A quick vent-post about the problems I often encounter with language in historical fiction.
Those of you who read my previous post on historical language know that this is an ongoing thing with me. But tonight, I was looking for a word that means ‘scoundrel’ but isn’t ‘scoundrel,’ because ‘scoundrel’ is a 16th century word.
So I settle on “rogue.” But Rogue is also 16th century. How about “ruffian?” Yeah, the 16th century had all the good words.
Eventually, I find “caitiff” which is a 14th century word for “scoundrel,” but is about as lively as an anvil. “You’ll not be paid a penny, you caitiff!” Doesn’t have quite the ring I was looking for. And even if I use it, half of my readers will stop, look at the camera (am I the only one who’s life is followed by movie cameras?), and say, “huh?” And the other half will just skip over it and silently curse me. No. the search must continue.
Skelm! Perfect! It’s got a nice Saxon bite to it and sounds absolutely perf… oh. Curse you, 16th century! Curse you to hell!
*mental note: My next novel will be set in the 16th century*
So, after far too long spent searching (so long, in fact, that I can’t really remember why I’m looking for the damned word), I stumble upon “Poltroon.” Good. Sounds like an insult. “You won’t get a penny! You will get justice, you poltroon!” I like it. Readers won’t know what it means, but they’ll get the gist. Think of Jesse from Breaking Bad going, “Oh, snap! He called you a damned poltroon!” In fact, I may start calling people poltroons. Help me out. Let’s bring back poltroon. Start using it in ever day life. Let’s see how long it takes for a celebrity to use it. Um… where was I? Poltroon! I check the date…Yes! It works. Happy day! It only took 20 minutes and a venting blog post about language to find one! Wait a minute. Wait a damned minute…
…in the 13th century, “poltroon” was spelled “poultron.” It was only spelled “poltroon” in the — say it with me — 16th century. Sigh. The gangsta-snap, you-been-dissed quality of “poltroon” gets completely lost when it’s “poultron.” It has that sophisticated Frenchiness that defies street cred. “Ahh, non, non. You will not get a franc! You will get zee justeese, you poultron!”
Can I just use the 16th century spelling? Of course I can. Will I be accurate? Not really. But does it really matter? Unless I write the entire book in Middle English, it will never be 100% accurate. And God knows I’ve done my homework on this word.
I’m going to use it. Damn it all to hell, I’m using it. And when some poltroon decides to post a public tweet saying: “@robertocalas, in Emaculum, you used word poltroon, but in 13th c. waz actually spelled, poultron. just saying.” I am going to call them a filthy, damnable skelm.
Although it will have to mean filthy in the physically-unclean sort of way, because the “morally unclean or obscene” meaning of that word wasn’t around until …Yeah. You know the rest.