Friday, October 18, 2013

How historical fiction chronicles linguistic change, or What the hell is an air-port?

Historical fiction ought to create a convincing illusion of the period in which it is set. If it can reveal strangeness in our own time, so much the better.

Here are two short passages, about twenty pages apart, from the closing chapters of Black Out, set in 1944 and 1948 and the first of John Lawton's Troy novels:
"`And where would I land?' 
"`West London. There's a new airfield under construction on the far side of Houndslow. They call it Heath Row.'"
and
"Heathrow was referred to as an air-port. Troy presumed that this fiction was in some way meant to distinguish it from such places as Croydon which had always been called an aerodrome or Brize Norton which remained an airfield."
Have you ever thought how odd it is that the word port should be applied to a place where no harbor or ships are to be found? I had not until I read the passage in Lawton.

(Heath Row as two words in the first use, one in the second is a nice touch, too.  Presumably this reflects the process by which two words, expressing distinct ideas, fuse with increasing use and become a compound word to express a new idea. Either that, or it's one hell of a thought-provoking typographical error.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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25 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

As a fan of base-ball, evolution of the language has always fascinated me. (Not to mention the H in Pittsburgh, which was in the original, disappeared for a time, and was resurrected.)

October 18, 2013  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

Just thinking about this yesterday. There was a phrase in an hist novel set in the 1930's--which I'll refrain from quoting b/c...i might meet the guy--which made me stop and think, 'would they have said that then?' then, I thought, 'yeah, they might have.' (i have come across words/phrases i've thought to be utterly modern and found them to be older than them there hills. but then, i've discarded them, b/c they SOUND too modern, somehow, and they might cause a reader to go, 'hang on a second...did they say that back when...?' and if a reader is doing that...)

October 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: Base-ball is a perfect example. And I'm glad the h in Pittsburgh was recognized as a relic worth preserving of the era that immediately predated our retreat to pre-18th-century standards of literacy.

October 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kevin, you have a good sense of what period language ought to do (a better sense than the author at the recent Bouchercon who said that when she gets e-mails from readers pointing out such anachronisms, she relies with something like "Thank you for your time," and dismisses the complaints. I have not read that author's books, and I have no desire to do so now.) If I recall correctly, she stated the obvious that words and expressions may be part of popular speech before they are recorded, and she probably thought herself clever for doing so. The question of how a word fits, of whether it sounds appropriate for the period in which the story is set? She showed no sign of giving such matters the slightest thought.

The most grating linguistic anachronism I have found in recent years was clusterfuck on the first page of a novel set in 1953. Even if someone had used the word then, more than a decade before it was first recorded, the word is so plainly redolent of the 1960s that its occurence in what purports to be 1953 is a gross distraction. I'll never pick that novel up again.


October 18, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

When I first started reading crime novels from the '40s and '50s, I remember being charmed by seeing "'phone" rendered with the apostrophe. I've forgotten what the book was.

October 18, 2013  
Anonymous Ben Sobieck said...

The cure for all these questions is steampunk. I'm not a huge fan of it outside of a few alternative history novels, but it does allow you to write your period piece using modern language. Otherwise, it's real easy for these mudsills to get knocked into a cocked hat hotter than a whorehouse on nickel night.

October 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, I've read stories in which it was uncertain that everyone would have a telephone. If one character wanted to know if another had a phone at home, he or she would ask: "Are you on the phone?"

P.G. Wodehouse's stories occasionaly render 'phone with an apostrophe--and also pro' for professional, the latter in the golf stories, if I recall correctly.

October 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ben: I haven't read much steampunk, but I like what Alan Moore does with it in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

You're right that language in historical ficiton can go bad faster than a deviled egg in the Sonoran Desert. Even more than authentic, the writer has to be convincing. Such authors are responsible to the past as well as to all the other things to which good authors of fiction are responsible.

October 18, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Its interesting about Heathrow. JG Ballard never used the word Heathrow. He always called it London Airport. One of the reasons why Crash is so strange and timeless is precisely this refusal to buy into the whole Heathrow thing.

As much as I liked George Best I'll never call Belfast Harbour Airport, George Best Airport because it just seems ridiculous.

October 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I learned from my bit of research into the airport's history that it was known officially as London Airport from 1946 until 1965, but that the area had a long association with a hamlet called Heathrow dating back to the 15th century. The upshot is that both Ballard and Lawton could probably choose either name for his own reasons and have historically justifiable reasons for doing so.

I'll never fly out of Reagan National, and my home town's airport will always be Dorval Airport rather than Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport.

