Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Tackling Historical Slang

Slang is so much fun! When used correctly in historical fiction it can add to the feel of the time period. But slang is also slippery. A phrase that “sounds” historical can be a lot more recent that you think. So, unless you like getting tetchy notes from readers, it pays to check your slang.

A word as simple as “okay,” for instance, can take you down the rabbit hole of etymological research and confusion. Okay sounds so… modern, right? Well, it depends how you spell it. According to Oxford Dictionary online, the first use of this word (spelled OK) appeared in the 1830s, perhaps originating as an abbreviation of orl korrekt—“a jokey misspelling of 'all correct' which was current in the US in the 1830s.”

So, if your fictional setting is firmly planted in late 19th century U.S. (as mine is), OK is okay! But—guess what!—okay is not! It didn’t appear until 1929, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Another useful tool for chasing down the time frame of period slang is Google Ngram, which graphs the frequency of the appearance of a word/phrase in Google Books. Here’s the Ngram of okay. (Be sure if you use Ngram that you check the “case insensitive” box, so you get, for instance, both Okay and okay).


And here’s the Ngram of OK



Do you trust those results for OK? I don't. Searching for OK in Google Books can be problematic, because, well, who knows how the letters O + K are being used? Is it a real honest-to-goodness word or is it a mathematical expression or perhaps something garbled from a badly scanned page or…? That’s when you click on the different time frames of “Search in Google Books” at the bottom and see what pops up. Added bonus: You can sometimes find historical dictionaries and references that come in handy when you need to check out other terms. One of the references I picked up in this way is Americanisms, Old and New by John Stephen Farmer. I downloaded the PDF from the Internet Archive (which is another great place to research and find PDFs of old books, pamphlets, journals, etc).

Here are some of the references I turn to, when slang is on the line: 

 In the photo below, you can see a few of the hardcopy references that take up real estate on my bookshelves.


If you are intrigued by slang, its etymology and history, please check out my personal blog where every Wednesday is Slang-o-rama day. 

Finally, do you have any favorite references for verifying the proper use of slang? Any "pet phrases" that set your teeth on edge when you come across them in period fiction? Do tell!

------Blood Red Pencil has any number of posts looking at slang. Here are a few------

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for editor/writer). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit AnnParker.net for more information.

12 comments :

  1. What a great post, Ann! While I don't write historical fiction myself, I do edit it. From time to time, as an editor, I end up researching a variety of things for period-accurate authenticity. It has always paid off to do that checking because it's amazing what I have learned about what did and didn't exist in a given era. Love the links you included, too. This is a keeper. :-)

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    1. Hi Linda! Glad that some of these links will be useful to you! The Internet Archive has lots of handy references and I *love* Ngram!

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  2. These are great resources. One of my pet peeves is historical settings with people using modern day terms, especially the f-bomb. Pretty sure ancient Greeks weren't using it.

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    1. Hi Diana! Ancient Greeks?? Hmmmm... Sounds pretty unlikely to me as well! Luckily, since I write 19th century, there are all these handy references. What would one use to check something that far back? I can't even imagine...

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  3. This is one of the hardest things to deal with when writing historical fiction. I'm writing early 1800s Illinois stories these days, so I'm always looking up words in the dictionary or online. It's so easy to slip in a word that doesn't belong...although my critique group is pretty good at catching the ones that don't fit. Thanks for the list of sources, Ann. Every little bit helps.

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    1. It's those "invisible" words and phrases that are so easy to miss. :-} Even though I try to be careful, there's usually one or two "gotchas" in each of my books. Oh well!

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  4. Yep, tricky not only to make sure the word was/wasn't in use but also the context. My most reecent novel is set in 1920 and I couldn't find any uses of OK or Okay in contemporary publications so decided to avoid its use. I also found that the F-word, although in use was used as a description of the act and not, as these, days slipped casually into insults to make them sound more offensive. EG, they it's unlikely they'd have said have said, 'F' off!.

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    1. Hello hello! I've found the book "American Slang: The abridged Edition of the Dictionary of American Slang" by Robert L. Chapman/Barbara Ann Kipfer to be very handy for tracking down more modern phrases such as "F' off" (which, according to this dictionary, was used by 1929 to mean "to leave, depart... Often an irritated command." However, as a noun, to mean someone who is a "goof-off," it came into use during WWII... Interesting!

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  5. Thnaks for response, fascinating to see how language evolves so quickly.

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  6. Thanks for all the great links in the post, Ann. I had not heard of Ngram, but I will be checking it out. I need to make sure that language I have in my historical novel spanning the years of 1923 to 1945 is accurate. You are so right about a single misused word throwing a reader right out of the story.

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  7. I got caught in a phrase in a timeline in one of my books. It was when 911 came into use. It was a flashback, and I had to check the state and the year because it wasn't the same throughout the country. Great post and links.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.