Getting the Words Right, part 1

When writing a period piece, whether that period is past or present, getting your terminology right is essential to maintaining the illusion. It’s also one of the easiest things to miss on a revision. Lest you think the following rant is thoroughgoing self-righteousness, let me preemptively explain that it’s not. It’s actually hypocrisy. You see, in the story I recently sold to Steampod, for example, the alternate history it takes place in had a different name for the appliance we call a “freezer,” and yet there was an instance where I unconsciously reverted to my native tongue, as it were.

Often, fantasy and historical fiction falls prey to this far too easily, because we don’t often question where certain expressions in our language come from. For example, you wouldn’t want to describe a complete package as “Lock, Stock, and Barrel” if the story you’re writing takes place before the seventeenth century when the musket became widespread in Europe. The reason? “Lock, stock, and barrel” are the three major components of a musket, and all three together means that you have everything you need to assemble one.

This kind of thing can shatter the illusion that you work hard to create, as it did for me in Peter Jackson’s “The Two Towers” during the sloppiest moment in the film. At the battle of Helm’s Deep, Aragorn commands a brigade of elf archers to “fire” on the enemy. I can’t emphasize this enough: nobody in the history of the world has ever fired an arrow. The notion of “fire” being synonymous with “activate” was nonsensical before the invention of the first ever fire-powered weapon, the cannon in the 13th century in China (not introduced into Europe until much later). Even so, archers were not commanded to “fire” until many generations after bows, arrows, ballistas, catapults, and crossbows ceased to be used in military combat. When commanding archers, the term is “loose” or, less frequently, “release,” “arrow,” or “trip” – NOT “fire.”

To further the historical literacy among fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction writers, I recommend bookmarking the phrase finder and using it frequently when writing and proofreading. A good etymological dictionary and slang dictionary wouldn’t hurt either.

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3 Comments

  1. Something I find myself constantly challenged on is where in works of fiction I should insist on something more consistent with what (little) I know to be technically accurate and when to just accept what is offered at face value; where do I put my foot down and where do I concede?

    In my limited observation, language is tricky. It’s changed so much over time, that if a work that took place long enough ago had entirely accurate language, it may risk alienating an audience that doesn’t think in those terms or is even familiar with the vocabulary.

    I don’t think the error, if any, was not in using a modern word, it was not using the word you had established to reference that concept.

    I’m rambling again, time for me to shut up. 🙂

  2. Good point there, and certainly something that I’m highly sensitive to when reading other people’s writing, but less so with my own…

    If I may be pedantic however, and also slightly geeky…perhaps even redeem The Two Towers a little for you – the elvish spoken in the movie is actually more closely translated as “hurl the arrows”, so the actual spoken language was correct; unfortunately whoever put the subtitles up was not.

    Really enjoying randomized selections of your posts however, thank you!

  3. Oooh – thanks. I don’t speak Sindarin, so I didn’t realize that. Thanks 🙂

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