Category Archives: Etymology

News! News!

Regular readers of this weblog know that I have a good many opinions on a wide variety of topics. Occasionally, I’m even well informed on the subject. But it’s been brought to my attention that as a writer who is trying to get my work sold, some of what I put here may give offense to my readers. In fact, I can just about guarantee that something will offend everyone.

Now don’t get worried. I’m not going to change my ways. I’m just expanding–something like a Japanese conglomerate. Instead of making cars, cameras, and assorted crap, I’m adding a new weblog to my portfolio. Here’s where to find it:

English 301: Reading and Writing

The focus of that site will be exactly what the name suggests. I’ll discuss books that I’m reading, work that I’m writing, matters of grammar and style, and other such things. I may drift into music and movies, since I have no wish to be organized about it. In fact, it will be a lot like the composition classes that I teach, only freer in form. Politics, guns, silliness in the news, and all the other matters that catch my attention will continue here. Being free form, there’s likely to be some overlap, since I write about guns and enquire into the language about them and since English continues to be abused in public.

My hope is that my readers–you few, you happy few–will read and comment on both weblogs, but now you get a choice. There’s more of me, and who wouldn’t want that?

(The shifting in the Earth’s axis of rotation was from the collective raising of hands. . .)

Verbal Anachronisms

One problem that the writer of historical fiction faces is whether a word or a phrase existed in the time of the story. Some, alas, don’t care, and that lack of concern used to be tolerated. Chaucer, after all, gave us mediaeval knights fighting in the Trojan War in his Troilus and Criseyde, for example. John Wayne carried an 1873 Colt SAA and an 1892 Winchester rifle in many of his westerns, regardless of the year in which the story is supposed to take place. But there are at least a small number of critics–I include myself in that group, of course–who get into a fury when we see a nickel-plated M1911 in the hands of an Englishman in James Cameron’s Titanic. (Yes, it’s theoretically possible, but highly unlikely, and we’re going to pick that nit.)

But what’s a conscientious writer to do? Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey – Maturin series, read everything that he could get his hands on from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That’s a good technique, but one that requires more time and money than many have.

Another approach is to buy a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. This, of course, requires either a dedicated shelf or a magnifying glass (provided by the publisher, if you buy the small print edition). Or one could subscribe to the O.E.D. on-line. Any of those are also spendy.

Here’s the cheap bastard’s approach: The Online Etymology Dictionary

The sources for that site are good, and it’s free. It provides a quick way of checking whether your character can refer to a calculator at all and if that word names a person or a device when the conversation occurs.

Now heave away, me writers, and stow your words ship-shape and Bristol fashion.