Monday 15 December 2014

Changing Language

by Marie-Louise Jensen

When I'm researching and reading old books, I love to find and note all the ways language has altered over the centuries. Writing my first Georgian book, The Girl in the Mask, I had to write down a note for myself:

1) You keep your clothes in a closet.
2) Your wardrobe is your collection of clothing
3) Skirts are the part of a man's coat below the waist
4) Ladies skirts were referred to as petticoats or 'coats
5) A dress was a gown.

There were others, but those were the frequently used ones I was concerned about getting right (I did make one mistake in Smuggler's Kiss which slipped through).

When I ask school children today what ladies in the 1700s called their dresses, they struggle to get the right answer, instead guessing robe, frock, tunic etc. The word gown has been pretty much lost.

Incidentally, I remember my grandmother always talking about 'frocks'. With the arrogance of youth, we'd roll our eyes and sigh, but in fact the word has come back into fashion now in the phrase 'posh frock'. I secretly always rather liked it.

I had fun in Runaway with a few Georgian phrases. For example, I used the expression 'sick as a cushion'. I'd come across it in Georgette Heyer novels and always found it amusing, so I put it into some dialogue. But the copy-editor queried it. When I hunted for it in the OED, I couldn't find it, but I did find 'sick as a parrot', which I thought was equally amusing, if not more so - given that parrots can be green. In the end, lovely assistant editor tracked down 'sick as a cushion', so although I kept parrot, I've notched it up as a phrase to use in future. I have quite a store of them and I always love coming across them when I'm reading too.


Joan Lennon said...

"Sick as a cushion"! Love it!

Christina Koning said...

Lovely! Enjoyed this piece very much. Getting the language right for a given period is so important, I feel - I wish the scriptwriters for shows like 'Downtown Abbey' felt the same...

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Oh dear, yes, I'm not a fan of Downton. I'm sure I don't always get it right, but I try. I think old novels are the best guide.

Leslie Wilson said...

I think the trouble is, to get it convincing and yet not to seem like pastiche. Georgette Heyer did very well; her language is a composite of mid-20th century and Regency. Researching Georgian England, I have found the slang and turns of phrase she used everywhere, confuting those people who claim she 'made up her own language.'
But on the other hand, one doesn't want to write in such a way that it will be incomprehensible to a great deal of modern readers. After all, when the people of the past spoke, they didn't sound old-fashioned to themselves, as they do to us now.
Always a fascinating topic. I must read 'Smugglers' Kiss!'