Monday 20 January 2014

'The History in the Words' by A L Berridge

All historical novelists know to avoid the ‘wrong words’ – the little anachronisms that boot us into the wrong century will the speed of a train crash. What I find much, much harder is learning when to avoid the right ones.

You know the ones I mean. The ones that are perfectly, demonstrably, authentically in period – but somehow sound as if they’re not. An astute copy-editor wisely advised me not to use the word ‘scan’ in ‘In the Name of the King’, because its rock-solid pedigree in the 16th century didn’t prevent it from sounding as if it sprang to life with a chunk of technology in the 20th.

Not what I meant
He was right. Not just because of the terrifying reader who’s so certain I’ve Got It Wrong that he can’t wait to tell the world on Goodreads, but because it creates a ‘blip’ – a moment of surprise that jolts the reader out of the story.  Anything’s better than that, so we swallow our pride and our research and consign our historical darlings to the dump.

Sometimes we can find ways round it, but they feel equally counter-intuitive. I have a character in my Crimean series who uses a lot of 19th century London slang, and since much of it sounds screamingly modern I often find myself choosing the oldest versions I can find. ‘Mug’ is a perfectly good 1850s word for the face, but I opted for the equally accurate but archaic ‘phizog’ instead. I only do this in the early chapters when readers are still adjusting to the voice, but it still feels strange to make my world seem more alien and distant than it really was.

And how far should we go anyway? The totally authentic ‘Shut your trap’ sounds suspiciously modern for 1854, but if I replace it with the original ‘shut your potato trap’ then I’m risking an altogether different kind of ‘blip’. I want my readers to be following a story, not stopping to think ‘oh, so that’s the origin of that expression!’ Words should be invisible, the mere medium of the story, and never the focus of the reader’s attention.

But they’re all we’ve got, and it’s sometimes a real struggle to make them convey what we intend. Numbers are clean things, fresh with every use, but words are second-hand and come to us laden with history and association. I wanted to use the historically-correct word ‘kid’ in ‘Into the Valley of Death’, for instance, but had to avoid it because of its modern associations with America, gangsters and cowboys.
Not what I meant. Though I think I could be persuaded...
Sometimes our innocent immersion in a period leads us to miss even more dangerous interpretations, and I still blush to remember a copy-editor’s polite suggestion that a character’s fast movement from a wall might be better not described as ‘jerked off’.

Sometimes it’s really frustrating. When writing the Battle of the Alma for ‘Into the Valley of Death’, I had to really struggle to avoid the one single phrase that would have described exactly what was happening as the Russians harnessed their cannon to field carriages to draw them from the field. Those two-wheeled carriages were called ‘limbers’ and the correct expression is ‘limbering up’, but I wanted the reader to see a scene like this:

Russian artillery at reenactment of the Alma (Sergey Kamshylin /

and not something like this:

That may seem appallingly patronising to my readers, but the power of word-association can be stronger than logic. I know exactly what a limber is, and so will many of my readers, but the modern association still kicked in and gave me a ‘blip’ as big as a solar eclipse. Out went ‘limbering up’ and in went ‘backing to limber’, which in context was just as accurate.

And ultimately – I don’t mind. This kind of thing doesn’t happen with dead languages, but ours is a living record of our own past. I like the fact that the word ‘limbering’ remains like a ghost of its extinct military origin. I like the fact we still say ‘scot-free’ without the slightest idea that we’re using an Anglo Saxon word that means ‘exempt from royal tax’. The words stay when the meaning has gone, pebbles thrown up on the beach when the tide has gone out.

Mostly we hardly even notice them. A word just ‘is’, and we rarely stop to question how it got that way. Some people still refer to a ‘drawing room’, without any idea it’s an abbreviation of the ‘withdrawing room’ to which ladies would retire during the port and cigars. Many more will actually own a ‘penknife’ – but how many have ever used it to sharpen a quill? 

Or how about this:

The BMW i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, unveiled in Frankfurt 2013 – with an engine that produces 231 horsepower.

After all these years. Few of us have ridden in a horse-drawn vehicle, but that’s still the standard by which we judge those driven by the combustion engine. We can see both together in this fabulous colour footage from 1920’s London, but when we do we know we’re looking at history. Only the words have kept the history alive – just under the bonnet of our cars.

I suppose it’s natural to retain ‘horsepower’, since units of measurement are often the last to change. The horse itself is still measured in ‘hands’, just as many of us still measure distance in ‘feet’. How far does that go back? When did we last even think about it – except perhaps to marvel at men with twelve inch feet and to wonder if the size were proportional?

