Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tech Top -- Words, words, words ... #2

Harking back to word usage in Spymaster's Lady -- I'm looking at some more of the comments on word usage.

p. 99 "fixed her wagon..."
okay, couldn't find in OED, found one on-line reference linking it to the mid 19th-Century westward movement in the US.
I love the phrase, and its implications, but it sounds contemporary; "settled her hash" 1803, is British and means the exact same thing.

I'm inclined to agree this is 20C.
Googlebooks doesn't show it before the 1940s, 1950s.

Modern. American.

I was just plain wrong, wrong, wrong.


p. 143 "mufti"--1816--did you find an earlier source; but it sounds rather Raj-ish to me, but as excellent, succinct description

I didn't find mufti, in this meaning, any earlier than you did.

Now I'm going to explain/excuse my use of mufti on three grounds.

The first is that sometimes we run into words -- cosh is another one -- for which there is no good, simple substitute.

A conscientious writer wouldn't use them out of their era.
I cave. I use them. I am so bad.

Second ... the OED date is the earliest authenticated public written record.
I'm betting ... especially with this kind of soldiers' slang ... that the words were current in the spoken language for a good long time before they got into books and the press.

I feel ok using slang a decade before the OED date.

And last ... my folks had lots of contact with India and the men who served there. They'd be some of the earliest English speakers to pick up this word.

p. 184, and elsewhere "sweater" I think is later, and had, esp. earlier on, sports implications (1882).
A knit top worn for general purposes, and esp. by fisherman, would simply be a "jersey."
The date on this is also a little late, 1836, but the OED spec. mentions fishermen, which seems to make it more legit.

Well heck.
I just know a lot of readers would have had trouble with 'jersey'.

I didn't know 'sweater' was so late.
And now that I know, I wish I didn't.

Lots of knowledge is like that.

pp 239 & 245 "bathrobe" orig. US, 1902; I always recommend using "dressing gown" which is the same thing, but much older and more British.

I was using bathrobe because I couldn't think of a clearer term.
I knew it might be wrong. I should have thought more on this.

The problem with 'dressing gown' is that Americans --
the ones who aren't flopping around out at sea over the whole thing
-- are likely going to think 'peignoir' when they hear 'dressing gown' instead of picturing a garment that can be made of flannel or lined cotton, and is as suitable to a male as a female.

So I feel like I can use 'dressing gown' for the heroine, but not our hero. Because the connotations are all wrong. Same for 'wrapper'.

What I should have maybe used was banyan. I'll do that next time.

So ... looking at my four bads here.

'Fixed his wagon'
was a downright mistake.

'Mufti' squeaks in under my own personal wire as authentic in context.

Total blindside on that one. Because of the way I used it ... I would probably make the conscious choice to use the anachronistic word.

'Bathrobe' I would rework just the smallest amount and replace with banyan.


  1. Anonymous1:50 PM

    Okay, since you're on this subject...

    The one phrase in TSL that I can remember doing a double-take at was "old school." (Doyle describes someone - can't remember the name; the offscreen French bigwig who thought women spies should only be working in brothels - with that term.) Was it actually in use back then? For me it has a very modern feel. But I'm often wrong about these things.

    And I wonder, too: do you approach this issue differently when writing dialogue that's a translation from French? I mean, presumably "old school" would be a translation of some equivalent French vernacular (they would have been speaking French in that scene, right?) as opposed to the exact literal words that came out of his mouth. So is it less important, in that situation, to make sure everything they say is abolutely early-1800s authentic?

    The writing process fascinates me, in case you can't tell.

  2. Hi Anon --

    I don't always know about these phrases. Sometimes I just get blindsided.

    I had to go look up 'old school' to check. Fortunately (whew) it is era appropriate. The phrase occurs in this usage well before 1800.

    When I'm doing dialog, I try to apply the same standards to that as I do to narrative in general.

    But the language also has to be tailored to the character.

    I wouldn't have Annique say, 'old school', necessarily, if I decided it sounded too 'British'. I want to translate her French into terms that don't have strong British connotations.

    When Grey's speaking French, I might translate him as saying that. Because it's ok if he sounds British.

    I have the feeling this is all not an exact science.

  3. Anonymous10:22 AM

    Hmmm. I'll have to think about this, but all and all, I do feel you did a great job. After all, you have modern readers, and that's important to remember. The French cadence, I hope I spelled that right, I had no tea this morning, well, it was perfect to me, just enough.

    Technically, a few modern words won't hurt. It's the overall look and feel and sound.

    Like when a play director looks at the final version of a play, he sits at the back and looks at the overall effect and not the details.

  4. Hi Janie Harrison --


    Exactly. At the end of the day, you just do the best you can.
    We make unsatisfactory choices, because sometimes that's all we have.

    Consider Annique's voice. There are folks who'll be totally turned off by the whole 'French' thingum. They find it wearisome or confusing or just inaccurate or they don't want to hear that kind of voice inside the character's head -- they want it only in dialog.

    This is cool.

    When I decided to do Annique this way, I knew there'd be lots of folks who wouldn't like it. There was a good chance nobody would like it.

    I did it anyhow.

    All the work I put in, it'd be flat and disappointing if I didn't manage to annoy SOMEBODY.

    Maggie -- the woman I'm writing just now -- speaks fluent English. No reason at all to put a French accent inside her head. Her internal 'voice' is very different from Annique's.

    I have more specific word choices, (and downright mistakes,) to look at later.

    Hope this is all useful to somebody.

  5. I think you did great. Most readers aren't going to notice or even know that something was out of place for the era. (Though I'd have been fine with 'jersey.' Not that I noticed anything wrong with 'sweater.')

    Where did those comments come from?

  6. Hi Beth --

    These are from an expert in historical language, who works with authors' final drafts, picking out just exactly this kind of mistake.

    I feel badly, knowing that sometimes I'll deliberately use a word that I know is out-or-era. But I'll do it if I think it improves the clarity of the writing.

    This is probably some of that 'situational ethics' I keep trying to puzzle out.

    I feel less badly, actually, about simple honest mistakes. Except that botanical one in Lord and Spymaster.
    That one's going to haunt me for a while.