Words, Words, Words!

There’s been an interesting discussion on Nan Hawthorne’s blog about historical accuracy in which the question of word usage has come up. Should writers of historical fiction try to “write forsoothly”? Or simply to avoid using any words that weren’t current during the period in question? Or should they stick to modern language and usage? Or should they just say to heck with it and have a medieval English heroine speaking like a 1980’s American teenager, as I’ve seen in some romance novels?

I won’t get into the whole debate here, but I’ll say that in my own novels, I’ve stuck to modern language and usage, though I try my best to avoid anachronisms (such as “sidetracked” or “railroaded”) and modern slang. (I’m sure I haven’t always succeeded, though.) Part of this is purely personal preference: Certes, I feel rather silly writing “certes.” But I’ve also a nobler reason: reader sanity.

Take, for instance, a letter by the imprisoned Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, to Henry VIII in 1546 when the duke, desperate to save his head by reminding the king of his past services, asked, “Who showed His Majesty of the words of my mother-in-law, for which she was attainted of misprision but only I?” Now, when the duke refers to his “mother-in-law,” he is referring to Agnes, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, whom we would call his stepmother. So if I were writing a novel about the duke, I would be following contemporary usage if I had him refer to Agnes as his mother-in-law, but I would also be puzzling most readers. I could add a footnote or include a glossary, I suppose, but do I really want to take the readers out of the story by having them check a reference or flip back to the glossary? In my opinion, in a novel, it’s easier for all concerned to simply let Norfolk refer to the old duchess as his stepmother and be done with it. (Probably after being incriminated by the duke, the duchess had her own way of referring to him, but medieval cursing is beyond the scope of this post.)

With regard to family relationships, one sees other contemporary usages that can confuse. In her 1480 will, for instance, Anne Neville, the Duchess of Buckingham, refers to her “daughter Richmond” and to her “sonne of Buckingham.” The reader unversed in contemporary usage might well assume that the duchess is referring to her daughter and to her son; in fact, she is referring to her daughter-in-law Margaret Beaufort, the Countess of Richmond, and to her grandson Harry, Duke of Buckingham. Having the duchess stick to contemporary usage might well result in reader loss of hair, and I have no financial interest in the wig industry. Therefore, in my novel, I let the duchess use modern terms: “daughter-in-law” for Margaret and “grandson” for Harry. Just thank me when your beautician admires your full crop of hair.

Other differences in usage can lead to rather more amusing consequences. It’s safe to say that when Jean Plaidy titled a novel Gay Lord Robert, she didn’t anticipate the modern snickers that would ensue. I myself remember reading a novel by Betty Smith, set, I think, back in the 1940’s, when the heroine boasted about “making love” to her husband in public. Now, the heroine was an extrovert, but not that much of an extrovert, so naturally this made my seventeen-year-old self perk up with excitement. Quickly, though, I discovered that what the heroine meant by “making love” was no more than what my high school principal termed “a display of affection.” Still, though, the modern association the term has with “sexual intercourse” might make it risky to use in a historical novel.

Which brings me to yet another Duke of Norfolk, John Howard. In 1485, while preparing to resist the invasion of Henry Tudor, he wrote a letter to John Paston urging him to bring “seche company of tall men” to meet him. He signed the letter, “Yower lover.” Now, no one would seriously suggest, I think, that John Howard and John Paston were “lovers” in the sense in which we would use the word; such fulsome language was not unusual in the fifteenth century, especially when one had a favor to ask. But in a novel, would I have a man use this language when addressing another man? Only if I did intend the reader to believe that they were lovers in the modern sense or only if I were prepared to add a great deal of explanatory context.

Did John Howard’s appeal succeed, by the way? Nope. When the Battle of Bosworth was fought, John Paston was not there.

13 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words!”

  1. Augustina Peach

    Excellent examples! I agree with you that there has to be balance between what is historically accurate and what a reasonably intelligent reader will understand. After all, the point of writing meant for publication is (or should be) to communicate.

  2. I think you have the right approach, Susan. Usage can be tricky as I rapidly discovered with my work. Because I brought Richard III into the twenty-first century, his early modern English presented an interesting problem for me because I wanted to show the differences without making the reader struggle. So what I chose to do was to make one of the characters a linguist who interpreted between early modern to modern usage, but what the reader saw was mostly modern usage. In addition, I tried to be careful to not have Richard use words he wouldn't know until he would have had a chance to have learned them. I avoided certes, but did slip in a few ayes.


