Sunday, February 20, 2011

Words, words, anachronistic words

A crime novel I am reading now that was copyrighted in 2010 but set in 1953 includes the following:
"He had personally and with great deliberation planned a mission that even the most naive GI could see was a clusterfuck waiting to unfold."
The problem (other than that I've never liked the word clusterfuck) is that its occurence in 1953 appears to be an anachronism. Wiktionary says the word was "Reportedly coined by the hippie poet Ed Sanders in the 1960s." Another source traces the first usage to 1966.

What anachronisms have you come across in your reading? How badly did they bother you?
***
(Here's a post I made a few months ago on how vocabulary contributes to a novel's sense of time and place.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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46 Comments:

Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

I can't remember any specifically now, but generally, if I notice them, one or two won't bother me that much. However, they become more irritating each time I come across one.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Like Fred I can't think of any specific examples off hand, but man, they drive me nuts! My mind just thinks sloppy, sloppy, sloppy, then it taints the whole book for me. (I must be a very unforgiving type!)

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anachronisms like this are like pebbles in one's shoe. They may shift to a less irritating position -- or they may not. This one was especially jarring, as the word in question was not only one for which I have special dislike, but one that sounds very much like a product of a later time than that of the book.

An author need not be pedantically accurate. I'm not sure many readers would complain if a book set in 1968 used a word that achieved currency only in 1969. But this word was not only anachronistic by ten or fifteen years, its whole tone was wrong. I had no idea when clusterfuck had first been used. I looked it up only because its tone was so jarring for a scene said to have taken place in the early 1950s.

So far, it's nothing more than a minor distraction in a book I like otherwise. But I wouldn't complain if the author and publisher get rid of it in future printings. In order to increase the chances of that happening, here's the title: Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vanda, at the very least, I wonder whether the word would simply sound less jarring to a Southern African living in Australia than it does to a Canadian living in the U.S.

Of course, I could be overanalyzing. The author in the post to which I have just linked in the body of this psot used a particular word with impressive chronological accuracy in one of his novels. I chalked this up to his profession: librarian. No, he said, he knew the word was around at the time of his book's setting because he had heard it in a Three Stooges movie.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Can't remember or point to any specific ones except that it's the kind of thing that might make me stop reading a book if I come across it enough times. Once is probably forgivable. More than once is a careless pattern.

In historical novels it is probably unforgivable.

Although some writers, I understand, use this as some sort of 'artistic' device. Or so I'm told.

One of the main things I dislike intensely is when a wrtier sets his book in, say, ancient times, and then has the characters speak as if they're meeting on a street corner in Times Square.

No.

There are a couple of very highly recommended mystery series set in 'the olden days' that I don't read because I've never been able to get past the 'modern sounding' speech patterns the writer uses.

February 21, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Hah! Good topic. Totally agree about the "clusterfuck" example.
On the other hand, my intense dislike is for those historical novels that attempt to copy speech and vocabulary of the time. This is particularly jarring in first-person accounts, because the entire book will be written in antiquated style. Apart from being irritating to decypher, the style cannot be accurately duplicated, at least not for any length of time. Such speech patterns are garnered from reading books written during the time of the story. These may not be good sources for actual speech. Probably aren't. Add to this that dialects have become lost, as have many words. In other words, what you get is fakery.
Therefore, it is just better to stay with the modern language. This is doubly true for, say, Ancient Rome or eleventh century Japan because you are not writing in Latin or old Japanese. How modern such language will be is another matter. The language should fit the characters' way of life. I have never been troubled by Lindsey Davis, for example. Her rather modern style fits the character if he lived today. It makes her books more vivid.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, this book is a historical novel by any reasonable definition of the term: The author is writing about a period other than her own, although her knowledge of the time and palace could very well have come from first-hand witnesses rather than historical research.

I thought briefly that this usage might have been example of the device you have in mind, that the narrator might be a disembodied voice out of time. But that's not the case here. The word is clearly a thought of the character in question, and the character is doing his thinking in 1953.

You hate books set in the past whose characters speak as if they're meeting on a street corner in Times Square. The commenter immediately after you "historical novels that attempt to copy speech and vocabulary of the time." I cannot think of a neater statement of the dilemma that confronts authors of historical fiction.

(One such author discusses her approach here.)

