24 August, 2006

Archaic terminology in historical fiction

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?

24 comments:

Susan Higginbotham said...

I'd much rather have the period term (and a glossary if there are so many of them they can't be explained unobtrusively in the text).

I've usually been able to figure out period terms from context, but most of what I've read has been set no earlier than the 12th century, so I haven't run into a book that was so chock-full of them as to become overwhelming.

Octavia Randolph said...

Thoughtful essay and very interesting and worthy topic, as always, Carla. As long as it serves the story I've pitched my tent firmly in the camp of authenticity. Introducing readers to historical place names and the actual names of physical objects or societal positions adds depth and veracity to the reading experience. It should go without saying that every obscure term be introduced in context so that the reader easily grasps what is intended. I also subtly reinforce the meaning later on. A glossary is invaluable, and if archaic place names are used, a page which lists them with their modern counterparts. (These resources are especially utilized by readers who do not employ English as their first language, so they serve an important end.) It's been interesting and gratifying how many readers have written who have encountered a term later which they had learnt from my work and say, "thanks to you I knew what it meant". I also don't want to jar a more well-historically informed reader (and as we all know, there are plenty of them out there) with using a term not appropriate to the era or culture when a perfectly good word does exist. Believe me you will hear about it if you do!

Alex Bordessa said...

I'm fine with archaic terms as long as it's explained, or becomes apparent what it means, soonish after it is introduced. And a glossary as a reminder can also be useful.

btw, on the subject of thane/thegn, I've occasionally got a bit animated when the phrase is used in a 5th-6th century context. I'm under the impression is wasn't used until later. I could be wrong, but I use gesith for my lot.

skint writer said...

I say - use the archaic term but make it obvious from the context what it means as Alex says -

Kalen Hughes said...

Oooooooo, what they all said!

I much prefer the correct period word/term to be used. If I really can't figure it out from the context I'll look it up. If the author thinks the lingo is so obscure that I'll never find it, then a glossary is a great addition (even if she only puts it on her website).

Great site BTW. Just found my way over from Romancing the Blog, and so happy I did.

Gabriele C. said...

I'd say go for the original words as well. But I admit, I don't have any problems with most Western Cultures and epochs anyway (didn't even need McCullough's glossary) while I got jarred by the (over) use of Aztec words in Gary Jenning's novel. Not to mention he would not have needed all of them because words like 'penis' and 'corn' are perfect aequivalents of the Aztec ones. Saecs is a different matter, because it's a special weapon and not a 'sword' - to give just one example.

Carla said...

What a lot of responses to what I thought was an obscure post! Hello and welcome to Skint, Octavia and Kalen.

Where do you draw the line? Should the writer use 'frith' instead of 'peace', or 'burh' instead of 'fort', or 'cyrtel' instead of 'dress', or 'hegge' instead of 'fence'? The glossary would get rather big, and would have to be consulted rather often. Or to be truly authentic, shouldn't a novel set in ancient Rome be written in classical Latin, and one set in William's Normandy be written in Old French? Writing in modern English instead of the correct language for the setting automatically imposes a degree of compromise. Question is, how much is acceptable? I should think everyone has their own view on that.

I like the approach taken by translators, e.g. the Penguin Classics or Everyman Classics modern English translations of Bede, Beowulf, the Mabinogion and the Icelandic Sagas. These appear to use modern English words wherever possible, and use the archaic terms when there is no reasonably close modern equivalent (with a glossary or footnotes). I'm grateful that they do, or I might never have found my way into the history.

Alex raises a separate and interesting issue - in some eras, the records are so patchy that the 'authentic' term may not be known with any certainty. There aren't many surviving records in Old English from 5th/6th-century Britain. I can only think of the Laws of Aethelbert of Kent, and I think those are early seventh-century. So I personally wouldn't mind whether 'gesith' or 'thane' was used, because I doubt there's any conclusive proof either way.

Beth said...

hmmm. although i'm not a history buff, i do like the archaic terms. but i have to say that if i had to revert to the glossary, that would turn me off. i want to be able to understand the terms from context.

