Historical Fudgery: Getting the Vocab Right

This is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. We write, much of it in our personal vernacular. We use certain words and phrases and usually don’t think about them twice.

But when we’re writing historical, it’s difficult to get everything right. NPR recently had a story in Fresh Aire, Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?

It’s an interesting problem that a lot of readers never consider. We writers try to get it right. I recall spending an inordinate amount of time trying to decide whether tarps would be called tarps in 1906 (They would not, it turns out. They were still called tarpaulins then….so that’s what I stuck in the text.)

Would someone have freaked out if I’d put ‘tarps’? Well, since I headed off that mistake at the pass, I won’t ever have to deal with it.

FWIW, there’s also one historical mistake that has been caught in the movie Lincoln so far, one that’s just a sign of laziness, since it should have been easy to find the information.

4 thoughts on “Historical Fudgery: Getting the Vocab Right

  1. I think there’s a balance. We write for people reading now. If a writer uses a word in a novel which the reader cannot comprehend through the context, then the reader is thrown out of the story, going ‘huh?’. Writing fiction is about communicating, not demonstrating historical knowledge. Sure, it’s worth knowing that the word ‘pee’ for urinating was not used until the nineteenth century (I think). They used the word piss, though. And I think not using the abbreviation ‘tarp’ was sensible. I get a bit more edgy when people use names like ‘Lance’ and ‘Rafe’ in ‘Regency’ novels, or get facts wrong.

  2. I surprised a friend recently by commoneting that Regency Romances require a greater level of accuracy than Regency Historical Romances. But readers who read Regencies not only have a higher expectation of accuracy, but also a higher level of familiarity with the period. Regency HIstoricals are all over the place though, and those readers aren’t nearly so picky….which is why the authors do things like name their characters Rafe and never look back. It’s all about what the audience expects…

  3. This is something I have struggled with as well. There are sources you can use like letters and such to get a vibe of what people were thinking, but there’s no way I am convinced that would be a good way to tell how they actually talked.

    Because I work in westerns right now I have a problem with this. I know Victorian language was stylized, but there’s no way I believe that’s how people actually talked on the frontier. Nor did they talk in a laconic Saturday Morning Cartoon Cliche way we have come to know.

    It’s a problem writers who are dedicated to detail have to explore. I was glad to see your post about this, because it got me to thinking about it again. 🙂

    1. I’m probably one of the few people who found the dialog in the recent remake of True Grit off-putting Although the speech patterns might have been more realistic, I just kept getting distracted by what sounded like ‘stilted’ speech to me.

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