Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Technical Topics -- Words, Words, Words in MLAS

Here are some fine and careful points of word usage from My Lord and Spymaster, brought to you by the excellent Franzeca Drouin.

Franzeca, who knows everything about words, pretty much, and helps authors out when they're using them kinda careless like, lives at her website here.
And a very interesting website it is.

Drop by and look through her 'sources' if you're doing research anywhere in the period.


We open on Page 2 with the perplexing matter of finicky.

The passage is: Pretty soon there'd be nobody in the street but her and that cat picking his way, finicky, across the cobbles. He had errands to run, that cat. You could tell by looking at him.

Franzeca points out that OED dates 'finicky' to 1825, with a note that it's mostly US. Googlebooks lets us find 'finicky' in print as early as 1819.

This is, unfortunately, seven years after the date of MLAS.

What folks would have said in C18 was 'finicking'. Fielding, for instance, says, "I have none of the cant of your fine finicking London chaps."

C19 saw the introduction of 'finicky' as an alternative. This robust variant eventually replaced 'fincking',
for which I am sure we are all grateful.
By the last half of C19, 'finicky' and 'finicking' are about equally common.

I looked at the two possibilities and dithered a second or two and chose finicky.

I'm accepting this word into my period vocabulary under my 'One Decade Rule'

What I figure is, slang and idiomatic usage didn't go just galloping into print in early C19. Respectable people disapproved of informal usage.
I'm allowing the lapse of a decade between idiom on the streets and appearance in print. Longer than that if the idiom is vulgar.

Americanisms aren't at all unlikely for my heroine. Jess dealt with Yankee merchants all the time.

As a sidebar --- Why 'finicky'?
'Finicking' sounds ye-olde-C18 to my modern ears. Sounds niffy-naffy. It's not the way my Jess would talk. I want the blunter 'finicky' to build her voice.

When I picked 'finicky' I knew I was dealing with a fairly new C19 word, but I admit I hadn't realized 1812 was cutting it quite so close.

Moving on to Page 6 of MLAS, we get 'caper'.

The passage is: Back when she engaging in criminal acts with some regularity she'd have called this a right pig of a caper.

'Caper', meaning a dodge or scam, dates in writing to 1839.

I comment on this here.

You saw the 'One Decade Rule' above?

I'd argue that thieves cant entered the written record long after the date it was actually used. In early C19 we have only a couple few 'dictionaries' that preserved a mere scant few hundred words of what must have been a wide and rich vocabulary. Almost certainly, any bit of the argot that made it into these dictionaries was old, old, old in the slums.
This is my 'Trash Talk Rule'.

I'm going to stake out the ground for yet another quibbling excuse. The 'Perfect Word' excuse.

Some technical jargon is just so simple and exact and irreplaceable and there is NO period equivalent so I take an aspirin and grit my teeth and use it.

Coming to page 6. Standby.

The passage is: She'd tried bribes, threats, blackmail--all the old standbys.

As Franzeca says, 'standby' depends on exact usage of standby; someone available to render assistance, 1801; a support or resource, 1861.

Ok. I was wrong. Wrong. Wrong!

Because I am using it in the 'support or resource' sense.

I suppose . . . this might be an independent early metaphoric usage.
Can I say that? Huh? Huh? Independent invention of the metaphor?

Now we come to a real zinger.

Page 20. 'black out'

The passage is: "Don't be stupid. Hurts everywhere." She decided to black out for a while. Her eyes slid shut and she went limp.

Franzeca dates 'black out' in the sense of 'to temporarily lose consciousness,' to 1940.


I should have known this. And it doesn't even sound period. It sounds C20.

I was just wrong.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
Mea culpa.

Page 40. 'unconscious'

The passage is: Damn. Was he really thinking that way about an unconscious woman?

Franzeca points out that 'unconscious' is old as meaning unaware. As a medical term indicating loss of consciousness, it dates only to 1860.

I didn't know.

Having bloopered this way, I would do this again. In fact, I probably will. My characters will continue to fall 'unconscious' right and left in future manuscripts, rather than faint or swoon or something.

I'm pulling out the 'Perfect Word' rule on this one.

This is another of those technical jargon words that are exact and clear and simple and don't have a robust period equivalent.

A really careful writer wouldn't use 'unconscious'. I'm going to be less careful and accurate. I assume the karmic burden of this.

Franzeca says ... "Page 42: and elsewhere 'Cockney' you capitalize, which seems correct to me, as a noun and adjective of ethnic origin. Mostly not capitalized in OED, and it doesn’t look right. Harrumph."

Well, I feel good about capitalizing.

Presumably a word that starts out as a proper name eventually gets tired of maintaining a capital letter and just sinks into small letters in exhaustion.

