I love my Compact* Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, it weighs a young ton, and requires a magnifying glass to read, but it’s a gorgeous reference, and one of my favorite world-building tools. Especially when there’s a word I want to use and am not sure it works in period. You don’t want your 13th century German serf saying “okay,” or your 19th century English maiden talking about “actualizing her personhood.”** Because that’s wrong, and it will yank the smart reader right out of the story.
But what about when the word is right but no one will believe it? My favorite example of this is the word “dude.” If you don’t immediately think of Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, you doubtless hear Keanu Reeves saying “duuuude.” And yet.
See the chap on the left? That’s Evander Wall, a New York City social lion in 1880s, who was known in the papers as The King of the Dudes. The word “dude” dates at least from the mid 1800s (and may be related further back to the medieval word “dudde,” for clothes, as in duds). While “dude” was often used to indicate a city-guy who is out of his element anywhere except in the city (thus “dude ranch”), it was also used (per Wikipedia) as a job description.
So: Dude is a perfectly legal mid-1800s word. But if I set a story in a Victorian-era steampunk setting and have a character refer to another as a “dude,” most readers will be snatched up by the nape of the neck and pulled right out of my narrative because it carries a weight and an image that doesn’t fit.
A similar case: I was reading a book set in 1815 in which the hero uses the word “libido.” Perfectly fine Latin word that the speaker, a university-educated gentleman, would have known. Except that “libido”, as a word, has Freud’s fingerprints all over it. I was startled out of the story and had to take some time to talk myself back into it.
English is a fabulous language, but it’s not a set-in-stone one. It shifts. Jane Austen gives her hero and heroine a little run-in in Northanger Abbey about the word “nice.”
“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.”
I am happy to say that Henry’s sister more or less mashes him flat for teasing poor Catherine about her word use. But it does point out that a word that used to mean one thing might later come to mean something else, and if you’re writing in a past setting, you want to know when that change happened. “Relationship,” in the sense of “Louise and Jim are in a relationship,” is relatively new in the language–Miss Austen, in fact, would not likely have recognized its use that way. The word was meant to express a familial link, or the way in which two things or people behave toward each other.
Words aren’t just the tools that lay out a narrative in a nice linear (or non-linear) fashion. They can be brilliant world-building tools. Language can set up the formality of a society, the caste relationships, the manners and beliefs of a people, as well as the beliefs or personalities of characters. If you’re writing in a period, or near-period setting, spending a little time on your words can set the scene–and save your readers from the disorientation that comes with the insertion of Keanu Reeves into the narrative.
*compact here means 18″ x 11″ x 3.6″ and 15 pounds. You could kill someone with the thing.
**honest to God. I saw this once. My head has not returned from the exploding place.