|French fashion, 1941
This is a nice example of what I saw described in the New Scientist as 'the Recency Illusion,. ie, the idea that certain innovations, technology, slang, fashion, language etc are far more recent than they in fact are. I find myself caught up in it myself, quite often. For example,would you believe that in 1880s Hong Kong, there was a telephone installed at Government House? There was, though (I was startled to learn, when writing The Mountain of Immoderate Desires), and it communicated with the second Government House on the Peak, demolished later by a typhoon, and, when we were in Hong Kong, nothing but a cement platform overgrown by morning glories.
I remember the late and lovely PD James falling prey to it when she told an interviewer that thank heavens, when she was a child, the word 'kid' was only applied to baby goats. However, I have to respectfully contradict her here: E. Nesbit uses the word 'kids' (See: 'The Wouldbegoods' (published 1901, nine years before PD James was born), and also I have an obscure novel called 'The Quaker Bonnet', published in 1913, where a maidservant describes the heroine as 'the weirdest kid that ever I had to do with.' Once again, I suspect that if I put that in a book set at that period, several people would object to my use of 'modern' language.
A copy-editor objected to my use of the word 'cool' in Last Train from Kummersdorf, saying that the word in its current meaning dated from the 1990s. It was, of course, used in my youth, quite a bit before the 1990s, but I had also (being that kind of author) double-checked that the word was used in the sense I was using it in the 40s, using a Louis Armstrong lyric for validation. I suppose it's not surprising that a younger person should find it hard to believe their 'own' slang has such a long white beard on.
One of the oddest ideas I have often encountered is that people didn't use contractions in speech in the past. I mean, don't, shan't, she's, etc. A student on a creative writing course I tutored told me in all seriousness that in the past (in this case the early 20th century) people never used these forms, even in speech. I referred him to Jane Austen, but he was still sceptical. But here is Squire Bramble, in Smollett's Humphrey Clinker, first published in 1771. 'I an't married to Tabby, thank Heaven' and: 'Not that she's a fool.' Or: 'I dare say you won't wonder at the progress the writer had made in the heart of a simple girl.' People also abbreviated names, such as Tom, Tab, etc.You, gentle readers, all know this, but this person didn't, and doubtless he's not alone.
|The balloon races
Also, I was reading about the balloon races from the Vincennes site of the 1900 Paris Exhibition in a book I picked up in Paris once, and came across the expression 'le recordman.' It being self-explanatory, I had no need for any translation, but this was a 1900 account. If I were to write a novel about the period and put that very modern-sounding expression in, I'd bet a huge amount of people would regard it as an anachronism (and pick me up on it.)
Then there was the person who wrote to me and complained that I had a character called Marlene in between-the-wars Weimar Germany (in my first, not very wonderful novel). This lady seemed to have a kind of proprietorial passion for Marlene Dietrich, and she had been led astray by the story (presumably related by the lovely Marlene to her daughter and recorded in said daughter's biography of her mother) that Dietrich had run Maria Magdalene together to invent the name of Marlene. In fact there was a character called Marlene in one of my mother's German children's books, first published in 1913, which was why I chose the name. Dietrich was admittedly twelve in 1913, but it's unlikely that she had both invented the name for the first time and got it into universal currency by that time. In fact German names are often telescoped like this 'Annelie' for 'Anne Liese' for example, or 'Annegret' for 'Anna Margarethe'.
Another lady recently wrote to the Guardian style editor objecting to the use of the word 'freighted'. It was not a verb, she said, and she couldn't find it in her Oxford dictionary. However, the Guardian found it, as an archaic usage, in their Collins dictionary (it’s in my Chambers, too). I am quite certain I have read 'freighted' in some poem or book, but the source escapes my mind. Anyone know? Incidentally, 'miffed' was a word I only knew through the pages of Georgette Heyer, till it returned to common usage in the latter part of the 20th century.
Something that fascinated me was finding, in the diaries of Thomas Creevey, a noted Regency Whig, 11th May: 'A telegraphic dispatch announces that Lord Whitworth (Ambassador to France) has left Paris.' This was the ending of the Peace of Amiens, and the telegraphic message was in fact sent by semaphore, the real-life source of Terry Pratchett's Clacks Towers (or is it Clax?). However, when, in 'Our Mutual Friend', (1865), telegrams are sent by Mr Veneering's supporters, when he's purchasing his seat in Parliament, they really were sending electrical telegrams as I remember them before the invention of the fax, the email, and the SMS text. The first commercial telegraphy service in Britain, according to Wikipedia, was installed on the Great Western Railway system, between Paddington and West Drayton in 1838.
|Diagram of a Prussian semaphore tower.
Any other contributions to this litany of things more ancient than we think they are?
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