Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The ironies of language

In a couple of recent posts I've been writing about the challenge of making historical fiction "sound" historical.  Yes, of course, there is factual history to get accurate, and there is the historically correct physical look that should guide your descriptions; there is contemporary slang that must be avoided in dialogue and even contemporary attitudes with which you should endow your characters only warily and only for specific purposes.  (Some argue you should never do this at all.)  But there is also the specific words used in the narration.  Especially if one is employing a first person narrator, but even if one's narrator is third person, a writer must work to include only language that feels right for the person and the era and struggle against language that finally isn't, at the same time being careful not to create a too cliched historical sound, something that sounds too much like what we expect, for instance, an American puritan to sound like, or an Enlightenment era Englishman, or a nineteenth century servant to the emperor of China.  Your characters and your narrators must seem historically accurate and yet never cliches.

This effort becomes all the more complicated when one starts to examine the etymylogical history of specific words.  Words one might use without questioning turn out to be "historically challenged," whereas other words that sound thoroughly modern turn out to actually have an extensive literary lineage.   This issue is in my mind currently because of revisions I made to a short story set in 1820 on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.  The narrator is a twelve year old white boy of English descent.  One editor who read the story questioned several of my word choices, and quite rightly I should add.  For instance, when she saw my narrator make a reference to chocolate she wondered aloud if a young island boy in the early decades of the nineteenth century would have any notion of chocolate at all.  And I thought: Damned if I bet she isn't right.  I didn't know much about chocolate, but I knew enough to know that.  Some simple research revealed that while drinking chocolate was not unknown in the United States prior to the 19th century, chocolate did not become a confection until the 1830s in England; not until the 1850s did Americans taste bonbons, chocolate creams, and hard candies; and not until the invention of milk chocolate in 1875 could chocolate candy become widely affordable and thus consumable by the masses.   (My narrator, by the way, was hardly from the upper classes, who were almost the exclusive consumers of chocolate for several centuries.)

So I struck the reference to chocolate and began examing other of my word choices.   I wondered about kid (as in "boy"); I questioned stuff (as in junky items) and slug (as in "to hit").  If chocolate was an anachronism, surely these were too, right?  Well, interesting what I found out.  Hardly a newsprung word, kid is derived from Old Norse.  Its use as a slang term for "child" can be found as far back as the 1590s.  Okay, so kid could stay, but surely not so undignified a word as stuff, right? Ho ho, not so fast!  Turns out our contemporary stuff is derived from the old French verb estoffer ("to equip or stock") and by the 1570s was used to mean "matter of an unspecified kind."  So stuff could stay as well.  How about slug?  Three for three?  Slug sounded like such a good old Anglo-Saxon word that I expected only good news.  Yet here the research tripped me.  While using slug to refer to the animal was well in place by the early nineteeenth century--as well as its slang meaning as "strong drink"--the word was not used to refer to a physical blow until 1830.  So, sad to say, slug had to go.

This struggle with individual words makes up, for me, some of the most interesting moments of my writing life, and is certainly part of the exciting challenge of historical fiction.  But finally, no matter how important accuracy is, it can't only be about the research.  Finally what matters is what works for a story.  As I once heard in a fiction writing workshop after a class questioned the feasibility of certain events in a student's story and she responded by saying they actually happened, "the truth is no defense."  In fiction writing it's what seems truthful, seems possible, seems believable that matters.  Because the reader is not going to know or care about the real life events that happened to your best friend or your mother or your dead ex-husband.  The reader only knows the characters in your story.  Similarly, what seems to fit the characters and the story is the final gauge with which a fiction writer needs to measure his words.   But to have his decisions backed up by a little etymological research surely makes him feel better.  Believe me, I know.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, from someone who has been researching the history of "fondant," to determine if it would have existed in the 1930's/40's. Fortunately, the answer was, it's been around since the 1600's.