Interestingly, though, I just recently finished Georgette Heyer's The Nonesuch and I rather quickly got tired of her use of so much Regency slang.

I also questioned whether older people, people living far from London, etc., would be so up to date with the latest slang. I can't keep up with all the new terms, even with my computer, so I'm curious if there was a significant difference in the speech of Yorkshire gentry, for example, and the tulips of London.

Roz Morris aka NailYourNovel said...

Love this post! I also remember reading that line from The Flopsy Bunnies when I was very young, and marvelling at 'soporific'. I didn't know precisely what it meant but I loved it. I could guess its meaning from the context, but its unfamiliarity gave it power; it was special. It added more enjoyment to the story - not only could fun things happen, they could be said in unusual, secret ways.
I've even come across this timidity with unfamiliar words in adult fiction. My agent objected to me using the word 'vatic' on the first page of my novel. The book wasn't full of these unusual words; just this one was a little unusual, but I felt you could understand it from its meaning. And it suited the scene, themes and mood perfectly.
Sometimes, of course, unfamiliar words obscure. At other times, they add a flourish, a flirtation with a fresh form of expression. Although language must do its job, it isn't just literal.

Katherine Langrish said...

Exactly, Roz! Libi, it's interesting that you got a little tired of the Regency slang in 'the Nonesuch' - perhaps that book is particularly heavy with it - but I bet you had no problem understanding most of it. It's a good point that colloquialisms must have differed, region to region, as they still do. (To this day, girls are lasses in the north and maids in Devon!) Austin, I adored your rant! It's an editor's job to question whether an obscure word is really needed, but it's an author's job to keep it there if we really want it!

adele said...

Quite right and brilliant as usual. Wish everyone could see this post. Am going to tweet it in an attempt to get it out there!

Lesley Cookman said...

Excellent post, and I also love your rant, Austin! I recently re-read The Unknown Ajax, and I adore the Regency slang. I even find myself using various expressions in conversation, which rather confuses people, and it has been known to creep into my own modern day novels.

Thank goodness my own editor is a tolerant and perspicacious man.

Rachel said...

What a great blog. Couldn't agree more. I just read Caroline Lawrence's PK Pinkerton mystery with my daughter and part of the pleasure was discussing what the Wild West lingo meant.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I once recited Jabberwocky to my literacy class to make a point. They were kids who were reading at Grade 2 level in their teens. But I recited it with great dramatic flourish, much to their delight, and said to them that however weird the words, you could work out that it was abut a young man fighting and killing a monster. And they could use the same method to read ordinary books.

And one of our ESL students who badly wanted to read Twilight worked out meanings from context and Bly checked the dictionary when she couldn't. She read all four books in as many weeks and her reading level rose several years by the end of that year.

But you shouldn't overdo it. Kids who don't want as desperately as that one to read something may simply give up after a few pages.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Whoops, that's "only checked the dictionary..."

Penny Dolan said...

Well said in your summing up of the different ways children dealing with an unknown or archaic word. I do rather feel that if all interesting historic words and phrases - especially the specialised vocabulary of shipping or horses and carriage riding or fashions, and so on - are neutralised, much flavour of a time will be lost.

That said, the young teen reader could easily feel surfeited by too many such terms , especially seen in a visual form. Pictures can remove the need for precise descroptions, whether correct of not.

Marjorie said...

I agree, too - both with your break down of how we (both as children and adults) deal with unfamiliar words.(and I love Georgette Heyer's books - I think being 'a complete hand' might come from driving - able to manage 4-in-hand or 6-in-hand - but either way, the meaning is clear from context - he's in control and skilled!)

I also feel that if new books are 'weeded' then it surely also makes it harder to then understand other, older books - I'm sure that when I first read Jane Austen, it helped to have read Georgette Heyer and have gained an understanding of terms which Austen, writing for her contemporaries, didn't need to clarify.

I may have to re-read 'The Nonesuch' now.
(I guess slang among the upper classes may have been fairly consistent - if you (or your local friends) visited London or Bath for the Season, or maintained correspondence with people who did, you might keep abreast of the slang.

Katherine Langrish said...

Thankyou all - Marjorie especially. A four in hand could well, as you suggest, have given rise to that saying. Fascinating! And illustrates my point that we can arrive at correct meanings via roundabout routes!

Kit said...

I totally agree and love your illustrations from Georgette Heyer, which I have been reading since a teenager and never needed to look up a word, as I absorbed them into my vocabulary via the context.

Reading to my kids I try not to stop to go into explanations of a strange word, unless they actually ask. It interrupts the flow of the story too much, and most often the word makes sense eventually by what follows.

Now I just hope they will love Georgette Heyer as much as I do - tried my 13 yo on it recently and she found all the extended family scenarios at the beginning of Toll Gate too dull to wade through to reach the rest of the adventure.