My last load of library books included some really terrible ones. I'm not going to write about the sequel to this historical murder mystery
because I have only gotten three chapters in, and I cannot read it rationally. At all. All I can think is: "WHAT GOOD DOES IT DO TO MAKE TACITUS A WILD-EYED EMPEROR-HATING IRRATIONAL INDIVIDUAL? ALSO: HAVE YOU READ ANY OF THE WORKS OF THESE PEOPLE AT ALL RECENTLY? YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!" (also: Tacitus unable to read critically? Tacitus
But I digress, because what I wanted to post was that I just finished Sarah McLean's The Season
(ya, romance, regency), and it was terrible in an entirely different way. Or maybe in not such an entirely different way. I am not particularly a reader of romance, so I probably have an inherent bias against this kind of novel. Nevertheless. The characters were boring, the romance was contrived (by which I mean that it was contrived that they didn't just get together on page 1), and the "mystery" was not mysterious at all. So much not so that I don't feel any spoilery compunctions about complaining about the cliché of the Evil Uncle Who is Jealous That His Older Brother Got the Dukedom. Wouldn't it be nice if the younger brother were bitter and jealous and cranky but, in a twist, not evil and murderous? Or, if he were evil and murderous, but not because he was (*wah*) not loved as much as his brother?
And yet, that isn't even what I wanted to write about, because I ended up reading with my OED in hand, so to speak.
My first foray into worrying about words was while reading a series of mysteries set during the Wars of the Roses. One character described another as a "Puritan," and I thought, "Wait a minute. Does that even work?"(It doesn't.)
The line is hard to draw. In most historical fiction set more than a few hundred years back in an English-speaking place, there is an assumption that the characters are not really speaking the words that I am reading (or at least I read with that implicit understanding, and I hope the authors wrote with it!). In most fantasy, you assume that the characters are *actually* speaking some entirely different language; much futuristic sci-fi dialogue has to be *really* in, at the very least, some futuristic dialect of my language (and, obviously, they aren't really speaking English in Star Wars
So in one way, picking at anachronisms is crazy -- there may be an occasional historical novelist who can pull off "authentic" speech, but would a novel in the various dialects of 13th century England be readable by most people? A Lindsay Davis mystery in the painstakingly-reconstructed Hellenic-inflected vulgar Latin of the 1st century? So I try not to worry about it, just as I try not to get too antsy when one character in a heroic fantasy describes another as "Stoic" (really? Can you have Stoics without Seneca? Without Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus?)
But on the other hand, words do matter and do provide context. To a certain extent -- no, to a large extent what we read in dialogue is what we imagine the characters are saying. And so the intersection between our sense of words and their histories and their usage in a supposedly "historical" or "fantasy" novel does matter. I did an OH NO YOU DIDN'T double take and then giggled a lot when Tamora Pierce introduced "spintry" as lower-class slang for a male prostitute in her Provost's Dog
novels. Because this is an exceedingly erudite word in the history of English: it has a few 17th and 18th century attestations, where it was clearly pulled straight from Tacitus and Suetonius (there might be a ref. in Juvenal and/or a later grammarian, too) as a highfalutin' literary term (it's not that relevant that we now think that the Latin word (spintria
) probably referred not to a male prostitute or brothel but to (a female) one who specialized in exhibitionist group sex, but that's an interesting bit of information, so I'm including it anyway). Now obviously, none of this makes the word inappropriate for appropriation into Pierce's fantasy world. It's still funny, though.
The anachronism usually works the other direction, however. There were two really egregious slang usages in Sarah McLean's novel: "impact" as a conjugated transitive verb in a metaphorical sense. The OED doesn't give the verb "to impact" with any other examples than as a passive participle. We know that it is used differently now, but there are enough complaints from prescriptivists about it that surely someone would have flagged it! The other was "obscenely" in the hyperbolic meaning of "very." Obscene doesn't seem to have been used to mean anything other than, well, "obscene," until after the last print edition of the OED (obviously, print sources lag spoken usage, but I still really question a young noblewoman c. 1815 using it like this and it not sticking out).
Eponyms are obviously problematic, as are words taken from movements or particular historical events. (How would you describe Raglan sleeves in fantasyland? Could you describe some as a "Martinet" before Martinet?) But what about vaguer things? I got quite hung up when the main character of McLean's novel joked to her girlfriend that "they say women are more evolved than men." This seems to me like a very post-Darwininan kind of statement. On the other hand, evolution as a scientific term (having to do with developing and unfolding) was around from the 17th century, and there was probably some drift into metaphorical usage. I can see a conceivable meaning of "women are more cultivated than men," but I think that I'm bending over backwards for a sloppy author in doing so.