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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Observations from a "Word Nerd"

One of the dilemmas of historical fiction is writing it in words that were in use during the era in question. Over the years, I’ve become dependent on etymology dictionaries and similar references. (Okay, so I admit it. I’m a “word nerd.”) I try to tell my stories in words people of the period would have used, especially in dialogue.

But sometimes, what I take for granted as an old word turns out not to be. I’d like to share with you some of my discoveries.

SPREAD: The verb meaning ‘the act of spreading’ came from the 1620s. But the two uses I wanted came after the period I was writing about. Spread, as in ‘ranch where cattle are raised,’ came into use in 1927. Spread, as in ‘degree of variation,’ in 1929.

HANDYMAN: which I thought might be modern, came into use in 1843.

TARPAULIN: has been around since the 1600s. But, TARP, which I grew up using and thought would be perfect, only dates back to 1906.

EON: another that sounds modern, goes all the way back to around 1640.

SMALL: as in ‘little,’ is Old English, but SMALL TALK, as in ‘chit-chat,’ was first recorded in Chesterfield's "Lettersin 1751. (Yea! I can use it in my stories.)

SWEET TOOTH: meaning ‘fondness for sweets,’ has been used since the late 14th century. (Nice to know I’ve had a lot of company over the centuries.)

Over the years, I’ve learned not to trust my assessment of a word’s age, but sometimes I find out too late that a word, or my usage of it, is too modern for my story. For example, the word, SCAN. In the sense ‘to examine closely’, the word has been around since 1540. But I used it to mean “to look over quickly.” That use didn’t come into being until 1926, years after the time period of my story.

Such is the risk of writing historical fiction. And, it's all part of the fun.

Ann Markim

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  1. Really interesting, Ann! Many thanks for this article which shows how carefully a writer needs to choose her/his words. I love the original meaning of 'smitten' - from 'smite' I guess.

  2. Yes. Sometimes the origins are so surprising. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Ann, I left two messages before, but blogger kept signing me out when I hit send the message.

    Trying again.

    I love words. Before the fire I had dictionary galore. Scots, Irish Gaelic, Erse, Medieval, Saxon. . .so many dictionaries lost. Worse, most cannot be replaced. Words, their meaning, and how they change over the centuries is endless fascinating to me.

    Good article!

    1. Thanks so much. What an awful loss of irreplaceable dictionaries. How hard that must have been.

  4. Ann, this is something I'm always aware of when I'm editing for other people, and I try to check everything I think might be "out of time" but gosh, there are some words, like you said, that really sneak up on you! I have always loved words and this was so interesting to me!

  5. Thanks, Cheryl. Not only a some words sneaky, but many are tricky. The word, itself, is old, but the usage I want is modern. But that's part of the fascination.

  6. Most of these terms I thought were fairly modern, but I see they have a history. I've heard the word "spread" also used in poker: "Show me your spread, mister." LOL
    A delightful blog, Ann.

  7. Yes, and 'spread" has so many other usages as noun, verb, and adjective. It's amazing that how many meanings and usages a single word can have.
    Thanks for stopping by.