Blast from the Past: On Writing Historical Fiction: Slang

A text-only version of this article appeared in my GoodReads blog on February 26, 2013.  Given some linguistic anachronisms I found in a book I’m reading right now, I thought this would be a good time to share it.  Enjoy!

Hi, everyone. I thought I would talk today about the importance of language in fiction; specifically, I want to address slang.

ok-477504_640In two novels, read back-to-back, I found the 19th Century term “Okay” used. Why is this a problem, you ask? Well, one of them took place in 12th C. England and the other in 18th C. Colonial America. While there is a school of thought that the word is African and came from slaves (specifically from the Mandinka tribe), there is not much documentation and it really hasn’t been accepted by linguists as accurate.

Suffice it to say, I’m developing a pet peeve about seeing this word creep into books taking place across time and cultures.

Using the right words in the right place helps keep readers in your story — and using the wrong words does exactly the opposite.

Now, I’m not saying you should write your entire novel in iambic pentameter or something. Far from it. However, using proper dialect matters. In each case, the author could have used “all right” instead of “okay” and it would have been acceptable. Depending on the usage, so would “certainly,” “yes,” or “very well.” It’s not as though there are no other words.

Here’s another example: “crazy” or “nuts” for people who are mentally ill. How about “mad”? Or, if it’s the Regency period, perhaps the very colorful “attics to let”? Unless, of course, your story takes place after 1890 or so in America; “nuts” is in use by then.

There are better, less modern synonyms that can be employed to keep the reader in the story and still get your meaning across.

school-1063556_640Now, by the same token, some words that we think of as obscene slang nowadays were actually part of normal vocabulary at one point. So, for example, if your story takes place in an Anglo-Saxon community prior to the Norman conquest, I would fully expect to see a lot of the proverbial Seven Dirty Words. It was only after the Normans came along and declared themselves the arbiters of culture (including language, with their own words being considered superior) that these words became regarded as obscene.

Here’s the thing: readers of historical fiction are also avid readers of non-fiction about the eras they enjoy. They’ll know when you’ve put words in a character’s mouth that don’t belong in that time and period.

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