What is an anachronism? It’s your hard-boiled detective strolling across the Golden Gate Bridge in 1929 when it didn’t open until 1937, or your Regency earl telling his butler he’s a “bozo.” When you make this kind of slip, you take your readers out of the immersive fictional world you have so carefully built.
There are a wealth of online sources to help writers avoid errors of fact, but how do you evaluate words or phrases? How do you find out whether a character would have used a term in a specific period?
I rely on three primary resources when I am editing historical fiction. All of them are free and accessible online.
The oxford english dictionary
Unlike other dictionaries, the OED aims to record not just current definitions, but also the whole history of the English language, which makes it a key resource for writers of historical fiction.
EXAMPLE Let’s go back to our Regency earl who needs to impugn the intelligence of his butler with a more historically correct term than “bozo.” Sifting through the thesaurus, you come across the word “numbskull” – perfect! But was it in use in Regency England? Let’s find out:
Yes! You can tell from a glance at the chronologically arranged quotations that the term was in use in your earl’s period – you even have two spellings to choose from. If a term is primarily associated with American English, you will see a notation of “chiefly N. Amer.” or “U.S. slang.” above the entry.
Before you click away from the entry, read through the quotations from the time period in which your novel is set to see if you find other wonderful terms – like “wheedling jades” – to add to your repertoire. Also note that you can click on the “Thesaurus” link at the top right of each entry to bring up a window with more synonyms, arranged by date. You can click on any term to go straight to its definition and examples. I love the evocative “dasart,” which sounds like dull plus bastard or dastard.
HOW TO ACCESS Accessing the OED requires a little bit of work on your part, but it is well worth the effort. Most public library systems provide free online access with your library card, so start by checking there. If you find that your library does not subscribe, call them up or send them an email asking if they will. Better yet, go to the library in person to use the dictionary and speak to a librarian about gaining online access. If that doesn’t work, contact your nearest university or college library to see if you can arrange for borrowing privileges for their collection. State universities in particular often provide public access to state residents, which will often include access to online resources like the OED. If all else fails, you can purchase an individual subscription, though it is costly at $295 per year.
BONUS Take a look at the historical thesaurus, which you can find on the main search page, to find words by topic.
Google’s Ngram Viewer allows you to search for words or phrases in what is considered the most complete collection of English-language texts ever assembled. Bryan Garner uses ngrams extensively in the newest version of Modern English Usage (a worthy addition to any writer’s reference shelf or Kindle collection).
EXAMPLE Let’s say our hard-boiled San Francisco detective is going to visit his mother in Sausalito – now by ferry rather than by the nonexistent Golden Gate Bridge. When he gets there, how will he address her? “Mother”? Or “Mom”? When you search “mom” and “mother” in American English between 1900 and 2000, Google Ngram shows you at a glance that “mom” started entering the printed language in the 1940s and starts rising in frequency in the 1970s.
When you zero in more closely on the term “mom” alone, you can get an even better picture.
Our San Francisco detective, then, is going to say, “Hello, mother.” If you were writing dialogue for a character between 1940 and 1970, the evidence is less clear and would depend on the age, class, and formality of the speaker.
HOW TO ACCESS This one is easy. Simply go to https://books.google.com/ngrams. Access is free.
BONUS See the linked date ranges underneath the ngram? Those links will take you straight to a Google Books search featuring the term or phrase you searched, which is useful for getting a contextual sense of the term as well as soaking up additional period color. Once you click on the link, you can use the pull-down menus at the top to narrow the date range or kind of books you want to see.
Green's Dictionary of Slang
This dictionary is a meticulously researched collection of over 100,000 terms from the early days of English to the present.
EXAMPLE Our Regency earl is now complaining to his wife about the numbskull butler and suggests that he hasn’t been the same since that body was discovered in the cellars. Would he have used the term “come unglued”? Glue has been around, forever, right? The OED confirms that the word “glue” has indeed been around forever, if by forever we mean since the fourteenth century. However, a quick search of Green’s tells us that the phrase “come unglued” meaning to become mentally and emotionally unstable dates only from the 1930s.
HOW TO ACCESS The basic dictionary is available for free at https://greensdictofslang.com. The free version gives you access to definitions as well as date ranges for terms. The paid version (roughly $60 per year) also gives you access to the dictionary’s extensive quotations, which can be a rich source of inspiration. Again, it’s worth checking to see if your local library is a subscriber.
BONUS Green’s dictionary is a wonderful source for browsing. Did you know that our Regency earl would have been considered a “high cockalorum” (“important person”) in Gilded Age New York? Or that his poor butler might well have been a “flatty-gory” (a “victim of a confidence trickster”)?
Don’t let dictionary diving distract you from writing
For word nerds, meandering around in these sources can quickly suck up all of your writing time, so save these searches for the revision stage. Don’t worry about possible anachronisms too much while you are writing; just flag anything you suspect might be a problem and then come back to it in a later draft.
Do you have other favorite sources? Let me know about them in the comments. I’m always adding to my resource collection.