History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 April 2008

After the Deadline

How many times in writing process do you look up a word to see if it was in use in your period? What are the sources you use? Generally, I rely on Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. I use my OED when I have some spare research time, which is to say, not that often.

Here is the list of words I looked up in the last two months. Can you tell me which words were in use in 1815? The answers will be at the end of the post. Please do test us on your favorites.

chatelaine (as a fob)







breaking and entering







And bedeviled as I am with rampant insecurity I always wonder how many words there were that I did not even think to look up.

With my manuscript on my editor’s desk I am clearing my own desk of research material, preparing for the next project and playing with the idea of going to England to visit the Peak District. That last may be pure fantasy but as soon as I receive my next royalty check (this week!?) I am going to check into the possibility. Either I have the money and no time, or the time and no money. We’ll see which it is this year or if maybe the stars will align.

One of the wonderful books that I read while writing Lovers Kiss was Izaak Walton’s The Complete Angler. The 17th century voice is as much fun as the content. If you have not read it, I encourage you t0 do so. Even if you do not fly-fish. There is a reason this book has been in print for most of its 350 years.

Once again I made nodding reference to Rowlandson’s cartoons and Hogarth’s paintings which Michael finds in the vicar’s office. The vicar, a truly holy man, explains that he has led a very sheltered life and Hogarth and Rowlandson have been an essential part of his education. The cartoon shown above is a play on the English fascination with everything Egyptian. The cartoons that educated the vicar are too lascivious to use here.

The books I read on cooks and cookery made me realize how much the process of preparing food has changed in 200 years but how much the enjoyment of food has stayed the same. I spent quite a while trying to come up with recipes that readers could relate to and were also something that had a Regency feel. I decided on cinnamon buns and chicken soup. I even tried (and love) the recipes.

The post war political anxiety and the fist stirrings of industrial development were very much in my mind in this last project, but are only on the edges of the story. I think politics will be a more important element of the next book in the series. The head of the family, the Duke of Meryon, is the hero and it was a time when every responsible man was called on to take a stand, don’t you think?

These days between two projects is so much fun for me. Did you here the Oprah figure that 84% of Americans are unhappy with their jobs? For once I am delighted to be in the minority.

Here are the words and their dates of usage according to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate. Corrections welcome.

Chatelaine: 1845

restorative: 15th century

reconnaissance: 1810

self-control: 1711

mulish: 1751

mildew: 1552


breaking and entering: 1797

lollygag: 1868


parlor: 1552

obstreperous: 1600

momentum: 1610

hullabaloo: 1762

Reconnaissance surprised me and played right into my story. I did not use "breaking and entering" even though it qualified because it sounds too modern. I think the hullabaloo sounds much more Victorian than lollygag.

What are your favorite resources for checking on word usage? How about some words you would care to share?


Blogger Gabriele Campbell said...

I admit I never thought about that. I write about the Romans and the 12th century, and English as language wasn't around then. Makes it easier. *grin*

But I still try to avoid too moden words and phrases, like 'okay', 'he has issues', 'he's a nutcase' and such. It can work esp. in a Roman setting - David Wishart does it in his mysteries which are presented in a modern, even racy style that one can see as modern equivalent of the language of Augustean Rome. Latin had slang, dialects and an educated level (think Oxford English), after all.

In Mediaeval settings, I like to spice the text with a few old-fashioned words like 'glaive', 'inimical', 'forsooth', but it's tricky to use them in the right amount to add flavour without sounding contrived.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes, Gabriele, it does make it easier, all you need to do is make is make it sound what we think a Roman voice would sound like. All in the eye and ear of the reader. I think you can say the same for all historical writing, don't you?

6:27 AM  
Blogger Gabriele Campbell said...

I think it's a genre question as well. A Roman sleuth who likes parties and has an almost British sense of humour can get away with modern language. I would not feel comfortable writing the same language for the epic scope of my trilogy that has the 'grand conflicts' of the Aeneide. :) Simon Scarrow presents his version of Roman soldiers in a modern language as well, and while it works most of the time, the heavy use of the f-bomb keeps throwing me; it's just a too modern, too US movie word for me.

