Vocabulary Lesson

So there I was in the basement, doing my annual “how many years am I going to keep this book if I’m not going to re-read it” cull, and I came upon a couple of Regencies I had liked enough to keep for an embarrassing number of decades, and decided to re-read them.  They are fun, fast reads, a little predictable (beyond the necessary predictability of a Happily Ever After) in that the author seems to like heroes of a certain age, highly placed in the peerage, and upstart young women of good family.  But fun, and decently researched as to place and clothing.  The dialogue is full of Heyer-isms, but having drunk deep at that well myself, I can’t complain.

However: in the first of the two I read, somewhere in the first third of the book, the hero casually drops the word “libido.” Using it in way that distinctly evoked psychology.  Which almost made me drop the book.  

Libido: Psychoanalysis (fr. Latin libido: desire, lust) Psychic drive or energy, particularly that associated with the sexual instinct.

That’s the OED, which gives the first English language use in 1909.  But clearly the word libido would have been known to a man who had studied Latin, which a well-educated peer of the realm in 1812 is likely to have done. The problem is with modern reader: I see libido and I think Freud, and it drops me out of the story.  And that’s a problem for the writer.

I swear that I have seen a usage of the word dude dating from 1829, although the OED places it in 1883, with New York City as its point of origin.  An novelist working in the 1890s could use it, but would it be wise?  I mean, really: the word conjures up surfers, board shorts, Keanu Reeves.  So not what I want to imagine when thinking of Diamond Jim Brady or Lilly Langtry.  So nix the period-correct but unfortunately-evocative dude.

The English language is one of my favorite playgrounds; like many of my colleagues, I find it easy to get lost in the OED for an hour or three, just discovering new words.  The right word can set the stage, establish mood, character, all that stuff.  The wrong word–even if historically correct–can blow your scene out of the water.  Again, per the OED, O.K. can earliest be cited in 1839 (as a shortening of all correct or orl korrect–oh, orthography, how I love you!).  Charlotte Brontë could conceivably have used it–it was American slang, so it’s not likely, but they are contemporaneous.  But throwing an Okay into Jane Eyre–let alone into your Tudor-era novel–doesn’t fly, not even if you rationalize it as “well, it’s what they would have said, and aye sounds too quaint.”  That’s a slippery slope: a friend swears that she read a novel set in medieval England where the heroine spoke of actualizing her personhood, but I’m hoping she made that up.

Vocabulary is hard for the historical writer–and not only because you want the mot juste.  I want to use the vocabulary that was current in the period. I want to not use vocabulary that wasn’t in use.  And I want to avoid using period-correct language that means something different now than it did then.  Like contact.  Or nice.

The OED has a columns-long citation for nice:

  • in 1290 nice meant foolish or senseless, but it also meant lascivious, wanton, bawdy.  A “nyce minstral” was not a pleasant, kind musician, he was a ribald one.
  • by the 1500s nice meant fastidious, dainty, scrupulous.  A “nice sense of dress” meant you were fussy about your appearance.
  • in the 1700s nice was beginning to mean agreeable or capable of causing pleasure or delight–we’re getting closer to the modern sense of the word, but still not there yet.
  • by 1830 nice is kind and considerate; if you do something in the nicest possible way, you’re being thoughtful, not picky.

Jane Austen noted, in Northanger Abbey, the shift in meaning of nice (with a little bit of a jab at her pedantic hero, Henry Tilney);

“But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

“The nicest — by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word `nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! — It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise.”

What it comes down to, I suppose, is: When writing historical fiction you must be nice in your choice of words.  (Take that as you will.)


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