Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dated Words


I’ve been working on the language of the fourth and final novel in the Westfall series. From diaries, letters, and slave narratives, especially those  recorded by the Federal Writers Project in 1937-38, I’ve collected a lexicon of 19th Century language. From it I am employing words and expressions not in common use today. My editor will let me know if this successfully sets the tone for an antebellum novel. Hopefully it won’t sound like artifice.

Many words that have passed their prime are perfectly good words. It’s puzzling why some of them have faded into disuse when more contemporary words no better express the meanings. For example, the word gainsay as in “he would not be thought to gainsay them” or “the impact of the RR cannot be gainsaid.” With Microsoft Word it’s not difficult to search my manuscript for the words deny or contradict and insert a form of gainsay, if it maintains a sentence’s meaning.

Another old word I like is loath, which means to be reluctant or unwilling to do something. It appears in my manuscript (tentatively titled “Westfall, Slave to King Cotton”) in this sentence:
To the ordinary run, this was an upgrade, not only in living conditions but in status, but Iverson had been loath to leave the quarters where his wife and children lived.
This sentence also contains the 19th century expression—ordinary run, which can be loosely defined as the average person.

A word that frequently pops up in my writing is durst, which was used in letters instead of the word dared. Here it is from the manuscript:
He durst not leave it to the servants to convey the bad news to the father.
The word convey is still used but not as much as earlier times. Many 19th Century writers used it instead of send or give.

I’m still adding to my lexicon, currently from The South Carolina Rice Plantation, a published collection of F.W. Allston’s letters. Here’s a sampling of time-sensitive expressions from other sources with their definitions. They may still be heard today, but not commonly.
rived - broken (a branch rived by lightning)
picking at you - teasing 
hallooing - shouting (You can hear hallooing off a mile or so.)
abridged - damaged (a crop abridged by the storm)
confinement - childbirth (She came out of confinement in 3 weeks.)
at one run - at once (I swallowed it at one run)
obliged - required to 
lay by - rest (obliged to lay by to recover)

A clock was most often called a timepiece, and one of the most interesting changes in language is the way we describe time and its passage. I get into all sorts of constructions trying to emulate 19th Century expressions. I’ve copied from my lexicon the following, the meanings I hope you’ll understand:
the forenoon
for the nonce
for some years past
some years gone
10th of this last May gone
he returned two weeks since
he had a fever for some time back
I was 30 years old October last
On Friday next we go to town.

The writing of historical fiction carries strictures other genres don’t have. And some writers of fiction would be better served in another genre. One who comes to mind is Phillippa Gregory. Her novel The Other Boleyn Girl reads like a contemporary soap opera in historical drag. The language and tone belie a 16th Century experience. 

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