One of the many stories floating around social media these days details the content of a text message exchange between a mother and her adult son:
- Mom: WTF, Bobby. The store’s open!
- Bobby: Uh, Mom? You do know what that means, right?
- Mom: WTF? Sure!
- Bobby: Okay.
- Mom: Today’s Friday, right? The store’s open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
There is a larger issue, however, which writers may encounter, especially if they’re writing historical fiction containing dialog. I’ve done my share of stories set in the past, from the first century BC through the middle of the last century. There are issues to be considered for both the oldest and the more recent periods.
In the case of stories set in the distant past, the writer must take care to avoid anachronisms, especially in dialog. Unless you’re writing some sort of time travel yarn, it’s highly unlikely that a Celtic chief would check his wristwatch before sending his warriors into battle. And while that may seem ridiculous, the narrative which accompanies such a scene should at least use chronological terms the players in the story would comprehend. In this case, it might be the sun’s position above the horizon measured in fists. A reference to some guy’s five-o’clock shadow would be meaningless in a world without clocks.
I recall reading Stephen Pressfield’s bestselling Gates of Fire and coming away disappointed by much of his dialog, a great deal of which is between Spartan warriors and their leaders. The language Pressfield used comes straight from a 1960’s Marine basic training camp, and it’s replete with contemporary expletives and curses. I’m sure the ancient Greeks had a rich vocabulary to lean on when swearing, but I doubt it sounded anything like what a drill instructor during the Nixon administration would say. Pressfield makes no effort to cast this dialog in terms that come across as authentic to the period. Aside from this, I found the rest of the book to be spot on historically and absolutely enthralling.
It wasn’t all that long ago that when someone said they were wearing thongs, they were talking about sandals, or more specifically flip-flops. Mention that today in polite conversation, at least with anyone under 30, and you’ll get a forest of raised eyebrows.
And while we’re talking about footwear, the discussion wouldn’t be complete without mention of rubbers, nifty devices for keeping one’s shoes dry when puddles are present. In Britain, rubbers are designed to erase chalkboards. Try throwing that one out in front of a crowd younger than 50.
The word “fizzle” once described a silent breaking of wind (more commonly referred to as an SBD). Once the college kids got ahold of it, the meaning changed radically. Something that fizzles these days is a failure. Whether or not it has an aroma is left to the imagination.
Next time around we’ll focus on phrases in American English that have fallen completely by the wayside. If you’re working on an historical piece set in the 1800s, be sure to come back for Part Two.