Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a guest post by William Sutton.

William Sutton comes from Dunblane, Scotland. He has written for The Times and the Fortean Times, acted in the longest play in the world, and played cricket for Brazil. His first novel is a Victorian mystery of a gleaming metropolis mired in corruption.

He writes for international magazines about language, music and futurology. His plays have been produced on radio and in London fringe theatres. He has performed at events from the Edinburgh Festival to High Down Prison, often with a ukulele. He teaches Latin and plays accordion with chansonnier Philip Jeays.

Click here to visit his official website.

Guest post by William Sutton - Electric Blog Tour Day 9: Slang, Wonderful Slang

(Tags: slang, historical, dictionaries, Ngrams, editing)

Lawless & the House of Electricity by William Sutton, third in his series of Lawless mysteries exploring the darker sides of Victorian London, is published by Titan Books.

Word Detectives: The Historical Tightrope

What is the connection between sexless, monomaniacal and flapdoodle?

Why, it’s the same as the connection between fossil fuel, war-torn, make-believe, and clever clogs. They’re all words and phrases I checked in editing Lawless & the House of Electricity. Not for their meaning. For their authenticity in 1864.

Anachronisms jar.

It’s a historical tightrope walk. To balance accuracy with comprehensibility. To balance what sounds right with what is right. I love looking back at the phrases I’ve checked during editing. Not only does it paint a lurid picture of the 1860s, it also reveals to me the themes and obsessions of my own books.

Checking Google Ngrams for words occurring in 1863

I recently read historical novel that I absolutely loved, pitch perfect in use of research and beautifully evocative language. But here’s a single line that jarred:

“The man’s face morphed into a leer.”

Can you see what shook me from my reverie? Morphed...captures the movement of the face, but it’s such a modern usage, from video technology. What would work better? Dissolved into a leer? Twisted?

Contract with the Reader

Historical novelists do not promise to be true to the language of the time. Many of us choose to be. In The Crimson Petal and The White, the bold narrative style is emphasised by the tension between the Victorian scenes and a range of language – but I just couldn’t get into it.

In writing my Lawless novels, I don’t worry about getting it right in the first draft. But in editing, I filter and refine and adjust until it feels just right. My first editor was brilliant at spotting anachronisms. My editors at Titan have been equally eagle-eyed, spotting, for example, that the Criterion theatre wasn’t there yet (though the Princess’ Theatre Oxford St was).

So I have become a devoted slave of Google Ngrams, a brilliant site that scans through Google Books, cataloguing words’ frequency year by year.

Words Words Words

Some words sound like they must be more modern. I worried about all these:

  • pen portrait
  • firepower
  • early retirement
  • you guessed it
  • neck-and-neck
  • naff

But they all turned up in the literature of my period. Even “naff” (which, as palare/polari slang, ended up part of gay culture with the spurious derivation “not available for f***king”), though I had to turn to slang dictionaries of the period to check.

Try Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words (1859) by arch-lexicographer (and pornographer) John Camden Hotten.

The doyen of slang is of course Jonathon Green, for Green’s Dictionary of Slang is unequalled and his Timelines of Slang useful beyond measure.

A place to register slang of your own area is Disappearing Dictionary.

Whores of Yore’s Word of the Day is eye-opening (if you’re easily shocked).


Yea or Nay

Can I justify using these words and phrases in my novel, set in 1864?

(answers at bottom)

We never know for sure what will please readers and what will annoy them. Must I really write “an herbaceous border”? In Britain today, we pronounce the h in herb, thus “a herbaceous”; but many Victorians didn’t.

Hilary Mantel, in her Reith lectures, reports how (after her labours to be historically accurate) one critic complained how much she wrote about wallpaper.

Ah, the historical tightrope!

  • zounderkite – tweeted by Countdown’s Susie Dent, this lovely oath is not attested till much later
  • dude-fusser – sounds like it might be one of those new phrases that is actually a rediscovered old phrase, but it isn’t
  • illiquid – yes, lovely

  • teeter-totter – simply nope
  • flapdoodle – here is the usage chart. Phew! Just scrapes in by 1864.





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