Many words were not used hundreds of years ago. For example, the word “penis” was not used for the male sexual organ until the 1670’s. As a writer of 16th century romance, I would certainly need to choose a different word. However, many of the words for penis in the 1500’s sound ridiculous to modern readers. Words like fiddle, spindle, pudding prick, and kicky wicky are just a few examples. Can you image reading this in my upcoming release, THE HIGHLANDER’S PIRATE LASS?
Beck stared at Eliza without saying anything, his kicky wicky hard as granite under his kilt.
<snorts> <giggles> <rolls eyes> <shuts book> The term would completely pull me out of the scene. So I try to find other, historically appropriate words like: jack, cod, erection. But I’m so tempted to put a fiddle or pudding prick in my story!
Then there are modern sounding words that are authentically old. The word “wow” was first used in the 1510’s. It was a Scottish exclamation to show astonishment and has apparently stood the test of time. In my 16th century Highlander book, it would be historically accurate for me to have my hero say:
“Wow, lass! Where did ye learn to sail a carrack with less than ten crewmen?”
<Wow? Really?> <shuts book> <looks up origin of word> <forgets about book>
Using the word “wow” sounds too modern even though it is accurate. I obviously can’t use it.
How about cursing?
In my latest release, the heroine was rescued and raised by pirates. Eliza Wentworth is capable, funny, and loves the F word. Believe me, I tried to talk her out of using it (so does the hero). She just rolled her eyes at me and called me an easily offended milksop who shouldn’t be writing about pirates if I can’t handle their wicked words. As a compromise, I spell it phonetically as “fok.” Eliza seems fine with it. Thank goodness!
Just like in everyday life, people tend to have a favorite curse word or two. I choose preferred historically used curse words and favorite exclamations for each of my characters. Sometimes you can tell who is thinking or speaking just by the way they curse.
My go-to web site for word origins and timelines of use is http://www.etymonline.com/ where I can find the year words or phrases began to be used in all their varying contexts. Richard Spears’s Slang and Euphemism book is a wonderful dictionary of oaths, curses, insults, slurs, sexual metaphors, etc. and the approximate time periods the words came into popular use.
Then there is the question about accents and foreign words. Scottish brogues can be very thick. I could write phonetically, but I doona ken if ye would ken what I be sayin’. Ye may just say “Awa’ an bile yer heid,” and close my book. The Gaelic language is beautiful, but I do not know it, and most of my readers don’t either. So I have to write in a way to give the Scottish flavor without annoying my readers. I use “ye” and “yer” but that’s about it. “Bloody hell” is a common curse, but I can’t overuse it. I let my characters say “‘twas” and “‘tis” and “shall” because they were used regularly and sound old. Those words flavor my writing but do not make readers stumble and get pulled out of the story.
I love words, all kinds of words. Choosing the best ones to tell my stories is what I do all day. I’m thankful that I can share this information with you here, because no matter how authentic and “cool” the word “wow” is, I just can’t put it in my book. And no matter what, my heroine will never stroke a “pudding prick.”
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