The Minefield of Anachronisms

Would words and phrases like "operative" and "pump him for information" be out of place in a novel set in the 1800s? We investigate!

Nev March, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #810

The historical novel attempts to take a reader into a different time, and sometimes, a different place too. For example, my historical mystery "Murder in Old Bombay" transports readers to nineteenth century Bombay, the center of colonial India during the British Raj. To be effective, a historical narrative must weave the facts and sounds of the time and place into the story, so that readers feel this story could not have occurred in any other time-frame. Anachronisms—the use of words, objects or phrases in a period when they did not exist—are the bane of the historical fiction writer’s life.

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Why does this matter? A reader cracks open a new book with a sense of anticipation, expectations fed by the cover art and the book blurb, suspending disbelief as they begin. As they turn pages, every detail must align else the bubble bursts, the curtain falls, the illusion is gone. Imagine reading about ancient Rome, and one of the characters says “No deal!” In that micro-second, the scene is shot, that fragile tapestry torn down, and suspended disbelief comes crashing down with all the weight of disappointment. The author has broken that promise, announced first in the genre and then made explicit in the blurb, leaving an unhappy customer to toss the book aside, return it to the library or angrily report that terrible term, DNF—did not finish.

When the illusion holds, the story unfolds. The reader dives in, turning page after page, enjoying the place and time, experiencing it first-hand. When they are immersed, they feel the character’s difficulties and troubles, their quandaries, anticipate their plans and root for them; they weep at their failures as events trip up the protagonist, until the final unfolding, where both reader and character are surprised. If success is achieved, the reader feels it is hard won, as in real life. If it is not achieved, yet the protagonist has changed in other ways, then too the reader is satisfied. They may feel that, just as life does not always reward, so too does this book mirror the vagaries of fortune which don't always favor the brave—sometimes they die, leaving us sadder and wiser, but grateful for their efforts.

When the illusion holds, the story unfolds.

None of this will work if the details do not align. Anachronisms are anathema to the dream.

In a recent WIP (work-in-progress) I used the term “Let’s pump him for information.” Now my story is set in 1893. Did people speak like this? Which people? Where? Here’s how I look it up.

My protagonist, Diana Framji, is a gutsy immigrant educated in England, traveling around Chicago with a local sleuth, so I’m confident that at least in terms of location, I’m fairly safe. But the time! Was that term in use at the time? To check, I visited Etymonline and typed the term ‘pump him’ into the search. Browsing the results—the different uses of the word "pump"— and settling on pump (verb), I read “c. 1500, from pump (noun). Metaphoric extension in pump (someone) for information is from 1630s.”

Excellent! “Pump him for information” has been used since the 1630s, so I’m safe to use it in common dialog, in 1893. However it’s unlikely that the rather proper Lady Diana will say that, so I shall have the local operative use it instead. Ah—“operative.” Dictionary.com tells me the origin of the word "operative" for "detective" is from 1590–1600. Phew!

Of course one must watch out for dialog, you say, but what about narration? Alas the same rule holds! The narrator must maintain the tone and knowledge available to the POV (point of view) character, that is, whichever character the scene is being narrated from. This is obvious in first-person novels, but less so in books written in third person. When POV switches from one scene to another, or one character to another, it must hold good in every scene. Unless your character is a time traveler, they cannot know how electricity works prior to 1880s. Even then, in those early years, such knowledge would mean they are a scientist, inventor, or engineer in that field.

Particularly troublesome are words that were formed during world events—"shell shock" comes from World War I, and would be called different terms in later years. It was called "Combat Stress Reaction" (CSR) and "battle fatigue" in World War II—"PTSD" is a very recent term. "Carpet bomb," "code talker," and "sad sack" come from WWII army slang. Etymonline says the origin of "recon" was around 1918, when used for reconnaissance (noun); but as late as 1966 for reconnoiter (verb). Beware of using beachhead, blackout, genocide, radar in books set before 1940s!

The author’s job is less to educate readers on etymology than to entertain and give insight.

That said, it’s astonishing how many "modern" words were used centuries ago! "Mobilize" and "refugee" come from the 1600s, while "scapegoat" comes from the 1500s! The book "English Through the Ages" by William Brohaugh is a treasure trove of such "modern" phrases in use well before the 19th century. Watch a play by Shakespeare (many available on YouTube) and you will notice some curiously modern words. Scrolling through "Coriolanus" offers words like "inventory," "belly," "storehouse," "shop," "audit," "vein," "microcosm," and "got off" (for "got away"). The point is, a writer needs to check. Since all this checking slows me down while writing my first draft, I simply mark them in bold font and continue, so that I can return to them once my draft is done.

Where words have changed meaning over time, it’s best to use the word with the current meaning in mind, or risk being drawn into irate arguments with your dearest friends. Anyway, the author’s job is less to educate readers on etymology (the origin of words) than to entertain and give insight—and no one likes a know-it-all!

Authenticity matters to the illusion, to the story. However, checking whether something existed, or whether a word was or wasn’t used has added advantages. You may find in that very search, ideas for the twists and turns of your story that generate added veracity, suspense and believable obstacles for your protagonist. For example, I researched Victoria Cross recipients to figure out whether an Indian would be awarded one in the 1890s (the answer is no, only white British officers were given a VC, while Indian natives were awarded the Order of Merit). My research led me to Thomas Kavanaugh who disguised himself to rescue his comrades during the 1857 siege of Lucknow. This sparked the idea for my protagonist, Captain Jim, to have an adventure traveling in disguise to rescue a band of Gurkha soldiers abandoned in enemy terrain. Even that action wasn’t imaginary—it’s based on the heroic battle of Saragarhi, modified appropriately to fit my story.

In sum, the writer’s task is building a believable scene, a story that immerses and surprises and leaves the reader satisfied. The rest are details; the skyscraper of story rests upon your foundation of believable details.

About the Author

Nev March, Writing for Grammar Girl

Nev March is the winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award. Leaving a long career in business analysis in 2015 she returned to her passion, writing fiction. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers Osher Institute, and is an active member of the Mystery Writers of America. A Parsi Zoroastrian herself, Nev lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Murder in Old Bombay is her debut novel.