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a word out of time
Posted: 03 November 2007 12:16 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Is it acceptable to use a word in an historic novel that had not been coined at that period? I.E. perhaps to say that Thomas Abeckett was “mesmerised” by the knights standing before him. As we know, the verb mesmerise wasn’t known until 18th century. There are many such examples. Quiz would be another that comes to mind. To come across a word out of time is a little distacting. I wonder what the editorial stand might be on this. I’m sure many of you illustrious wordsmiths will know.

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Posted: 03 November 2007 12:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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It’s a contentious issue.  As I remarked in this previous discussion, the most common position seems to be that any writer who makes mistakes that you notice is being sloppy; any reader who complains of mistakes that you didn’t notice is being nitpicky and pedantic.

FWIW, I think there’s a big difference between the author’s simply using a word and putting it in the mouth of a character.  For the author to describe Thomas Becket as mesmerized is not a problem, to have another character so describe him would be.  IMHO.

[ Edited: 03 November 2007 12:51 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 03 November 2007 01:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Well, it didn’t bother Shakespeare (chiming clocks in Julius Caesar, for example) but then the Elizabethans were far more forgiving of such things. Times have changed, however, and were already changing by the beginning of the 18th century, as witnessed by the attitude to anachronisms of Alexander Pope and Lewis Theobald in their respective editions of Shakespeare.

I quote from Theobald’s Preface:

It has been my Fate, it seems, as I thought it my Duty, to discover some Anachronisms in our Author; which might have slept in Obscurity but for this Restorer, as Mr. Pope is pleas’d affectionately to style me; as, for Instance, where Aristotle is mentioned by Hector in Troilus and Cressida: and Galen, Cato, and Alexander the Great, in Coriolanus. These, in Mr. Pope’s Opinion, are Blunders, which the Illiteracy of the first Publishers of his Works has father’d upon the Poet’s Memory: it not being at all credible, that These could be the Errors of any Man who had the least Tincture of a School, or the least Conversation with such as had. But I have sufficiently proved, in the Course of my Notes, that such Anachronisms were the Effect of poetic Licence, rather than of Ignorance in our Poet.

As you can see, both felt the need to justify the anachronisms, justification which Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have thought totally unnecessary (save perhaps Ben Jonson, who was scrupulously accurate in his historical plays).

Many modern readers are alert for anachronisms and unforgiving of them, but much depends on the readership your book is aimed at. I’d avoid them where possible, they can be destructive of that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in the reader which is essential to fiction.

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Posted: 03 November 2007 02:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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The Invasion of Lit-Crit Terms: A Most Dangerous Threat to Our National Security

Just a comment. Aldi’s post brings up two terms of literary criticism, observation, or technique, “poetic license” and “(willing) suspension of disbelief.” The latter seems to have been popularized only recently by Hollywood writers, critics, etc. Interesting, to me anyway, that they come from the same period, more or less: 2 to 3 centuries ago. Why is it dangerous? Because lifting the curtain on a stage production ruins the performance. It’s the “don’t try this at home” unless you are a professional phenomenon. Some people, here and elsewhere, choose to think about these matters, but for most it is better to leave it merely in the background (almost everybody has an instinctive understanding). If you believe that it’s a good thing to have cultural mythologies for the “unwashed masses,” then leave them be. Yes it’s a snobbish attitude, or perhaps more a “guild” attitude.

[ Edited: 03 November 2007 03:12 PM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 03 November 2007 04:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Yes, I believe ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ came from Coleridge originally and OED gives Byron the earliest cite for ‘poetic licence’ in English. (under the entry licence n, 4)

I find the latter rather astonishing given this comment in OED (under the entry for poetic)

In poetic licence n. at Special uses after Middle French, French licence poétique (c1480) or its model classical Latin licentia poetica (also licentia poetarum); cf. also Hellenistic Greek poietike echousia, Spanish licençia poética (1437).

The phrase seems to have taken the devil of a time crossing the Channel. (Or have I missed an earlier cite in OED?)

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Posted: 03 November 2007 11:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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aldiboronti - 03 November 2007 04:33 PM

OED gives Byron the earliest cite for ‘poetic licence’ in English. (under the entry licence n, 4)…
The phrase seems to have taken the devil of a time crossing the Channel. (Or have I missed an earlier cite in OED?)

Yes, I think you have. The first citation under licence n, 4 is “1530 PALSGR. 44 Which auctors do rather by a lycence poetycall.” Searching the full text also turns up a couple of 18th century cites for “poetical licence”.

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Posted: 03 November 2007 11:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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That makes far more sense. I see how I arrived at the error now. Searching for ‘poetic licence’ and clicking the result under ‘licence’ took me straight to the Byron quote highlighted in red. Scrolling up would have revealed the Palsgrave one.

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Posted: 04 November 2007 04:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Dr. Techie - 03 November 2007 12:49 PM

FWIW, I think there’s a big difference between the author’s simply using a word and putting it in the mouth of a character.  For the author to describe Thomas Becket as mesmerized is not a problem, to have another character so describe him would be.  IMHO.

