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Right Word, Wrong Year: Fun with Etymology

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Sometimes while reading a short story or novel with an historical setting, you come across a word or phrase that causes a bit of a stumble. The reason might be obvious or not. It might be that the word or phrase is lumbering about way outside its era.

Maybe it’s a novel of the American Revolution, wherein General Washington receives more bad news in frozen Valley Forge, and orders his lieutenant to Philadelphia with an urgent plea for help. So far, so good. “Okay, General,” Lieutenant Higgins replies, “but the horses cannot be made ready until dawn.”


There’s the problem. “Okay” came about as slang, an abbreviation of “oll korrect,” a phonetic variation on “all correct.” It didn’t appear until around 1839, and probably wasn’t in widespread use until a considerable time after that. It’s out of place in 1778 by a good sixty years.

Etymology is the study of word origins, and it fascinates. In English, the roots of words come from all over. The ancient tongues of Britain laid the foundation, but Roman occupation stamped Latin heavily onto those, as it did across much of Europe. The Norse later barged in and left their offspring and their vocabulary, and later still the Normans—those frisky hybrids of French and Norse—invaded in 1066 and imposed another great wave of linguistic change.

Suppose you’re writing an historical novel set in an England of antique vintage. Maybe in Jane Austen’s day. You write a line of dialogue: “I say! That was a whopping big mistake.” “Whopping big” strikes you as untrue to the era so you replace it with, “That was quite the preposterous boondoggle.”

Wait. What?

“Boondoggle” sounds like a word right out of Shakespeare, and certainly one that Mister Darcy would have tossed about. The problem is, it didn’t appear until around the early 1930s, and in America, where gadflies coined it as a term of derision for certain public works projects. “Preposterous,” on the other hand, passes the test. Dates to the 16th-century and still graces the language today. And “whopping” worked fine anyway, as its use appeared in writing as long ago as the 1620s.

Still, you write for a modern audience and there are limits to which you can take authentic, era-correct language. The farther back you go, the less English sounds like our English. Beowulf, among the oldest surviving epic poems in the English language, is almost unrecognizable to us:

Béowulf wӕs bréme, blaéd wide sprang—
Scyldes eafera, Scedelandum in.

This translates into modern English as:

Beowulf was famed, his renown spread wide
Scyld’s heir, in Northern lands.

Clearly you can’t be an absolutist with authenticity that far back and produce a readable book.

Don’t worry too much about authenticity in a first draft. You can always go back and check afterwards. So pound out that first draft and pay little attention to the era-appropriateness of the words. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Ease up, big fella. Let’s talk about that last line. It’s attributed to Admiral David Farragut during the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. Not to be a killjoy, but Farragut’s actual command apparently was, “Damn the torpedoes. Four Bells, Captain Drayton, go ahead. Jouett, full speed.” But yeah, the popular version packs a lot more punch. In either case, in Farragut’s day “torpedo” meant a tethered mine invented by Robert Fulton in 1801, not the self-propelled explosive machine we call a torpedo now. That wasn’t invented until 1866 and not much in use for some years after, so don’t torpedo your novel of 1857 by describing a self-propelled torpedo which didn’t exist even though the word did.

In fact, we can go further back with “torpedo.” The ancient Romans coined it to describe numbness, and it’s related to torpid and torpor. The name was applied to the electric ray fish around 1520. This nasty little beast packs an electric wallop much like that of an electric eel, known since ancient Greece to cause instant numbness. So the evolution of the word from numbness to electro-shock fish to underwater explosive weapon makes sense.

Languages evolve. And words may persist but their meanings change. “Loophole” now vastly differs from its meaning in the 13th-century, when it denoted a narrow slit or hole in the castle wall through which you shot your enemies with bow and arrow. “Sidetrack” now carries a sometimes negative meaning (“sorry, boss, I got sidetracked from the oh-so-important tasks you cooked up”), whereas in the 19th-century it literally referred to a side track, an extra rail siding next to the main railroad, upon which trains and cars could be shunted aside for other trains.

In etymology, the first usage of words often amounts to a best guess. A word may have been around centuries before it ever made its first appearance in writing. Beowulf appeared somewhere between the 8th- and 10th-centuries, but its words existed long before.

Read authors contemporary to the time about which you’re writing. Setting your novel in 1840? Read Dickens. If 1890, read Twain and Doyle. If 1935, try Hammett and Sayers and Steinbeck. Absorb the structures and cadences. You’ll get a handle not only on the vocabulary but on habits of speech as well. Emulate them. Steal them.

It’s okay. Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.

Crave more wordy guidance? A good resource is Online Etymology Dictionary.

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Ken Pelham’s debut novel, Brigands Key, won the 2009 Royal Palm Literary Award and was published in hardcover in 2012. The prequel, Place of Fear, a 2012 first-place winner of the Royal Palm, was released in 2013. His nonfiction book, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Mastering Viewpoint, was named the RPLA 2015 Published Book of the Year. Ken lives with his wife, Laura, in Maitland, Florida. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers. Visit him at kenpelham.com.

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8 Responses

  1. Jerry Tabbott
    | Reply

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post, and shared it with my (professional writer/editor) wife, who has always been in love with new words, meanings, and etymology.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Jerry, thanks so much! Word origins and evolutions have always fascinated me and I’m glad to hear I’m not alone.

  2. David-Michael Harding
    | Reply

    Educational & entertaining – the stuff of all good writing. Excellent post!

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      David-Michael, thanks for reading! Happy to hear you enjoyed it.

  3. Lyn Hill
    | Reply

    Love the post. Hope many readers enjoy it.

  4. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    Lyn, thanks! It was a fun thing to write.

  5. Lynn
    | Reply

    I enjoyed your post and excited to read Writers’ guide to Mastering Viewpoints.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Lynn, thanks! I’d be happy to answer any question you may have about my little writers’ guidebook.

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