We will not encourage this slackness. One must have some standards.

Page 58: Borneo in OED, 1876; first treaty involving the island of Borneo and Britain, 1824. Because of political and administrative districts on Borneo, might not be referred to as island title, but political titles. Jess’s knowledge of shipping would make her more aware of this arcane information."

I love obscure and arcane. Certainly Jess would know the name of every island in the Pacific that exported anything and all its political nitpickery.

I figger, here, she just meant the island itself and that's what it was called.

For 'Borneo' as an exotic tropical island destination, see the map of 1683 here.

And Page 77, Do you mean 'strolled' or 'trolled'?

The passage is: If the Captain was Cinq, he probably strolled through Quentin's papers with great regularity. A man as careless as Quentin was just an incitement to treason.

My Jess is being metaphoric. Well, she'd be metaphoric in both cases, but in this case she's being metaphoric with 'strolled'.

And finally, we come to page 96.
'charcoal' as a color, "charcoal grey", 1952.

The passsage is: What does one wear to ransack a warehouse? Black, I think, and the charcoal waistcoat. Tasteful, yet understated."

Phooey. I'm going to decree that Adrian's not using 'charcoal' as a color in the sense of 'green', 'blue' or 'red'. He's being metaphoric, the way he might talk about the 'snuff' driving coat or the 'coffee-and-cream' jacket or the 'claret' waistcoat.

He's making a direct trip from the colored object to the metaphoric destination without a single brief stop in the artists' pallet.


  1. There's a difference between official color names and fashionable, wearable colors. "Charcoal" as a wearable color was used at least by the end of the 19th century as I work with digitizing old newspapers from the 1870s-90s and a majority of the articles describe what the fashionable ladies and gents at the parties were all wearing. Not everything was "sable". The more ingenious the color word the better. *amused* Granted, I did particular research in a different time period as your novel, but my point is that it was before 1952. I vote you're fine.

  2. Gee, I'm glad I don't write historical romance.

    As to the use of "unconscious," would "swooned woman" or "fainted woman" work? Sounds a little more archaic to my ears.

  3. I find 'swooned' to be wholly archaic, and I don't do archaic except with great judicious purposefulness. 'Fainted' just sounds sissy.

    On the whole, I think my people would 'keel over' or 'roll their eyes up in their heads and drop like stones' instead of fainting.

    The whole business of wanting to use straightforward, sturdy prose and still stay in period makes me cross-eyed.

  4. Well, you do a terrific job. I do have to wonder about folks who have nothing better to do than look at the words with a microscope and keep a ruler handy to whap the author's knuckles with. After all, there's a _story_ between those covers, too.

  5. @Beth --

    I do love words. You and I, we're in the word business, after all.

    I mean, carpenters are probably enthralled with wood grain and stains and glue. A technical discussion of why 'George the Cabinetmaker' chooses Elmer's Wood Glue over Titebond is going to be tedious for those who do not obsess about joints.

    I was reading a website the other day . . . the other day being yesterday, I guess . . . where they talked about what a writer should not do in her purile and never-ending quest for publicity.

    One poster advised against talking about the minutia of writing,
    since the readers of the books didn't necessarily want to be part of the process.

    Readers -- the poster opined -- want the cookies as they come out of the oven. They do not want the eggs being broken and smushed into the batter, as it were, that being one of those yuckky moments of realism we all tend to skim over.

    Hmmmm ... I hmmms to myself.

    I have decided I will go ahead talking about writing on the blog because anyone who reads through it will be fairly warned that it is mostly about writing.

    The 'joannabourne.com' website, OTOH is what one might think of as 'reader-safe' in that it is only about the books and a little about dogs and cats and colorful shots of the garden and the lake and other restful topics. It does not confront some innocent brain surgeon reader or mafia hitwoman reader or Master Gunner reader with me agonizing over 'standby' in a prolonged and, dare we say, frankly boring manner.

  6. Jo, you are _never_ boring.

  7. @ une americaine --

    I have niggled my way out from under the 'charcoal' word problem.

    Fashion description . . . oh my. The words they used!
    I think I'd like to use edible words in these contexts. There something sensual about colors for women's clothes.

  8. I must admit, Cockney with a capital letter looks all wrong to me. Like you think it's some official designation rather than just a street term. The others, I might have made some different choices from you, but I could live with them.

  9. Hi ros --

    These Cockney/cockney decisions are not so much 'right' or 'wrong' as
    'What the copy editor says to do,'
    'What the Chicago Manual of Style says to do,'
    those two being pretty much identical.

    How CMoS decides these matters is something I worry about in the small hours of the night. I suspect it involves the sacrifice of baked goods at the full moon.