Sunday, April 7, 2013

Historical Research -- Word Choices

One of the things I learned as an early writer, was to write the books I want to read. I've been reading historical romance since 1975, so I'm no stranger to the genre. Steamy bodice rippers, filled with damsels in distress and the men who rescued them.

From these books, I gained a better understanding of not only history, but the words that were used at that time. Some of these words are obsolete now, or have come to mean different things in this new millenium. I was recently brought to task by a reviewer who claimed that I was using words that didn't make sense. She said --

"It's as if she's trying to show off her vocabulary by using the "big words" but she doesn't know what they mean so it comes off as amateurish."

Uh, no. I do know what they mean. Every single one of those "big" words, and a couple of the small ones too.

I use an etymological dictionary, which shows me EXACTLY when the word was first used, which language it originally came from, when it became an "English" word, and how it was used back then.

For instance, this reviewer claimed in THE LADY'S FATE that I used the term "nanny" in the wrong context, that nanny was not a word back then, and I should have said "governess" or "nurse/nursemaid".

I beg to differ, but the word "nanny" is listed in my etymological dictionary as being in use from 1795, and as my book is set in 1810, I have 15 years for it to be commonplace in the language.

I had also used the word "obloquy" once, and one of my regular readers said it stopped her reading because she had to look the word up in her "reference" dictionary because her regular dictionary didn't have it. The word is considered obsolete. I bowed to her observation, but I didn't like it. Now that I'm in the process of re-editing this novel, I'm putting it back in.

When I was reading historical romance all those many years ago, and I would stumble across one of those words, it was almost like a treasure hunt for me to find out what the word meant, and then to use it in a sentence. People today have no patience for the big words. They want instant gratification an don't want to be plagued by having to use a dictionary.(Or click out of their document to click on the dictionary app. God forbid, if they have to actually find a dictionary BOOK.)

Which I think is very sad. I think reading should get harder as children grow up, not easier. I think books should have some "big" words to stumble over. I think every house should have a big fat dictionary somewhere in the living room or kitchen and I think the next time my daughter asks me, "Mom, what does this word mean?" I am going to tell her, "Look it up in the dictionary."

Anne Gallagher (c) 2013 


  1. The dictionary is definitely my friend. I would also look up words I didn't know, it's a great way to expand one's vocabulary. Hubs has one of those old HUGE dictionaries from an old library that was getting rid of it for technology. It's about 8 inches thick.

    Self-education includes being curious enough to want to KNOW more. Excellent post, Anne, I think word choice comments from readers should be taken as an opinion, not expert advice.

  2. I like to be as authentic as possible with word choice too. In fact, I'm reading a historical right now by a successful author, and the amount of modern-day slang and phrasing in it is driving me crazy.

    I remember when I first read Jane Austen as a teenager; I had to have the dictionary next to me constantly. It was a thrill to lean all those words. As you say it's a pity when learning becomes a chore for some readers.

  3. Argh! You should never apologise for using interesting words! People should look 'em up, or skip them if they can't be bothered. But where's the fun in reading if you can't learn and expand your vocabulary even while you enjoy a good story?

  4. Some reviewers comments beggar belief, and one wonders where or how they were educated! Should I encounter a word I don't know I would consider myself uneducated in the literary sense!

  5. As the Amazon reviewer in the thumb screws for much of this posting, I will humbly concede that it is entirely possible that I am looking at a word from a perspective of the more modern meaning or usage. Without a thorough examination, I'll have to leave it at that. I have no problem with "big words", it just bothers me when I believe that are being used incorrectly. I too have been a heavy reader of historical fiction for years, and one of my favourite things about it is the discovery of new and obscure words. I used to write dictionary lists when I was getting started Austen & Heyer. Now my Kindle dictionary gets a work out and I love highlighting words that I wish I used more,to try to remind me of them.

    I still can't really get behind the "nanny" concept. I did, admittedly briefly, look into that one, and really could not find that, even if the word and concept existed, that is was really a part of the culture in any significant way. I am open to reading something that explains otherwise, but really, for the book in question, I felt it best to suspend my disbelief, and just enjoy a really good book.

  6. Jenny -- It is not only you who have critisized my verbiage, yours was the quote I remembered because it hurt my feelings. I try to do as much research as possible.

    Here is the reference I found for nanny. This is from

    nanny (n.)
    "children's nurse," 1795, from widespread child's word for "female adult other than mother" (cf. Greek nanna "aunt"). The word also is a nickname form of the fem. proper name Ann, which probably is the sense in nanny goat (1788, cf. billy goat).

    And in referencing people who review or read my work, I am speaking in generalities. It is not only you I am taking to the thumb screws or raking over the coals. I just happened to remember what you said. It was quite astute.

    I appreciated your reviews, as it forced me to admit my mistakes and change them.

    Thanks for taking the time to chime in here. I appreciate it.


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