Bernita said...

Indeed, what they all said.
Otherwise, the flavour is lost.

If readers want to be told a story is set in the Xth century and insist thereafter that all language be generic modern terms, then it's doubtful they would read much historical fiction in any case.
Think one has to assume a certain level of literacy for words like thane and fyrd, kirtle and wimple, etc.
Rarely seen words where the context did not supply at least the general idea - which is usually enough.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

When I first started out I used a lot more archaic terminology than I do now. I've toned some of it down in order to reach a wider readership and because I felt I was being a tad self-indulgent. However, I still use archaic words for flavour - making the meaning obvious within the context rather than assuming readers will know what I mean. These days I will more often call a hauberk a mail shirt or a gambeson a quilted tunic. Then again, there is so much argument about what a gambeson really is, that I might not be using the right terminology anyway :-)
I think good basic English with a judicious salting of archaic or rare terminology is the path to take. I say rare terminology because sometimes words that are still in use in specialist fields are not known by Joe public. I remember being astounded once to see an episode of Call My Bluff with the word 'Martingale' up on the screen. I knew perfectly well it was a piece of horse harness, but obviously it had disappeared into arcania for non horsey people.

Carla said...

Bernita - there may be a matter of degree here. I doubt I would advocate removing "all" archaic terms.

Elizabeth - interesting perspective, thank you. Your point about the gambeson is rather like the issue Alex raised about 'gesith' and 'thane' in the 5th/6th century. When the correct archaic term is a matter of debate, how's the writer to know whether his/her usage is correct? I'd prefer 'quilted tunic' over 'gambeson' any day. Partly because I remember struggling with terminology when I was interested in history but before I knew very much about it. As is still the case whenever I wander into settings that are unfamiliar to me, like classical Sparta or Hannibal's Carthage. Your example of 'martingale' is a good one - I vaguely know that it's a piece of horse harness, but I don't know exactly where it goes, what it does or why it matters. I get the opposite effect with science terms, where words that are quite familiar to me appear on quiz shows as difficult and obscure. I wonder if my science background makes me cautious about the use of 'jargon' in other fields?

Rick said...

Interesting and tough!

"Martingale" is also a nautical term, for an item of rigging - though perhaps borrowed from the horsey usage, and if the scene is in a stableyard, I'd likely figure it wasn't referring to a ship.

Even terms that remain familiar can have misleading connotations - in the 16th century, galleon means a ship that is rather sleek and low in the water, opposite to the image it conveys today.

Archaic words work best, IMHO, when they can be defined in context - "the gleam of a saex blade," or some such, at least tells us it's a knife or sword.

"Bard" I go both ways on. On the one hand, it's long established in English as an appropriate translation of scop - on the other hand, it does have that Celtic connotation, especially perhaps to the likely readership.

There's also a question of how to render Old English words, given the change of spelling conventions. If scop had survived in the language we'd now spell it "shope." I'd be at least tempted to modernize OE spellings, and put an explanation of contemporary spellings in an appendix.

On a somewhat related note, when I was revising Catherine of Lyonesse I had with some regret to eliminate a couple of letters I'd rendered in period language and spelling. They were short enough that readers could puzzle through them without being slowed too much, but plot changes eliminated them.

Carla said...

Rick - Good points; I think it's a tougher question than it may appear at first sight. 'Shope' might be even less recognisable than 'scop' because the word has simply gone from the language, replaced by alternatives. By the way, is 'galleon' related to 'galley' at all? When you said it was a sleek, low ship, 'galley' was the image that popped into my head. I always imagined a galleon to be a big heavy lumbering thing - too much Armada mythology, I guess :-)

Rick said...

A tough call! The problem with "scop" to me is that the reader will tend to think it's pronounced as "skop" - even if you have an appendix/note explaining OE spelling conventions.

Yes, "galleon" is related to "galley," and was probably used because the galleons were lower and sleeker than conventional big ships (carracks), and also had a projecting beak, making the bow look rather like a galley's prow. Some of the early ones may also have been fitted with oars.