February 21, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Good example. Can't read Liss! Tried, but am totally turned off. I believe the book was set in the 18th century. I have an excellent background in 18th c. literature, and people just didn't talk like that. Now let me offer Patrick O'Brien. He uses late 18th century phrases and a few speech patterns to such good effect that you feel in the time without getting bogged down in circumlocutions.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I would imagine that this problem has sent more than one would-be historical novelist gibbering to the insane asylum. I find your approach attractive: Strive for fluency and transparency. Write in modern language, but be careful to avoid anachronisms: No clusterfucks, no ukiyo-e prints in 11th-century Japan.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.: I think Liss has written a few books set in 18th-century England, but The Coffee Trader is seventeenth-century Amsterdam. I don't remember much about his language, which may be a good thing, a testament to its transparency. The book's sheer accumulation of detail worked for me. It all came together into a convincing picture of the time -- to me, and impressive act of will on Liss' part.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Oh I'm not saying that historical novels/mysteries/thrillers (whatever) need to be written AS IF THEY WERE BEING EXACTLY WRITTEN inside the period. ALl I'm saying is use a bit of imagination and technique and make it feel or sound, I don't know: comfortable? Dont make me have to stumble over history-speak. It can be done. The late Ariana Franklin did it very well in her medieval novels. So, for that matter, did Neal Stephenson in CRYPTONOMICON whose storyline jumps about from pre-WWII to modern day and back again.
It's do-able.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I had not known until your comment that Ariana Franklin had died. -- just three-and-a-half weeks ago, I see.

I've often cited some interesting things she did to keep Mistress of the Art of Death plausible. Research: Yes, an Italian woman could have practiced medicine at the time; Sicily was well ahead of England in the 12th century (possibly because of Muslim influence, though I don't thinlk Frankilin discussed that). Making Adelia an outsider coming into England, in turn, lets her describe the country in detail that would have been jarring had a native done it.

I have heard the occasional complaint that Adelia's attitudes are too modern. Well, she's a woman, Jewish, Italian, and a member of a society more advanced than that of the England where the book takes place. Who better to have attitudes outside the mainstream?

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Dorte H said...

I read a historical mystery some time ago where the narrator stated that the farmer was very conscious that his animals “met their ends in as humane a fashion as possible".

Am I the only reader who suspect this was written to appease modern readers´ concern about animals´ rights? I am sure my grandparents treated their animals well, but as long as survival is an issue, a society can hardly afford to think of the well-being of their animals.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, such a passage could well have been a sop to modern concerns. On the other hand, perhaps the author had done his or research and found that such an attitude might have been appropriate for the period in question. What was the period?

One common bit of American wisdom, for example, is that the Native American tribes would try their best to use every part of each animal they killed, and would say prayers over the souls of the animals, and so on. Would some such attitude have been plausible for the period of your story?

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Dorte H said...

White Americans, 1915 - a very large family. I´d have expected the father was more concerned about the survival of his children. So I think it is difficult not to see this as ´a sop to modern concerns´ as you put it.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd say that the onus was on the author to demonstrate that such a sentiment was not a sop to modern sensibilities. An author who is going to insert an attitude bound to strike a reader as odd or anachronistic had better make a convincing case for doing so. I'd likely have been as jarred as you were.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Mack said...

I feel I need to defend the term "clusterfuck." I learned it serving in the U.S. Army and, believe me, there were times when it was the only word to use to describe a situation. Especially in Vietnam. That was in 1969 so I can't establish its use in 1953. I can testify that it was well established in the late 60s including the Mongolian variation.

It is so permanently burned into my psyche that it comes to mind with little effort.

February 21, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I find myself agreeing on the humane slaughtering bit. From the quote, is sounds exactly like a sop to PETA et al. Of course, such sentiments have always existed, but they are a matter of character. In this case: show, don't tell. Show the reader the farmer's fondness for his animals and the care he takes not to hurt them unnecessarily.
The problem with Ariana, I think, is that she was feeding into 20th century views about women held by her female readers. Hence the choice of protagonist. This happens very commonly in historical novels: we must have a liberated, strong woman, or the novel will fail. (I have a male protagonist, because women did not go about investigating crimes in eleventh century Japan).

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mack, who needs clusterfuck when the military had already given us the perfectly serviceable snafu?

My feelings about the word notwithstanding, it's a word of its time, and that time did not come until well after 1953.