Indeed, my “suspension of disbelief” was very recently brought up short by the appearance of a C20th term in the speech of a C19th character.  It’s rather like spotting an extra wearing a watch in a film about Robin Hood.  Whilst I don’t think it would be wrong “for the author to describe Thomas Becket as mesmerized”, I would have thought the use of such terms is best avoided where possible.  I can’t think that there are many places where the use of a recent coining is essential in a historical work and there is always the danger of using a term where not only the word but also the concept is an anachronism.

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Posted: 04 November 2007 11:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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lifting the curtain on a stage production ruins the performance.

This is not a statement of fact but a rather old-fashioned preference; for over a century there has been a strong current of opinion in exactly the opposite direction.  Russians like Meyerhold and Evreinov, Frenchmen like Artaud, and of course the most famous these days, Bertold Brecht, emphasized the artificiality, the theatricality, of the theater, and many of us find such productions at least as satisfying.  From Marc Slonim’s Russian Theater:

According to Evreinov, the whole evolution of European theater toward realism in the nineteenth century was a big mistake which should simply be erased from the history of art. To renovate the contemporary stage we should return to those periods of the Western past when nobody was ashamed of or tried to hide the basic incompatibility between life and artistic creation.

In non-Western theater, there was basically no such thing as “naturalistic” staging until the West came along and imposed its ideas. Let us not mistake the time-bound and parochial for the universal.

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Posted: 04 November 2007 03:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Well, that’s certainly an erudite and unimpeachable response. Those movie trailers with all the outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage do seem to fascinate a lot of viewers, myself included, but the practice strikes me as counterintuitive, inexplicable.

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Posted: 04 November 2007 03:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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In historical novels, any word or phrase that is likely to strike the reader as anachronistic to the subject of the novel should be avoided if at all possible - in the authorial voice just as much as the dialogue. I have been abruptly jolted out of all sympathy with a historical novel on encountering such remarks as “[The heroine] tried not to be judgmental” or ”Personal hygiene was very important to her”.

Don’t despise the reader; for example, a quite surprising number of relatively-uneducated people can figure out that “Fire!” is not a logical way for a mediaeval commander to order his bowmen to shoot, and its use bothers them.

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Posted: 04 November 2007 10:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Thank you for your entertaining and enlightening input all. A lot of provocative details to ponder. I was taken by the idea of “willing suspension of disbelief”. A new concept to me but one I related to immiediatly. I researched it quite thorouhghly.The good Dr. T’s observations were as I felt, that as long as the anachronisims never became dialogue, they were tolerable. S.L. made the same point. I cant help but feel that accepting such writing is just that much more “dumbing down”, the more it’s accepted it the more it’s expected.

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Posted: 05 November 2007 06:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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The good Dr. T’s observations were as I felt, that as long as the anachronisims never became dialogue, they were tolerable. ... I cant help but feel that accepting such writing is just that much more “dumbing down”, the more it’s accepted it the more it’s expected.

I’m not clear on what you mean.  Do you feel it’s anachronistic to use words in the non-dialogue part of the novel that were not used at the time?  Wouldn’t that imply that a novel about King Alfred would have to be written in Old English, and one about Napoleon in French?  I don’t think “anachronism” can have any meaning except in dialogue (in reference to language, obviously—we’re not talking about having a television in a medieval castle).

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Posted: 05 November 2007 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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The acceptability of use of “anachronistic” terms is entirely dependent on the tone and voice of the work. Some historical novels, like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series deliberately evoke a sense of period in all the writing, not just the dialogue. To introduce anachronistic terms into works like these breaks the mood and transports the reader out of the novel. Not a good thing.

And one need not be completely accurate to set this tone. There is no need, for example, to use Old English to write a novel about King Alfred. But word choice that favors Germanic roots over Latin ones and avoiding such forms as “he telegraphed his intentions” can go a long way towards setting the right period mood.

Other works, where the writer is employing a completely modern narrative style, such use goes unnoticed.

As for the difference between dialogue and non-dialogue, there is a higher bar of historical accuracy for dialogue, but even here the writer does not need to be completely faithful to the historical linguistic patterns. It’s all about not disturbing the reader and creating and maintaining the period mood.

[ Edited: 05 November 2007 02:19 PM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 05 November 2007 02:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Do you feel it’s anachronistic to use words in the non-dialogue part of the novel that were not used at the time? 

No; as you say, you couldn’t write a novel in modern English without them. But words that strike the reader as “modern” even in a contemporary context (like “judgmental”, which is a lot younger than me) or that clearly refer to ideas or things that didn’t exist in the period you are writing about (such as “mesmerise") do jar.

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Posted: 05 November 2007 05:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I guess it’s all a matter of taste.  Personally, I enjoy a novel (about any period) when I feel the author is using the full resources of the language in a masterly way; generally, when an author is self-consciously trying to limit vocabulary and style to suit the period, it comes across as a kind of Historical Novelese that sets my teeth on edge.  Here’s a sample from Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen:

“I cannot tell. Charles has no money to pay mercenaries and is not like to get any. I do not think that the war will go beyond the seas, since I cannot see that anyone will aid my brother. In any case, Parliament blockades the sea...”

To you, it may be mood-setting; to me, it’s grating.

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