Historical fiction writers and word geeks, may I introduce you to your new best friend: the Online Etymology Dictionary. Etymology is the study of the history of words, or, as the Online Etymology Dictionary defines it, the “facts of the origin and development of a word.” This is not to be confused with entomology, the study of insects. 😉
Few things ruin historical fiction faster than words or phrases that don’t fit the time period (imagine a dashing Regency hero with an immaculately tied cravat telling someone to “chill out”–and the spell is broken), and that’s where this dictionary comes in handy. It draws on the immense and expensive Oxford English Dictionary but is much more accessible (and free!). For instance, it tells me that my characters could go on a picnic anytime after the year 1748 (the first time the word was used in English), but are not likely to do so until 1800 or after (when the word became common). They can collect knick-knacks starting in the 1570s, hobnob after 1763, and while they can “make over” an old dress starting in the 1590s, they cannot get a “makeover” until 1981.
Google Ngram Viewer also helps writers pinpoint historical word usage by telling us when and how frequently a word was used in historical books. The great thing about the Online Etymology Dictionary, though, is that it explains how a word evolved over time. For instance, take the word mess. We use it often in modern English. Its original meaning was “a portion of food” (i.e., the Biblical/proverbial “a mess of pottage”). It came to mean a group of people eating together, so that by the 1530s it was used in the sense of “mess hall” for a place to dine. By 1738, it could mean food mixed all together. Then by 1828, it evolved to mean any kind of a jumble, and by 1834 it also meant “a state of confusion.” Now it’s the word we recognize, but you still have to be careful about idioms. “Make a mess” was first used in 1853, “mess with” is from 1903, “make a mess of [something]” 1909, and “mess up” 1933. Also, several of these started as Americanisms, so they may not have caught on quickly across the pond.
This means my Elizabethan characters will probably not use the word “mess” (because the only way they would understand it is a meaning that would confuse my modern readers). My Victorian characters can say, “What a mess” or “messy,” and they can “make a mess,” but they won’t “mess up.”
I admit this can get nitpicky (c.1962), and even the really sharp, “voice-y” historical fiction writers like Georgette Heyer occasionally let a modernism slip into their books without crumbling the facade of the world they’ve created, but I work on the theory that the fewer modern allusions in a book to pull readers out of the story, the better. On the other hand, if we use too much archaic language, all but the most stalwart (late 14th century) or hardcore (1951) readers will probably have trouble getting immersed in the story and drift away, so it’s a tightrope walk and depends on our intended audience. Still, if nothing else, the Online Etymology Dictionary will satisfy word lovers’ urges to geek out for a while.