In Henry VIII's day the English called similar ships "galleasses," a term that also meant a very heavy galley.

The modern connotation of "galleon" comes partly from the Armada, and partly from a later era, the 17th century, when a galleon was the Spanish equivalent of an Indiaman.

Carla said...

Which was the sort of issue that led me to 'skald'....
Re galleon, a ship like an Indiaman is the sort of mental image the word calls up for me, so maybe I got it from the later usage as well as kids' books on the Armada. I am terribly ignorant about shipping and nautical terms. Would the Mary Rose have been a carrack, or what?

Rick said...

The galleon as "Indiaman" probably fed heavily into the popular image. Generally, the portrayals of archaic ships in old Hollywood movies and the like draw more on the 17th century (e.g., baroque ornamentation) than on the 16th.

The Mary Rose was a carrack. But just to complicate things, she turns out to have had cleaner lines and a more advanced design than anyone would have guessed based on the contemporary illustration of her in the Anthony Rolls.

This is all the more remarkable since she was built in 1509-1510, right at the start of Henry VIII's reign. (She was extensively overhauled in the 1530s, but the surviving hull is mostly the original construction.)

I suspect that her loss contributed heavily to the English idea that ships should be commanded by seamen. She had a highly experienced crew, but they supposedly argued over how to maneuver the ship, and her captain shouted out to a nearby ship, "I have the sort of knaves I cannot rule." Probably they weren't so much insubordinate, as her captain, Lord Lisle's brother, couldn't resolve a shiphandling dispute ... and down she went.

Carla said...

The idea that ships should be commanded by seamen seems eminently sensible to me :-) So was it different in other countries (for how long?), and is that why Britannia rules (ruled) the waves?

And does the design of the Mary Rose indicate that shipbuilding was further advanced at the time than was thought, or was she a one-off, or is that not known?

Rick said...

Having seamen command ships posed a problem before there were standing navies - a commander pretty much had to be noble or gentry, and how many would have sea experience? Trading communities like Venice had an advantage, since going to sea was common for young noblemen, providing a pool of experience.

The situation wasn't absolute, though - in Spanish romances, chivalric adventures often took place at sea, so there was some cultural basis for nobles knowing something about ships.

One thing that gave England a leg up was, basically, piracy - West Country gentry regarded plundering Spaniards as an entirely respectable calling. Once regular navies were established, countries like France also found it easier to have officers that were both noble and competent.


The Mary Rose is the only example we have, but in all likelihood she was not a fluke. And some of Henry's later ships were still regarded as models of good performance in Elizabethan times.

Carla said...

Tsk, when the British do it it's called privateering :-) I guess the dichotomy between nobility and competence was also a problem in land command, though the errors may not have been quite as spectacular as sinking the king's flagship without firing a shot. (No wonder the captain always goes down with his ship - can you just imagine trying to explain that to Henry VIII?)

Rick said...

LOL on explaining it to Henry VIII!

Competence was always a problem when armies were essentially militia commanded by amateurs. Though warfare was often endemic, and also deeply rooted in the aristocratic ethos.

Gabriele C. said...

"I have the sort of knaves I cannot rule."

What an incompetent commander. That's the moment where the sword or pistol should come out, "ye misbegotten sons of a Klabauterman, ye man that rope now or I'll have yer unwashed hides!"

I really need to write that pirate novel. :) Mine has cogs, and researching those should be fun esp. since there's a bunch of reconstructed ones sailing on the Baltic.

Rick said...

Incompetent, yes, but not a problem he could have solved with two pistols and sword in hand. His problem was he didn't know how to sail a ship!

Anonymous said...

I'm in favor of the strange flipping-back term, it adds an aura of authenticity, deservedly or not. It is rewarding to learn bits of language through novels, like deciphering a code.

ian said...

I'd sooner have the archaic terms too, preferably making them understandable from the context.
A method often adopted in the fantasy genre is to have your main characters ignorant (e.g. hobbits, country yokels, visitors from modern times, etc.) and so in need of explanations form their more learned friends. I'd always add a glossary too.