When writing a story set in the distant past, how should the writer deal with archaic words that have gone out of use and are no longer in a modern dictionary? On the one hand, period terminology can evoke a sense of entering a different world. If one opens a novel and encounters men wearing chausses and braies, women wearing wimples and bliauts, dinner menus featuring manchet loaves and angel bread, reeves collecting feorm, a fyrdman carrying a seax or a musician playing a rebec, it’s immediately apparent that the story is set in a world that is not the same as the modern world, where people dress and act and perhaps think differently.
On the other hand, archaic terms can act as a barrier. Too many words that are too unfamiliar can create the impression that this world is not so much different as incomprehensible. I knew someone who loved historical fiction but who gave up on Jean Plaidy’s novels because she didn’t know what a Huguenot was and therefore thought she wouldn’t understand any of the story. (She gave me her Jean Plaidy collection, so I did quite well out of the deal.) I didn’t know what a Huguenot was either, but from the context I could work out that it was a sort of Protestant religious sect, which was enough to follow the novel. But my acquaintance liked to feel she had her feet on firm ground at all times, so for her the unfamiliar terminology barred her from reading the books.
In Wolf Girl, set in 7th-century Whitby, the author comes up with a compromise solution to the problem, by using some archaic terms and explaining them at first use, e.g. “.....the short sword they called a seax....”. Which worked well in this case as the novel only used a few such terms, but it would rapidly become tiresome in a novel that used a lot.
Colleen McCullough, in her Masters of Rome series, takes a different approach, making liberal use of Roman terminology and providing a comprehensive glossary at the back of each book. But this means the reader has to stop reading, flip to the back, read the glossary entry, and then get back into the story again.
I prefer to err on the side of accessibility, given a choice. As I argued earlier in the context of place names, the terminology was familiar to the people who lived at the time. They didn’t need to stop and think when someone mentioned a bliaut or a seax, nor did they need it explained. For me, too many archaic terms have the effect of distancing me from the story. I like to ‘translate’ archaic terminology into a modern or near-modern equivalent whenever I can, in the hope that this makes it easier for a reader to conjure up the intended mental image. Some examples of 'translated' Old English terms:
- feorm (goods, mostly foodstuffs, paid by an individual or estate to a lord at regular intervals, often annually) = food-rent
- fyrd (fighting force composed of freemen doing obligatory military service for their lord) = militia
- seax (single-bladed long knife) = fighting knife, or dagger
- Witan (assembly of nobles who advise the king and choose his successor) = Council
Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory modern equivalent, so I stuck with the archaic term:
- atheling (male member of royal dynasty, potential candidate for king). The element ‘athel, aethel’ literally translates as ‘noble’, so the term is often translated as ‘nobleman’, but that doesn’t carry the royal element of the original’s meaning. ‘Prince’ is the nearest modern equivalent, but for me it has connotations of a precisely defined royal succession with a clear order of precedence, which wasn’t the case among athelings. 'Atheling' was used as a title, e.g. Edgar Atheling in the 11th century, so a few readers may have heard of it in that context.
- hide (area of land sufficient to support one family). The size of a hide depended on the land’s productivity, so there is no modern equivalent.
- thane (man holding land from the king as condition of, or reward for, military service). ‘Nobleman’ doesn’t fit, because a thane was not necessarily of noble blood and the land was not necessarily hereditary. Sometimes translated as ‘minister’, but that sounds like a civil servant or a politician and doesn’t have the right military connotation. At least Shakespeare used 'thane', so anyone who has ever seen or read the Scottish Play may have come across it.
One term I found particularly difficult was scop, the poet or singer who was the composer and keeper of oral tradition. ‘Poet’ or ‘singer’ conjure up an image of an entertainer and lose the important role of the scop as the keeper of folk memory. ‘Minstrel’ is too tinselly. ‘Bard’ is the Welsh equivalent, but it carries clear connotations of Celtic culture and so doesn’t sound right in an Old English context - and besides, I need ‘bard’ for the same role in the Brittonic cultures of Britain. The literal translation of ‘scop’ is ‘shaper’ or ‘maker’, in the sense of one who shapes words, and Tolkien uses this sense when he refers to ‘a maker in Rohan’. But I thought ‘maker’ or ‘word-shaper’ sounded too obscure for my purposes. In the end I settled on ‘skald’, which is the Norse equivalent of ‘scop’. It’s an anachronism, as Norse words wouldn’t arrive in Britain for another two centuries, but at least ‘skald’ has the right meaning and is still in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, so it seemed the best of the alternatives.
Any comments? Does this annoy you as ‘dumbing down’, or losing the evocative colour of period terms? Is archaic terminology a barrier to you when reading? Is a glossary helpful? What do you do when you’re reading a historical novel and encounter a word you don’t know - put the book down and fetch a dictionary, plough on and hope it becomes clear from the context, give up, or what?