‘Hands’ and ‘feet’ will probably go in the end, as imposed metrication grinds its way through our remaining scraps of measuring heritage, but it’ll take more than that to expunge the many centuries of the horse from our language. Our idioms are steeped in it – ‘give him his head’, ‘rein him in’, ‘spur him to action’ – and they won’t disappear in a hurry.

Or will they?

Enter the Historical Language Saboteur, the chap who uses words without the slightest interest in what they actually mean. He’s the man who gives us the utterly meaningless ‘tow the line’, because he doesn’t understand the Naval historical concept of ‘toe the line’. He’s the man who writes about ‘giving free reign’ or ‘reigning in’ because the idea of controlling a horse by means of reins is beyond him. He's the man who infects millions of innocents, who dutifully repeat his mistakes because they've seen them written down on the internet. Distortion of language used to take centuries to accomplish, but these days it can happen in a matter of weeks.

But perhaps that’s as it should be. Perhaps he too is part of history. Mistakes and ‘back-derivations’ have played their own part in shaping our language, and they often enrich our understanding in how people thought and spoke in earlier times. Those who complain about today’s ‘sloppy diction’ might want to ask how the words ‘norange’ and ‘napron’ became respectively ‘orange’ and ‘apron’ – and if they say ‘a norange’ aloud, then they’ll know.

That’s the best part of language history for me: what it tells us about our ancestors and how they lived. I’m fascinated, for instance, by the fact we use English words for an animal in the field but French ones for the same animal on the table – and what this tells us about life under the Norman Conquest. The peasants were English who knew cows, sheep and pigs, but the court aristocracy were only familiar with boeuf, mouton, and porc – beef, mutton, and pork.

The history of language can obviously teach us far more profound truths than that, and I only wish I knew more about it.  My mother was lucky enough to attend the lectures of Professor J.R.R. Tolkien himself, and one of the remarks she recorded in her notebooks takes my breath away even now. Tolkien told his students that the first languages to develop a future tense were those of peoples who lived by the sea.

I have no idea how accurate that is, but it makes me tingle because of its essential truth. To comprehend the idea of a future, one has to have a sense of the ‘beyond’ – and who would learn that quicker than those who can look further than the edge of the world?

But the past is ‘beyond’ too, and words can take us there if we let them. Words aren’t just a record of the whole of human history – they are that history, and the living chain that joins it all together. If we choose to, we can follow them right back to the beginning, when the first people came out of the forest to stare in wonder at the power of the sea.


If you think words can never be dull, you should visit A L Berridge's website.
If you care about the history behind the words, you should visit the Crimea Appeal. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

Fascinating post, Louise! Actually, the fact that dead animals are in French, living ones in English was noticed long ago by Walter Scott, who has a peasant called Gurth complaining bitterly about it, for the very reasons you mention. :) (the novel was Ivanhoe). It must be very frustrating. Apart from my mediaevalised universe in Wolfborn, I mostly go no further back than the 1960s in my fiction, so don't have to be quite as careful.

Petrea Burchard said...

I love word history and am always eager to hear more of it. I've been saving for a giant OED since the day I was born.

alberridge said...

Thanks, Sue! Very interesting about Scott - I wonder if that knowledge actually survived in some rural areas, rather than being 'rediscovered' by historians. Not sure where I picked it up myself - probably my mother, which means probably Tolkien!

alberridge said...

Thanks, Petrea - and I quite agree. The OED is a 'must' for me, and the only way I can check quickly to see if a word's acceptable. Could never afford the giant one, so have the Compact Edition - which is complete, but needs to be read with a magnifying glass!

sensibilia said...

Awesomely fascinating! I love the intermingling of history and language, in what we say and see around us today.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for this - excellent!

Ann Turnbull said...

I too felt as if I'd always known about the Saxon names for living animals, Norman for dead ones. But if it was in Ivanhoe, that explains it - I read that when I was eleven! Most of the other word origins were a revelation to me,and fascinating,and I share your distress at the wrong spellings! But, on a related subject, can you tell me which is correct? Change tack? or Change track? I have a feeling it's "change tack" and is sailing-related, but would like to be able to use it with more confidence.

Unknown said...

Thanks for a really engaging and thought provoking post. I have seen both 'toe the line' and 'giving reign' in students' essays recently so it really struck a chord!