It looks a bit like a generation thing, too; Wishart and Scarrow are younger than fe. Rosemary Sutcliff, who restricts herself to a timeless language.

And since I see it partly as a genre problem, I have to admit a Regency heroine sounding like Sex and the City would totally pull me out of the story. Elegant language is part of that genre, imho.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Eliza Knight said...

Great post!

I find myself having to look up words a lot too, just to be sure. I use the dictionary a lot just to see when the word originated. When I'm looking for a more period word, I use a couple different online sources, Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1812, Georgette Heyer's Cant and Sland list & I also have the book, "What Jane Austen Knew and Charles Dickens Ate" which has some words in it.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

This is fascinating, Mary. I had no idea so many "modern" words and phrases have been in use for so long, in some cases several decades before I assumed they might have been coined.

I find myself looking up word origins/dates all the time, but I don't have an OED, which I have always found to be the most reliable source for word origins and first usage. I covet one, but they're so expensive and the abridged versions I've seen don't have the less common words and phrases -- which defeats the purpose when you're researching first usages for historical fiction, often by definition words that are no longer in our current vernacular.

Similar to Gabriele with her Roman-set books, when I was researching the Bronze Age for THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY, I had to come up with my own style, that felt lyrical but couldn't sound archaic or it would either confuse or deter readers.

When I write my Georgian and Regency set historical fiction, I tend to read a lot of plays and novels written during the period to get a strong sense of vocabulary, tone, and wit.

8:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a character throw something, and kept having the word "missile" run through my head. I would delete and get stuck trying to find a new word. When I went to my Thesaurus, lo and behold "missile" has been in use for a thrown object since 1610.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I actually discovered that the word chutzpah would have been a word that one of my characters in 1895 might have picked up, probably from working in one of the settlement houses that were started in the 1880's & 1890's. I'm writing late Gilded Age/Fin de Siecle right now, and I still find myself worrying that the words and phrases that I use might sound too modern.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm a constant and passionate OED user, thanks to the San Francisco Public Library, which makes this indispensable resource available online to cardholders (and all California residents are eligible for SFPL cards). Those of you in other states -- check out if any libraries you belong to have such services; if not public libraries, then university libraries, which often offer community memberships.

And I've been known to wreak havoc and consternation among my fellow regency writers by pointing out that "demi-monde" doesn't make its way into written English until 1855, when a writer for Fraser's Magazine refers to it in some work of Alexandre Dumas:

His [Dumas'] Demi-Monde is the link between good and bad society..the world of compromised women, a social limbo, the inmates of which..are perpetually struggling to emerge into the paradise of honest and respectable ladies.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Gabriele Campbell said...

Amanda, I had to check out the Helen of Troy snippet on your website.

My TBR pile would now be able to support the roof of the Pantheon. :-)

2:08 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Mary! (And the background to your book sounds so interesting). My mom and I got an OED for a reasonable price by joining a book club or something, years ago. I'm constantly pulling it out. I always have a list of words to look up before I turn a book in and then again at the copy edit stage, and again with the galleys. And I just reread my Charles & Mélanie books for the trade editions and found myself double-checking words yet again (every time I reread a book, I think of more words to check :-).

8:40 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I have lived lots of places and never had a library system yet that gave access to the OED -- I found my copy at a second hand bookstore for $75 complete with magnifying glass as it was one of the small print ones -- the catch was that it's pub date is 1971 but since I was interested in words way before that it suits me fine.

Don't you think that finding the right voice is a mix of what your writers voice is and how you translate that to the period you are writing in?

Amanda, when I used to have a long break between books I would listen to Jane Austen -- audio book format -- to get my brain to think that way again.

Sarah, I love that "missile" is such an old word -- momentum surprised me -- I was sure that was a much more contemporary.

So, what is the use of determining how a word was used in the Regency if the reader is not mentally able to translate it? This is one reason I do not rely on the OED that often. There are some words like condescension and sensibility that most readers connect with the early 19th century meaning rather than current usage.

Some readers have told me that it is confusing to use too many period words so I actually tend to avoid them, especially when I am writing a novella in an anthology where the other stories are contemporary...

9:28 PM  

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