And yes, I did discover Mongolian clusterfuck while preparing this post. The addition of Mongolian pushes the term into the giddy stratosphere of overstatement for me. I like it.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Mack said...

Nah, snafu is much too tame and has been around since WWII. Besides, the "f" in snafu is too easily replaced with euphemisms.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I agree with you and Dorte on humane slaughtering of animals. I'd reserve final judgment until I read the book, though, on the off-chance the auther makes the reference work.

We have gone back and forth on Ariana Franklin before. Sure, she probably gave her protagonist attitudes she thought would attract 21st-century female readers. All I'm saying is that she is that she chose cannily when she picked a protagonist who might plausibly give voice to those attitudes -- the outsider from a progressive society, and so on. If I recall correctly, I did some quick and dirty research around the time I read the book. Women indeed could practice medicine at the time in Sicily but not in England.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mack: I was just talking about snafu with a colleague this week. We once had an editor who restricted its use in the newspaper because of what the f really stands for -- even though most readers would not know the derivation.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter, yes the death of Ariana Franklin took many of us by surprise. I was terribly saddened by it. Posted about it on my blog -Peter you have to check out my blog more often. ;)

I think Adelia's attitude is to be expected and I agree with your summation. We have to assume also that Adelia is an often impatient genius. As for the Muslin angle, remember that her body guard/assistant/friend is a Muslim. There's no secret of that in the books. And she does every now and then make mention that medicine was helped by Muslim ways.

Franklin set her books in the perfect in-between time zone - a niche in which women were still being taught. Later, of course it all changed.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Excuse me. As a 21st century female reader, please don't speak for me. I love Ariana's books and not necessarily because her protagonist is a woman. But because she is an interesting woman living in an interesting time and called upon to do a job which, it appeared wasn't being done very well by men. So because she can do what need's doing she is s sop to modern women's sensiblities?

But in truth I much prefer a male protagonist and blogged about it. I want the progtagonist who will do the job, get things done. I want a protagonist who is, above all, COMPETENT. Male or female/whatever.

As written, Adelia is, as I've said in my other comment - a genius. Geniuses must be allowed their quirks.

In England Adelia would have instantly been accused of being a witch if anyone had seen her practising medicine: hence the Muslim bodyguard who must masquerade as the actual doctor - being a man. While Adelia does the actual work and he fronts for her. Hmmmm. That sounds awfully familiar...

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

I recall clusterfuck being used in the Navy in the 1970s, but we also SNAFU - situation normal: all fucked up.

I believe that SNAFU has been used since WWII.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, yes, I ought to expand my horizons by visiting your site more often the same way I expanded my horizons by reading Mistress of the Art of Death. That was a bit out of my normal range but on the list of a reading group to which I belonged briefly. I'm not sorry I read it.

It would be interesting to know why Franklin she chose the period she did, ehy a female protagonist from Sicily, why she brings her to England. A brief afterword to the novel offers some interesting facts about the reign of England's Henry II that could well answer the question why England?

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul: I'm also a fubar fan.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Fred said...

I was in the Air Force during the early '60s, and the only terms I remember were SNAFU and FUBAR.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I first heard fubar when I played softball against a team called The Fabulous Fubars. I've also found a list or two of entertaining military acronyms in connection with this post.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter, turns out that shortly after this enlightened period in Sicily, war ensued. If I'm not mistaken, the winners of that war -the church - dismantled the open society of that time sending everyone scurrying for cover. The teaching of women, especially in medical schools was abandoned. Had the books been set there, there would have been little tension in the circumstances of Adelia's inquiries. Well, at least until war demolished her status.

England at the time was pretty backward in comparison. So I think it made for a good dichotomy. Adelia thrust into a situation where she must function and produce results while working in secret under the king's orders. Meanwhile under threat of death if anyone should discover she was a healer and medical investigator. I mean, the thing is ripe for drama.

The last two books in the series: GRAVE GOODS and A MURDEROUS PROCESSION are, frankly, superb. I would have wanted these books to go on and on...

It's amazing to me that no one's thought to bring these to the screen. They are perfect for a certain sort of actress.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To the screen, or maybe to cable as a television series.

I'm shaky on my history, but I do know that Islam was more enlightened than Western Christendom for centuries, though its own high point was a few centuries before Adelia's era.