It also bought to mind an article I read about the use of swearing in the TV series 'Deadwood'. Set in an eighteenth-century frontier mining town, the frequency of swearing and slang was intended to indicate the lawlessness of the society. However, the writers chose not to use authentic contemporary swear words but rather anachronistic modern words. The reasoning was that eighteenth-century cussing was mostly blasphemous rather than scatological or sexual, but putting words like 'goddarn' in the mouths of characters tended to make them sound comical rather than crude to a modern audience, spoiling the look and feel of the whole thing. Thus the creators decided to deliberately introduce anachronistic language so as not to distract the audience. And along with better known modern phrases they also threw in some lesser known insults such as 'hoople-head', which sounds like it could be an authentic term for an ignorant commoner, but in fact which is just as anachronistic as other terms in the show.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the glorious history of words - nothing to compare! I still use drawing room as I was brought up to say it and with parents who told me exactly how it came into being. I was also told, a la Nancy Mitford, that 'lounge' and 'living room' were very non-u! Lovely article.

Penny Dolan said...

Really enjoyed this post, and all your words and terms and awkward choices. Thank you.

But why, exactly, was "lounge" Non-U, I wonder? The dreadful shame of relaxing in (semi)public? Or of there being a social class that could now afford to do so?

Clare Mulley said...

What a wonderful post, thank you. Thinking of Tolkien's story about the future first being conceptualised at the coast, last week I was lucky enough to hear Norman Davies give a short talk. He cited the Maori people who face the past, linguistically, and have their backs to the future. Since we can only regard the past, this makes perfect sense, and I love the way it is encapsulated in language.

Imogen said...

Ha! I spend much time marveling and worrying about these things too, and come to the same conclusions.

alberridge said...

Thanks, sensibilia (great name, btw!) and thanks, Joan.

Ann - thank you, and especially for the tack/track question. It's definitely 'tack' (confirmed in OED)and refers to the zig-zagging course taken by ships - to 'change tack' is to start a new leg of the zigzag.
However, I'm really glad you asked, because I went to check it in Brewer's Phrase and Fable and found a mistake I've been making myself for years - that the phrase 'on the right track' should ALSO be 'on the right tack' and has exactly the same origin. Oops - but I fear we may be too late to turn back the tide on that one!

alberridge said...

Thanks for a really interesting response, Laura. I haven't seen 'Deadwood' (oh, the shame!) but that sounds like a very similar dilemma the producers were in.
I had the same problem with swearing in my Chevalier series (17th century France, and only got away with it because the book purported to be a translation from the original French. The 'religious swearing' versus the 'bodily functions swearing' was still an issue, but I covered it to some extent by using 'bloody' (ie from the religious 'By our Lady') to replace what would certainly have been 'Sacre'. I still doubt it pleased everyone!

alberridge said...

Thank you, firstnightdesign and Penny!
Mitford is fascinating, isn't she? I suspect (but don't know!) that lounge was non-U simply because the aristocracy Do Not Lounge.

Thanks also to Imogen and Claire. It sounds as if a lot of us do care about these things, which is really heartening.I envy you hearing Norman Davies, Claire - that sounds fascinating. Will there be a book, do you think? The point about the Maori sounds spot-on, and there's nothing about it in the Tolkien notes.

Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks for resolving the "tack/track" query for me, Louise. Actually "on the right tack" is another version which I felt even less sure about. The trouble is that "change track" and "on the right track" seem perfectly reasonable things to say - especially as more of us walk along footpaths than sail. But what you get with "tack" is the abrupt change - the zigzag.

Nicholas Blake said...

Here a bonus: Tolkien's favourite word was 'cellar door'.
I think you are in the UK: you can usually access the OED online with your local library card. The compact edition is very out of date now.

Petrea Burchard said...

I'm in the U.S. but I believe there is online access here. One pays for a membership; I'm sure it's worth it!

ediFanoB said...

I'm German and this post shows me again my limited knowledge of English language. But I love it to discover new 'old' words.
When I read the words 'norange' and 'napron', I opened immediately a new window and used Google to et more information about 'norange'. I found a good explanation over at The Phrase Finder.

Kudos to Louise Berridge!
You wrote an excelletn and enlightening post which even I with my limited English could enjoy.
Thank you for improving my English.

bnachison said...

There's a fascinating book that came out last year: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr that discusses the language of swearing, oaths & obscenity from the Romans through the Middle Ages & up to the present. She has a lot of interesting things to say about the shifting focus of bad language. (Among other things, the language of Deadwood may not actually be as anachronistic as all that -- all the sexual words were well established in uses very close to the modern by the mid-19c. And "bloody" was the absolute worst word for a Victorian - much worse than "fuck" - but it had nothing to do with religion. It was just bad because it Was Bad.

Becca McCallum said...

Fascinating post.

Anonymous said...

I have re-blogged this on First Night History: