Monday, January 16, 2012

Etymologically Speaking

We in the word-slinging business know that the pitfalls of writing are many and various. Arguably, writing historical fiction has more pitfalls than the contemporary sort. It’s one thing to look around one and record what one sees and then put it down on paper (or on screen), and in a readable fashion, and quite another to metaphorically look around at things as they were fifty or a hundred years ago. The complexity of the challenge increases, I believe, the farther back one goes.

My Inspector Stride novels are set – thus far – in 1947. (The next one will be partly set in 1933.) For those who have been paying attention, that was two years after the end of the Second World War, and two years before the nominally independent country of Newfoundland voted to join up with Canada as that nation’s tenth province. Or, as it is usually written, the Tenth Province, the capital letters giving the territory of Newfoundland and Labrador a little added significance. For the arithmetically-challenged, that was 65 years ago. A long time, indeed, and much has changed, physically and linguistically. It makes for a sometimes tricky business, getting the language right. (To complicate matters, Newfoundland has a dialect all its own, even boasting a weighty tome known as the Dictionary of Newfoundland English.) The differences can be subtle, but nonetheless embarrassing for the author when a reader picks him up on an error. And that has happened often enough with me. Happily, though, more often in the editing phase than post-publication.

One of the downsides of this historical burden is that when one becomes even somewhat familiar with changes in the language, as well as changes in the physical surroundings, one becomes annoyed at mistakes other people make. On the other hand it can also be a kind of semi-sadistic fun, affording no end of Aha! moments while watching a film, a TV program (which I almost never do), or reading a book. As an example, about a year ago I started reading a mystery novel from a highly-rated Brit writer and found so many historical errors in the first chapter related to the time period (around World War Two) that I gave up in despair. I simply couldn’t go on. I can’t remember the writer’s name, but I know he’s way more successful than I will ever be. Just isn’t fair!

The trait is also, I have found, transferable. Just now, my partner and I are watching The Borgias, the very good series with Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander. The series opens in 1492, the same year that Columbus blundered into North America on his supposed journey to the Orient. In the first episode, Irons-Alexander makes reference to the number of Cardinals he might need for his election as Pope as being a ‘baker’s dozen’. Suzanne, who prior to her association with me would not have paid any attention to such things, wondered aloud if the term had been in use back then. As indeed it had not. Baker’s dozen, meaning one over the mark at thirteen, didn’t come into the English language until a hundred years later, in the 1590s. (And might never have been used at all in Italian.)

But, etymological errors aside, The Borgias is good entertainment value, although not for the squeamish. They were a murderous and bloody lot, those supposedly pious folk in Rome (and elsewhere in Italy), towards the end of the fifteenth century. Watch an episode or two, and you might start to think that the late Hitchens was bang-on about the toxic effects of religion after all. At the very least it was a highly competitive game the religious leaders of the era played in their scarlet robes, all the time mouthing pieties about God and the Catholic Church.

At a time like now, when I am trying to be inclusive and erudite about etymological and other errors in books and films, I find myself wishing I had kept careful notes of all the errors I have picked up on over the years. So I am thrown back on a faulty memory, but even at that a few come to mind. In the very good Paul Newman film, Hombre, from 1967, the sheriff of the small town worries aloud to his ladyfriend that his life could easily be cut short by some ‘punk’ with a gun looking to make a name for himself. The film is set in the waning years of the 19th century, when stagecoaches still crossed the landscape; the word ‘punk’, however, was not in use in that context until 1917. But then the novel, and the screenplay, for Hombre were penned by Elmore Leonard, whose temporal territory is much more modern than that of the Old West.

Would that I could be even fractionally as successful as Mr. Leonard, even with an embarrassing etymological error or two!

In 2006 I attended the Left Coast Crime gathering in Bristol, and enjoyed a session on historical fiction. One of the speakers, an historian of note, took huge (and rather devilish) pleasure in quoting a line from Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, from 1991. When Robin and his pal, played by Morgan Freeman, land on England’s southern shore, Costner-Robin intones that “Tonight we shall dine in Sherwood Forest.” Well, not bloody likely. Sherwood is more than 100 miles to the north, there were no roads to speak of, and the then heavily forested landscape was full of thieves and brigands. They might not have made it to Sherwood at all, not ever.

With all of this in mind, I have to be careful of what I describe and what I have my Inspector Stride say and do. He cannot come home after a hard day’s slogging on behalf of the Newfoundland Constabulary, pick up the phone and dial his girlfriend-of-the-moment’s telephone number. Newfoundland did not get a direct-dial telephone system until 1948. He would not, while driving around the city in his spiffy MG pay close attention to the traffic lights; there were none back then. And he certainly would not have flopped on his sofa (more commonly known as a ‘chesterfield’ back then) and turned on the TV. Televisions did not appear in Newfoundland until the mid-fifties.

But here a necessary caution. Sometimes supposed historical reality catches one out. Years ago, watching the old David Niven film Raffles, from 1939, on late-night TV – remember ‘The Late Show’ from all those long years ago? – I was astonished to see in one of the scenes a television set playing in the background. Of course I had to check it out; and discovered that the BBC – affectionately known as Auntie – had a limited TV service in the early 1930s. The coronation in 1937 of George VI was actually televised by the BBC. Yes, that’s George VI, the second Windsor son who was baptised Albert Frederick Arthur George, brother of Edward VIII who abdicated to marry his American commoner. You will remember George VI as the chappie in last year’s surprise film hit, The King’s Speech. For which role Colin Firth was awarded a well-deserved Oscar.

And in closing, for anyone who has concerns about words and phrases, here’s the internet link to the online etymology dictionary:


Happy hunting! And happier historical writing.


5 comments:

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H. L. Banks said...
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H. L. Banks said...

Wonderful post about the pitfalls to try and avoid when writing - thanks.

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