February 21, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Not altogether sure about the Franklin novel's date, but in the 1300s, Sicily had a strong Muslim intelligentsia, and many useful scientific facts were passed to the West that way. The society there at the time was mixed of different faiths and nationalities and very tolerant of each other's ways.
This wouldn't have been true of England necessarily, though knowledge travelled easily in the M.A. via a common language, Latin. Since women did all the nursing in those days, I would guess that the character could have practiced without being called a witch. The more maniacal forms of witchcraft persecution date to later centuries.

February 22, 2011  
Blogger Mack said...

I tried to read The City and the City but just couldn't get into it. And I'm a science-fiction/fantasy/horror reader. Maybe I'll give it another try because I don't remember why I set it aside.

February 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.: Didn't the rise in rationalistic thought in the sixteenth century accompany a rise in witchcraft? There's a lesson for us all about human perversity in that.

February 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And Franklin's novel is set in the twelfth century, in the time of England's Henry II.

February 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mack said...

I tried to read The City and the City but just couldn't get into it. And I'm a science-fiction/fantasy/horror reader. Maybe I'll give it another try because I don't remember why I set it aside.


Mack, I think I've confused matter by posting comments here that I meant to post on my William Gibson discussion, so I'll post this both there and here.

What I seem remember about the opening chapters of The City and the City are shimmers of light, presumably at points of strain where the two cities threaten to come into contact with one another. I could be utterly wrong about what the shimmers mean, but they seemed a bit obvious at the time.

February 22, 2011  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

The two cities exist in the same plane or universe. The inhabitants have grown up teaching themselves not to "see" the other city, even though they walk past a building that is in the other city or "see" a person coming towards them if that inhabitant is from the other city.

It's called "unseeing" and clearly doesn't always work for the inhabitants. But, nobody mentions it, so "it never happens."

And, it's illegal to see the other city or its inhabitants.

February 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Illegal to see the other city or its inhabitants."

Now, that sounds worth a look. Thanks.

February 22, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I have not yet read Ariana Franklin's "Mistress in the Art of Death" yet, but I did just purchase it for a friend who was a health care professional before she retired.

She likes historical mysteries and books with woman protagonists and any topic related to health care.

I'll hear her opinion on the book soon, and then I'll borrow it and read it and see how it goes.

I've only heard good things about Franklin's series, and it intrigues me.

I agree with Yvette's points about how interesting this character and the setting could be given the year, the country, etc.

I personally like strong, determined, smart women protagonists either in historical or contemporary crime fiction--but not exclusively.

As far as women being banished from the medical profession or repressed for being "witches," one aspect of this historically is that when the inquisitions of Spain, Portugal and Italy occurred, all were oppressed who were not Catholics--Jews, Muslims and anyone who was thought to be a "heathen" or who practiced "paganism," or used curses or hexes. Often women were accused of these behaviors and were punished.

Anyway, I look forward to reading Franklin's books; they sound fascinating.

Also, the first one takes up anti-Semitism as well. A famous anti-Semitic assault happened in England in the 12th century. (This came up around the dust-up with Sarah Palin using the term "blood libel"; others in the media brought it up and I researched it, too).

So this sounds interesting in the book as well.

February 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, the precarious position of Jews in England figures in "Mistress of the Art of Death," though mostly in the form of references to events before the time of the book. Henry II was apparently fairly tolerant -- in some ways.

The assault to which you refer may be the massacre at York in 1190, just after Henry's reign.

February 23, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

A report from the friend is that "Mistress of the Art of Death," is great, kept her up till all hours. (I knew I was contributing to bad habits!)

February 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's not a bad bad habit to have. As I've mentioned, I found Mistress of the Art of Death worth reading even though it's not the sort of book I normally read. Perhaps for that reason, I paid closer attention to what I liked about the book and why I liked it.

February 24, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

As a reader-friend of mine says--and reasserted last week, one always learns something from a book.

I would think with this historical period plus a forward-thinking character, much research by the author, and a good writer, would contribute to quite a good read.

February 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sure, but at the same time I'm sympathetic to I.J.'s objections to Ariana Franklin. Words are not the only things that can be anachronistic in historical fiction.

February 27, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

What?

I will reserve judgment until I actually read this book, which I am eagerly awaiting.

It might be enjoyable just on its own merit.

March 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I meant that ideas and sentiments can be anachronistic. I did not find this to be the case in Mistress of the Art of Death, but I can understand why another reader might.

March 09, 2011  

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