by Sharon Lathan
I love words! I always have. Even during my decades as a reader, before the writing bug bit me, I delighted in discovering new words as I devoured the text. It was not uncommon for me to stop where I was, grab down the enormous dictionary that goes with my encyclopedia set, and look up the unfamiliar word. If I was really absorbed in the novel I may just jot it down on a scrap of paper for later investigation, but eventually I had to find out what the strange word meant. In school I was an excellent student, but honestly could care less about grammar. Whether a particle was dangling or a phrase was prepositional did not fascinate me all that much, but man I was a terrific speller! And vocabulary was a passion.
Enter the past few years as a writer. I did not pick to write in the bygone days of folks getting a superior education and using flowery prose on purpose, but it was an added bonus that I grabbed onto with glee. That Cambridge graduate Mr. Darcy and well-read Elizabeth Bennet would possess a vocabulary way better than even Tim Gunn was a given. And I love it! I very quickly learned that my limited knowledge of Regency Era phrases and nouns was inadequate for the job. So, after retrieving my old, ratty crossword puzzle dictionary and dashing out to Barnes and Noble to buy a thesaurus, I then began scouring the internet for research facts to help me ‘get it right.’ Along the way I discovered a couple interesting realities.
First, the internet is replete with reference material and historical information. Yeah, you all probably knew that AGES ago! But I was never much of a web-surfing junkie. Other than taking an active part in one Lord of the Rings discussion board and occasionally buying something off Amazon, the internet was not my friend. I barely knew what Google and Yahoo were! I rapidly learned that there are veritable seas of dictionaries and thesauruses out there that put my bound copy to shame…and are way easier to utilize. Now I have over a dozen bookmarked links to the OED, word etymology, grammar and punctuation, etc. My links to historical websites is probably ten times longer. I frequently get so lost while rifling through the thesaurus or endless Google searches that I forget what I was looking for in the first place! Of course, along the way I have many times stumbled across a mega-cool word that I just have to use, or have learned about some past activity that I just have to write in. Whole chapters have evolved based on something I accidentally discovered while looking for something else. So, questions #1 and 2 are: What great reference websites have you discovered? How often has your research led you down a path you never dreamed of previously?
The second discovery I made was that writing in a long ago, English era presented unique obstacles that this 21st century American had not foreseen. Yes, I could flagrantly go crazy with my vocabulary since my characters would not have looked stupid for using the word ‘flagrant.’ I could toss in fancy words with numerous syllables without blinking. Let my readers run for the dictionary! It is good for them to be better educated, I reason, so I am actually performing a public service! But, I also had to learn a wealth of words that just do not roll off the modern day tongue too easy. Cravat, barouche, valet, flintlock, quadrille, nankeen, just to name a very few. Luckily I adore history even more than I love vocabulary, so it has never been painful. However, the challenge is terrific. If I call something by a wrong name, believe me, some Austen/Regency expert will point it out in the most scathing way! On top of that, I have to be veeerrryyy careful about word etymology. I simply cannot, under any circumstances, have Mr. Darcy utter a word that did not exist 200 years ago! Talk about a challenge of epic proportions!
Now, to be truthful, I believe the average reader would have no idea about most words and their etymology. Unless it is grossly modern (and those are usually easy to avoid) most readers are probably not savvy and/or do not care. Some folks will, of course, but my personal opinion is that if they get freaked out over a word used in Darcy-Standard-Time zone that did not first appear until ten or fifteen years later, they are probably missing the point of the story and would have hated it anyway! But that is just my opinion and to appease the various editors, I have changed many words along the editing process. Did you know that ‘surreal’ did not exist until 1935?! Yet, ‘psychology’ dates from the 1650s. Weird. Word etymology is fascinating, at least to nerdy me, but it is a trap that one can fall into and never escape from. Searching down each and every word simple cannot be done or I would never get anything written, so a certain amount of latitude and liberties must be allowed, IMHO. So, last questions: How has word definition, etymology, or era-specific verbiage hindered you? Or set you free? Have you avoided writing in past eras just for this reason? Or do you just say ‘What the hell’ and throw them in there anyway?