Old words or new?

In historical fiction, the language a writer uses can immediately propel the reader into the past by means of rhythm, sentence structure and word choice. This can be done by trying to come close to the language used in surviving records and contemporary literature or to by taking a more modern approach. Though, even when an author tries to recreate the cadences of earlier times, it is impossible to write a story that sounds fluent to the modern ear without drawing on the words that have enriched our language in the intervening centuries.

The historical novelist, Josephine Tey, in her afterword to The Privateer (a novel about Henry Morgan the privateer, later Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica) wrote,
‘It is, further, advisable when writing fiction about a period now “historic” that no distortion should take place owing to the use of “period” dialogue. If the characters in the story did not sound quaint to each other, then they have no right to sound quaint to us. What a young man may actually have said to his patron may be: “I am vastly gratified by your condescension, sir, and very sensible of my obligation to you,” but that is not how the words sounded to his benefactor. What his benefactor understood him to say was: “Thank you very much, sir. That is very kind of you.” (1977 edn, c.1952. p. 254)

I agree wholeheartedly with this approach but the process is like walking a tightrope, trying to write in a plain prose where the words are an unobtrusive vehicle for the story and still manage to echo the past. This means being careful not to use words that are thoroughly modern or overly archaic. With more formal English, I generally allow a twenty-year leeway, so a word which the Oxford English Dictionary says was first used in print in 1895, would be acceptable in a story set in 1880 as it takes time for words to move from merely spoken to printed. With colloquial words and phrases, I suspect it may take much longer for them to appear in written form.

Most readers do not question when a word was coined but some most certainly do and a couple of words used too early can be enough for them to rate books harshly, to accuse the author of anachronism or to throw the book at the wall. I would hope, though, that before they do this they would consult a comprehensive historical dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary for there are many words and phrases that are modern sounding but have been around for centuries.

I have collected a few together here that I checked while in the final stages of my most recent novel, Cold Blows the Wind, set in Tasmania between 1878 and 1885. I suspected they might have been 20th century in origin but found that most were far older than I thought.

ASK AROUND as in to enquire widely about a thing.
1843 – Bentley’s Miscellany (13 492/2) ‘She’d ask around, Until she found Who took it out.’

BEEN WITH as in to have had sexual intercourse with (a person).
1856 – The Annual Register (1855 ii. Chron. 53/2) ‘Tom Ackley is the cause of all this; he said she had been with another man.’

DO TIME was originally criminals’ slang for spending time in prison for an offence.
1865 – Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper 26 Feb. ‘I had nothing to do with the shawl robbery…nor Johnson’s—I was doing time (meaning, I was in prison).’

DROP as in to let fall (words, a hint, etc.) or to utter casually or by the way.
1611 – Bible (King James) Amos vii. 16. ‘Prophecie not against Israel, and drop not thy word against the house of Isaac.
1888 – J. W. Burgon Lives of Twelve Good Men (II. x. 268) ‘Quoting short Latin sayings, without dropping a hint as to their authorship.’

FLUSH as in plentifully supplied (esp. with money).
1603 – Batchelars Banquet (viii. sig. G) ‘Some dames are more flush in crownes then her good man.’

HANG BACK to show unwillingness to advance or come forward.
1581 – G. Pettie translation of S. Guazzo Ciuile Conuersat. (ii. 110) ‘So if hee hang backe, hee shall bee halled forward with honour.’

KID as in a child and was in use by the 17th century and in common use by the 19th.
i841 – Lord. Shaftesbury Diary 16 Aug. (in Life (1886) I. ix. 347) ‘Passed a few days happily with my wife and kids.’

LIFT as in help given to a foot passenger by allowing him/her to travel some distance in a vehicle
1712 – J. Swift Journal. to Stella 17 June (II. 538) ‘I generally get a lift in a Coach to town.’

LOOK OUT FOR as in to show care or concern for somebody or to act in their interest.
1752 – Howell ap david Price A Genuine Account of the Life and Transactions of H. ap D. Price (iii. 31) ‘She requested me rather to look out for our mutual Security.’

MIXED FEELINGS as in made up of good and bad, or positive and negative elements; equivocal.
1801 – C. B. Brockden Clara Howard (194) ‘I had not time to subdue those trembling and mixed feelings which the sight of her produced.’
1816 – J. Austen Emma (II. viii. 163) ‘With mixed feelings, she seated herself at a little distance from the numbers round the instrument, to listen.’

SCAN To look at searchingly, examine with the eyes.
Appeared in print first in the late 1790s.
1841 – C. Dickens Barnaby Rudge ii. 245 ‘“Humph!” he said when he had scanned his features; “I don’t know you.”’

SCRUMMY meaning Excellent, marvellous, enjoyable, delicious.
1844 – J. Overs Evenings of Working Man (187) ‘Don’t he toe an’ heel it scrummy!’

SPRUCE frequently with up as in to make a place, a person’s clothing or appearance, etc. neat, or attractive; to improve the appearance of; to smarten up.
1594 – T. Nashe Terrors of Night, or a Discourse of Apparitions (To Reader.) ‘You shal haue them..spend a whole twelue month in spunging & sprucing them.’

TAKE IT EASY, as in to make oneself comfortable or to do no more than one must.
1867 – W. H. Smyth & E. Belcher Sailor’s Word-book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautifal terms. ‘Taking it easy. Neglecting the duty.’

UP meaning appearing before a judge, magistrate, etc. has been used in some form from the 15th century.
1749 – H. Fielding Tom Jones (III. viii. xi. 251) ‘So the Fellow was had up, and Frank was had up for a Witness.’

WHAT’S UP? as in asking what is taking place or going on.
First appeared in print in 1838.
1851 – H. Mayhew London Labour and the London Poor (I. 19/1) ‘A shout in answer from the other asks “What’s up?”’

5 thoughts on “Old words or new?

    • Thank you, Barbara. I find words endlessly fascinating. My father used to say, ‘If you haven’t got anything else to read, read the dictionary’. I often get sidetracked when looking things up on the OED online.
      The comments are moderated so there is a delay usually before I approve them, especially if I’m caught up with something else. I get so much spam each day from the plain annoying to the unpleasant.


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