Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Date That Word!

Many authors of historical fiction work hard to use period-correct terms. For many years, I coveted a copy of The Oxford English Dictionary, which dates the origin of words. I was overjoyed to come upon an abbreviated version (The Oxford Universal Dictionary, only 2,515 pages) at a rummage sale a few years ago. I also knew about Google ngrams, which track the use of words in digitized books held by Google. For example, from 1804 to 1810, the use of the word redingote increased, only to plummet from 1810 to 1812 before increasing again. But this week I stumbled upon the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler site, which I must admit is rather addicting!

The Time Traveler shows which words first appeared in print for a particular year. For my Nothing Short of Wondrous, set in 1886, I might have used apochromatic (describing a lens that corrects aberrations), attackman, and Broncobuster. My hero and heroine might have eaten French fries and drank milkshakes. I thought snow-in-summer particularly appropriate for Yellowstone.

On the other hand, 1804, the year my Grace-by-the-Sea series is set, debuted such gems as apiculate (ending abruptly in a sharp point), chicken-livered, shunpike, and underclothing. Dr. Bennett of The Artist’s Healer might not have been pleased to see medicinal leech come into vogue, and Rosemary Denby, who will be the heroine in the upcoming The Governess’s Earl, would not like to be called a vulgarian. But what surprised me most was that 1804 was the first year Sir Roger de Coverley appeared in print. I had thought both the dance and the fictional character to predate that time.

Then again, words that first appeared in my birthyear included biodegradable, DEFCON, hovercraft, microcircuit, radio-galaxy, and upmanship. I think I’ll take apiculate instead!

And speaking of dating words, Marissa and I are going to time it so that we take turns posting on Tuesdays, so look for a post from her next week and me the week following.


QNPoohBear said...

Thank you for that attention to detail. I use the online etymology dictionary etymonline.com
to double check when words were first recorded. I find a lot of historical errors that way. Look up "hello"!

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, QNPoohBear! I know other writers who speak highly of the online etymology dictionary, so thanks for the reminder.