Okay, so I’m a little compulsive about contextual accuracy in my fiction writing. The smaller the detail, the more it delights me. The research for my historical novel took me across two countries and more than forty libraries and archives, in person and online. To me it was a treasure hunt, unearthing vital statistics, court, census, land, naturalization, and school records. Military, voter, business, and theological records, even county and state fair entries.
But after ten years in hot pursuit of those details, the resource that honed my manuscript’s voice to its finest edge of authenticity was not a repository, but an eagle-eyed editor with an exuberant love of etymology.
For scenes set between 1910 and 1921, I’d already caught early-draft anachronisms like surreal and radar. But my editor caught many more. I learned that no one shushed anyone until 1925, place mats and drop cloths weren’t called such until 1928, and dust mop didn’t come along until 1953. Girls didn’t wear their hair in a ponytail and jokes didn’t have a punch line until 1916. Jeepers! Whoops—that interjection wasn’t around until 1927.
But most amusing was how many of my editor’s etymological catches had to do with that evergreen bestselling subject: sex. It offered a fascinating dichotomy: many words we think of as contemporary may go back centuries, while words we think of as vintage are relatively modern.
Our etymological sex education started when a character in a 1911 scene expressed his contentment to a bartender with “I’m happier than a baby in a barrel of tits.” My editor flagged it: Teats was in use in the 13th century, titties dates back to 1746, but tits didn’t come into usage until 1928.
On rolls the story to where, in the face of maternal health issues in the 1910s, my protagonist couple is advised to use rubbers. “The condom sense of this word dates only to the 1930s,” said my editor, suggesting I should revert to condom (1706). I hauled out my (highly entertaining) file of early condom advertisements, noting that all used the terms rubber prophylactics or protectives, but none used the word condom. Further research revealed that the, um, contents of a condom were the origin of one of today’s common insults, scumbag (1939). We settled on rubber sheath (1861).
Later still, my protagonist, Annie, finds her virtue questioned by a state hospital patient who hurls the insult, “Slattern!” (1630s). Annie returns a fusillade of loose-woman epithets. Up went my editor’s flag. Seems that harlot (ca 1200), strumpet (ca 1300), trollop (1610s), hussy (1650s), and floozy (1902) were appropriate to the 1918 scene, but tramp got deleted because its meaning “promiscuous woman” dates only to 1922.
Surely things would mellow out for Annie as she overcomes extreme adversity, settles into a placid spell, and enjoys some long-overdue tender lovemaking. But no. Said my editor, “While this word has been around since the fifteenth century, its original sense was of courtship. As a euphemism for ‘have sex,’ it’s attested only from c. 1950.” Disgruntled Author changed it to coupling (late 1300s), muttering that it sounds too much like hardware.
Frequency of usage is also a factor in historical authenticity. Tools like Google Ngram use charts to visually depict word usage over centuries. Here we learned that usage of the f-bomb, once the ultimate sex-charged verb though today just an everyday adjective, has increased by a whopping (1620s) 23,000% since 1950. Before that it had nearly flatlined since 1820, hence it pops up only once in dialogue in my novel—as an unintended double entendre, with great impact bestowed by its rarity.
But our free-wheeling contemporary use of the f-word doesn’t hold a fadoodlin’ (1611) candle to our bawdy ancestors. In the mid-1600s, they used it at twice the rate we do today.
Originally published on Suzanne Adair’s blog Relevant History, 14 Aug 2018.