Abraham Lincoln selfie, ca. 1858.
Sometimes, anachronism is just easy to spot.
Bayeux Tapestry of Anachronism
Other times, it can go by unnoticed, when everything else looks spot on for the time period.
Oops, there it is: fly-by anachronism. Troy, 2004, Warner Bros.
And then there are the times when, despite everyone’s best efforts, anachronism sneaks in and ruins a whole scene.
I know, I know . . . why cry for accuracy in a genre known for universally ignoring the sketchy dental care, prevalence of body odor, and the more common physiques of short and/or pudgy men and women. These are my secondary issues – issues that aren’t deal breakers to me when I read a story because their inclusion or omission doesn’t have any historical significance. It’s almost too common to mention: if the Regency standard was wonky teeth, poor hygiene, and less-than-svelte body types, then these are characteristic givens. They are terms of aesthetics rather than distinctive, singular attributes. When authors specifically write about their hero’s tall build or the heroine smelling like lilacs, these are unique characteristics worth putting to page. Plus, I’ve yet to read a contemporary romance that talks about the smelly, sweaty billionaire at the gym or the reeking cowboy in the manure-strewn corral.
But just because some aspects of the Regency period are best left in the 1800s doesn’t mean I can whitewash all the facts or say whatever I want when writing. I may not want to draw attention to the fact that a ballroom likely reeked like a wharf in summer, yet I cannot move so far to the opposite end of the spectrum and declare as it was unbearable hot, the Countess of Essex held a co-ed swimming party in her back garden.
For me, the distinction lies in whether I want to write fiction and romance set during the Regency, or if I just want to write stories where people dress hoity and don’t have day jobs. Setting a story during the years between 1811-1820 is a bit more complicated than just remembering not to have characters hop a plane to France or ring up their friends for a car ride to Surrey for the weekend. Writing stories set somewhere in time – without benefit of research and verification – moves said stories into the realm of fantasy rather than antiquity. Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it has no basis in fact, or that certain timely truths can be ignored.
Research doesn’t stop with customs and practices of the time period; it also involves word etymology. Should my happy heroine be chuffed
(1860) or diverted
(1640s)? Would my hero smoke a cigarette
(American, 1835) or cheroot
(late 17th century). I’m no high stickler that believes words just appeared in usage the same year they were officially added to the lexicon, but documentation is a rally point for an author. Think about the word “selfie.” It was inducted into the OED in 2013, but Lester Wisbrod
claims he originated the action behind the term in 1981, although he called them “Lesters.” And the first documented self portrait with a camera was taken by Robert Cornelius
way back in 1839. So should the heroine of a civil war romance refer to the picture of her beau as his selfie (or Lester)?
Obviously not, but I don’t think the term must be reserved for stories set post-2013. Authenticity can – and really must – be looked for in the small stuff of verbiage, but fudging a few years on either side of the “official” year a word entered the dictionary is forgivable, in my humble opinion.
Writing novels set during the Regency – or any period in history – requires knowing something about that time period. That does not mean the results need to be dry as kindling or as interesting as the ingredients on a bottle of shampoo: it is possible to write in period style with period characters and period plots without droning like Mr. Collins reading a sermon from Fordyce.
Words that should probably disappear from Regency Romance:
sod (1818, but literally meant sodomite, not the slang term for chap from the 1950s)
bugger (1923, unless you literally mean someone being sodomized, 1590s)
heir and spare (first coined by American Consuelo Vanderbilt, after birth of sons at turn of
the 20th century)
feisty (1896 for spunky; previously cur dog or fart) – Probably don’t want gassy heroines!
OK (1838 Boston; okay is not a word)
fiancé/fiancée (1837; a couple could be affianced, however, just to confuse the issue)
upper ten thousand (1844 America)
chaise lounge (1830 American corruption of longue)
French doors (1847; they were called French windows during Regency)
French letter (meaning condom, 1856)
Words that surprised me with their anachronistic selves and need to flee the Regency novel:
sheet music (1857)
replay (sporting jargon from 1862)
mount (noun meaning horse, 1856) – This one is scattered all over my first novel!
mesmerize (meaning enthrall, 1862)
negligée (it does mean loose gown, like a chemise; if you mean Victoria’s Secret
humina-humina gown, that’s 1930)
décolletage (1883) – whaaat?!
sex (as in intercourse, 1929; and no to sexuality and libido, too)
scandal sheet (1939)
ego (the Freudian concept of conceit, 1891; self-centeredness, 1840; selfish, 1879)
Words that are OK (see what I did there?) but seem out of place:
honey (as term of endearment, mid 14th century)
brain (as in knocking someone in the head, late 14th century and Shakespeare’s Tempest)
hoity-toity (1590s; if you mean haughty, not til the late 1800s)
kremlin (lower case, citadel or fortress, 1660s)
skyscraper (not the building, but the light sail at the top of a mast, 1794; name of
a racehorse, 1789)
egotism (talking about yourself too much 1714; self-conceit/selfishness 1800)
egomania (this one is close to the Regency at 1825)
Did I leave out any biggies? Are there any words on the “disappear” list that are simply too good to omit? I shudder to think what words I’ve missed, or what blunders I’ll make in my next novel…