(Prefatory note: Again, apologies to Dear Author for stealing their style. I guess I’m in a epistolary mood these days.)
Dear various American authors of historical romances who are trying very, very hard to sound authentically British,
It’s not like I’m the foremost Britpicker of all time. Not even close. But I’ve noticed a distressing trend among your ranks in recent days. I understand that you are probably sick of readers bitching and moaning about how American authors sound too contemporary and too American, so you’ve decided to inject some authentic Britishisms to spruce up the joint. I applaud your efforts. However, allow me to offer the following vocabulary tips:
1. Your Regency- or Victorian-era English aristocrat isn’t going to use the word “git” as a term that means “jackass” or “fuckwit.” Why? Well, partly because it’s a term more closely associated with the working classes, and the class cultures weren’t quite as permeable as they tend to be today. Partly because the etymological roots for “git” are probably Scottish. And lastly, and probably most importantly, because it didn’t become common usage until the 20th century.
2. Similarly, your aristocrat isn’t going to be calling a person “twat” for similar purposes. Because it wasn’t used as such until the early 20th century.
3. Ditto “minge.”
4. Also, please note that while “twat,” “minge” and “cunt” refer to girlbits, and cunt is used almost exclusively in the U.S. as a pejorative term for females and sometimes for homosexual or effeminate males, these terms are used almost exclusively to refer to males (regardless of sexual proclivities or adherence to traditional gender presentation) over in Englandwickcestershire. EDITED TO ADD: OK, based on comments from honest-to-God British people, sounds like cunt and minge are unisex terms of abuse (though I feel compelled to note that cunt is used almost akin to the American “dude” in certain contexts and sub-cultures—at least, if Irvine Welsh’s books and several of the Scottish and Irish movies I’ve seen are an accurate reflection of contemporary usage). I’ve noticed, however, that there’s less consensus about “twat.” Language is fascinating! I also love the fact that I’ve now typed twat, cunt and minge more frequently in the past 12 hours than I have in the past three years combined. GO TEAM!
Ultimately, getting period and cultural voice right is more than just an exercise in using the proper vocabulary or slang words. It’s a matter of syntax, and imitating syntax is really freaking hard because you have to leap out of the language and culture you’re immersed in every day. Besides rearranging sentences, it entails avoiding structures that are ubiquitous in contemporary American usage but relatively rare everywhere and everytime else, e.g., using “get” as an all-purpose auxiliary verb. Your battle is an uphill one, and I recognize it. I also recognize that some of you couldn’t give two shits about hitting the correct period voice, and I salute you, because hey, we’re looking for good stories, and if the story is good enough, I, for one, would much rather read a book that doesn’t even try for a period voice vs. one that tries and then fails. Those of you who do want to try, I would like to recommend reading a whole slew of novels, letters and periodicals published during the era you’re going to write in and dissect the crap out of the sentences. Letters are probably going to be the best source of how people actually spoke vs. how some writer of that era decided people should speak. You’re learning a different language, and there’s no more effective way of learning a language quickly than immersion.
I’ll admit that on top of sounding like an insufferable know-it-all, I’m being selfish in this request. My leisure reading time is extremely limited these days—I basically have time when school is out, which means a month in the winter and three months in the summer. I’m interested in cramming as much quality entertainment into those months as humanly possible, and coming across jarring word usage is like walking right into a glass automatic door that doesn’t open on time. Slams me right out of the story, and the book has to work that much harder to draw me back into its world. My DNF pile grows every day. Have mercy on a reader on a student’s budget, eh?