  3. I think you're right to avoid "writing forsoothly". But some writers do, when they want to suggest the "flavor" of a bygone age. One of the "issues" I have with Sharon Kay Penman is that she does this kind of thing all the time. She uses phrases like "for certes" a lot, which just makes me grind my teeth! While she doesn't use "mother-in-law" the way people would have in the 15th or earlier centuries, this use of "archaic" phrases and convoluted sentence structure just isn't necessary, and it's kind of annoying to this reader. BTW, a tip for Susan: One way to indicate differences might actually be have some character use "olden" curses, but have the characters talk in "modern standard"(e.g. "God's bones" or "God's nails"). That is, when not using such phrases, have them talk in "modern" English that is comprehensible and not annoying to a lot of readers.
    Just a suggestion,
    Anne G

  4. I thought the writing in your novel was perfectly suited. I really dislike writing "forsoothly". I read original sources too and they take time to interpret and understand. They're confusing sometimes even to those of us who are trained in them. Attempting to write a novel in that language would be ridiculously difficult and confusing for the reader. I don't mind when Sharon Kay Penman does it because her phrases are just tossed in casually to remind us where we are, they don't really affect how I read the story.

    In comparison, I'll offer up a novel I just finished, My Lord John by Georgette Heyer. She attempted to write in early 15th century English with disastrous results; it didn't look like anything I'd ever read and felt like I was wading through mud. I much prefer modern English without modern slang/colloqualisms.

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, folks! I should say that I don't mind words like "Certes" myself; I did find Penman's use of "did" and "be" in Sunne in Splendour distracting at first, but I soon adjusted.

    I tried My Lord John but the first few pages were just too much for me. What got to me wasn't so much the language but the fact that every time the story inched forward a bit, it would then come to a dead halt and there would be four paragraphs of back story and genealogy. I found my head spinning after a bit of it.

  6. Forsoothly isn't nearly as bad as the thitherward and other groaners I came across in that-tudor-vampire-book. I agree it's a delicate balance authors have to maintain – enough to give the reader a feel for the period without so much they're being clubbed them over the head with it. Penman's certes didn't bother me too much, not like the "woe is me" and "tis" I've been seeing in recent books on R3.

  7. It's a tricky one for sure and I think there has to be some flavour of a bygone age and I too have 'God's bones' etc for curses 🙂

  8. I agree with your approach Susan. I think if one were very, very clever, and were writing for a narrow audience of intellectuals, it would just about be possible to write a 17th Century story using the language of the time. For any earlier period, it's just not on. Language has simply changed too much, and that's without going into the English and American versions of modern English! (In some cases the American usage is closer to medieval but looks very odd to a British reader.)

  9. I, too, agree with you Susan – it's a question of balance, of giving enough feeling of authenticity without compromising either the historicity of the piece or the enjoyment of the reader. And it is perfectly possible to achieve as you, Brian, Penman and others have proved.

  10. Susan:

    I mind "certes",but not so much all by itself. If some author just uses "certes" in a novel about medieval times(or whatever), that wouldn't be too bad. To my mind, that would be a "flavor" of the times(although I think such usage is more likely to be Elizabethan rather than medieval). It's when the authors "pile it on" with other such "usages" in order to give a "flavor" of the speech or the time, that bothers me. Too much is too much, but then, I don't really like these attempts at "forsoothly" style at all.
    Anne G

  11. Interestingly, many fantasy authors seem to feel compelled to invent words and to produce a glossary. I was critiquing some chapters of a fantasy at Critique Circle and the author didn't agree with my comment that I thought it was a bad idea to make the reader learn his new terms since they weren't part of any known language. Go figure.

  12. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, all! It's interesting to see all of the different approaches. I don't think there's really a wrong or right way, but too much "forsoothly" does get tedious very quickly for me.

  13. Barbara Martin

    This discussion on using certain types of words for historical works is very interesting. It's quite true that many readers would be unable to understand the correct language used in Elizabethan or medieval times. I prefer writers who put an explanation in the foreword or acknowledgement section of the book why they are using more modern english rather than the verbage of the times. To attempt to do so is fraught with error, as you have mentioned Susan, the meanings are quite different to what they are now.

    Even fifty years makes a difference in the language, as I recall the words my late grandmother who had been born in England used then and are not in use today.

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