The meta-question is when airports became so central to our way of thinking abou the world that their names carry such weight for authors and readers.

October 18, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I like how the combination of two words into a compound word make them different in our minds somehow, even though you would say them more or less the same.

And I like the reverse situation where they look the same but are accented differently by different speakers. In the U.S. we pretty much mash it all together and say Randomhouse, so it's very stately to hear the Brits pronounce it Random HOUSE.

October 18, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Also, La Guardia is nice. Much nicer than the way we say LAX, or SFO out here. Although I think it's almost always "John Wayne" that people fly into or out of rather than the city name of Santa Ana.

October 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I think the British tend to accent the second syllable of words where Americans would emphasize the first. A holdover from close association with French, perhaps?

My own newspaper has relatively recently changed its style from Web site to website, one of countless examples of the phenomenon to which I referred above.

My newspaper does the same, and very wrongly so, for backseat as a noun just because the dictionary we use lists the word that way, and getting that one right is not too high on anyone's list these days.

October 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"John Wayne" is kind of cool. Do people say, "LAX" and "SFO" out your way? The only person I've known here who would say, "El-Ay-Ex" was a pathetic blowhard, so the term has unpleasant associations for me. Other than that, there's nothing wrong with it, I suppose.

October 18, 2013  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Is phone a correct usage now?
I still write "'phone".

October 19, 2013  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Here's an example of the lengths some people will go to correct a missing apostrophe.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/tippex-kids-fined-for-correcting-americas-missing-apostrophes-907226.html

October 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I can't speak for anyone but my family and circle of friends, but I think LAX is pretty common, partly because there is more than one airport in the greater L.A. area, and it could get confusing. SFO would be more if you wanted to designate the airport rather than the city, as SFO isn't really in San Francisco at all. But people pretty much always just say San Jose for Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport as their website designates it. You would never say you were flying into Mineta as far as I know.

October 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Among other things, I would guess the Mineta designation is too new to have come into wide use. But people do say, "El-Ay'Ex" for the Los Angeles airport?

This will become more than academic for me, as I will have to make flight plans for next year's Bouchercon.

October 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P à D: I would go so far as to say that not only is phone, without an apostrophe. considered correct, at least in America, but that most people would regard the apostrophe as an eccentricity if not a mistake--and would be ignorant of the reason for it, of course.

October 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, L-A-X, not 'lax'.

I would say that actually saying the whole word "telephone" rather than just phone or even cell, is now bordering on eccentricity here.

I realized that I can't remember seeing the city of San Jose, California ever written as San José, although at least it's almost always pronounced more or less correctly. San is usually like sand rather than sahn, though. I'm sure native Spanish speakers here get it right.

October 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P à D: I had heard about those guys, but I had not heard that they'd been arrested. I, too, have corrected signs in public and was once scolded for doing so. But I am not as slick a self-promoter as those guys. I think such mistakes are best laughed at, without any thought that the perpetrators will correct them or would even care about doing so,

.

October 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: I hate "cell" for "cell phone" both for its hip ubiquity and because it reflects ignorance of what "cell" really means in cellular communications--the area covered by each tower or transmission station.

In re San/Sahn here are two posts I put up on Mark Zuckerberg's social medium yesterday:

A woman at the next table in this chain coffee outlet just said to her friend, "Would you like a beverage?" Not a "drink," but a "beverage." She said this with a straight face. The book on the table next to her computer is called "New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan." Is the air conditioning on too high, or did I just shudder?

The same woman just said: "Worst case seen-Aw-rio" into her phone and "touch base" and "taken the initiative" and "conversation" (three times, including "What are your thoughts around the conversation?") and "start to strategize about your priorities" and, naturally, "reaching out." &*&%$, I have to get away from this mutant now.


Scenario is occasionally misused by reporters or members of the public who think it has something to to with pictures, as in "painted a scenario."

And finally, my newspaper also relatively recently changed its preferred usage to cellphone from cell phone.

October 19, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Scenario would be a good one for me to do over at my place, because, although I believe I do know how to use it in a sentence, I haven't ever really given a thought as to how to define it.

October 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your vocabulary won't suffer from that word's absence. It is overused, particularly by people who think "worst-case scenario" lends gravity to their utterances.

A scenario is a script. Keep that in mind, and it's easy to use which metaphorical extensions of the word are correct and which are not.

October 19, 2013  
Anonymous E A M Harris said...

I like the little historical nuggets one can get from historical novels, but only if there aren't too many of them and they aren't too pushy.

October 29, 2013  

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