Oh, hell, since I’m being nitpicky and bitchy already…

(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?




General Bitching...

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Isobel Carr says:

    Have mercy on a reader on a student’s budget, eh?

    I know Sarah liked my previous Kalen Hughes books, so I’ll have more than mercy, I’ll send you an ARC of my new one just as soon as they arrive!

  2. 2
    Ros says:

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!!

    I am reading Jude Morgan’s An Accomplished Woman at the moment and can highly recommend it for period voice and tone.

  3. 3
    Missy Ann says:

    Did you just school authors in the proper usage of cunt? rofl

    Happy Friday – wait it’s Monday. But this had Friday post written all over it.

  4. 4
    englishpixie says:

    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 Englandshirewickcester.

    As an English person, I would disagree with this, sorry, in regards to ‘cunt’ and ‘minge’ – they’re pretty much used as a very unpleasant term for women over here too, though I’m sure plenty of our very cultured male citizens use ‘cunt’ in a fair and unprejudiced manner to men and women alike. ‘Twat’, however, I would agree, is usually reserved for men.

  5. 5
    Carin says:

    Candy, I have missed you!  No one writes a rant quite like you do.  While I wish you happiness, I also wish you just enough UNhappiness to write just a couple more rants before you get all busy with school and stuff again.  Thanks!

  6. 6
    Cate says:

    I will admit that all the way through one of the Gail Carriger books, I was hurled out of the book by her constant use of the word ‘Ladybugs’.  Once wouldn’t have bothered me, but they just. kept. saying it.

  7. 7
    DS says:

    You might include the use of the word bloody.  I once read a book on with an entire chapter about why the British found the word bloody to be such an objectionable word.  After touching on Shakespeare “What bloody man is this?” and a few other historical references including that it might have derived from the oath Christ’s Blood!, the conclusion was that it was an unacceptable word in polite Victorian company because it was a word used by the lower classes. 

    I think a great way to catch the rhythm of a time period’s language is to listen to contemporary plays performed by good actors.

  8. 8
    Patsy says:

    Thank you!  This is such a pet peeve of mine.  Stella Tillyard’s The Aristocrats is a great source for letters from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  The book is about the Lennox sisters, decendants of Charles II, daughters of a duke, wives to nobles and politicians, mothers of rabble-rousers.

  9. 9
    Veronica says:

    What author used the word “minge” in a romance novel? O.O

    That’s just so wrong.

  10. 10

    I think you are asking a lot from a romance genre that is not even trying to pass itself off as History.  Can we not keep the word ‘fiction’ in mind?  I say this to you knowing full well I just published a blog devoted to the word ‘cache’.

  11. 11
    Katie L says:

    Now I fully acknowledge I’ve got a foul mouth that could shock a sailor but I don’t think I’ve ever called anyone a “minge”, that’s just soully for referring to the old lady garden. However twat and cunt are equal opportunity insults as far as I’m concerned. But what annoys me most is that even the best books that are meant to be set in England always talk about “Fall”. It’s bloody Autumn as far as we’re concerned.

  12. 12

    I’ll check that Autumn, Fall thing.  I might have been guilty of that.  No wonder they send the MS back.  Thanks. . .

  13. 13
    Anemone says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: fall is actually old English, and although we have called it autumn for some time,.do be careful about calling certain words Americanisms- I believe they are often the “frozen form” of the language that went with the Pilgrim Fathers and stayed that way in the US, while GB moved on…I’ve come across references around the 17th Century used fall in England, and “Dog days” in the year, and believe me, not many people would know what Dog days are…

  14. 14
    HelenMac says:

    Candy, you’re a legend.
    (Although, yeah, in modern British usage, women can be called twats or cunts….but not in polite company, dear.)

  15. 15
    Candy says:

    @ the various bona fide British people who spoke up: thanks for the clarification on the proper gendered (or ungendered, as the case may be) use of cunt, twat and minge. I will update the article to reflect as much.

    @ Cate: I found Carriger unreadable—not in a so-bad-I-had-to-chuck-it-at-the-cats way, but in the oh-god-I’m-so-bored-stop-belaboring-your-point way. Waded through about 100 pages of Soulless hoping the prose would improve, and it just didn’t.

    @ Virginia: I don’t think it’s asking too much, because some authors have succeeded at it. The rant is directed at the writers who have clearly made some kind of token effort to sound authentic. Most authors don’t even bother, which is also problematic in many ways (not working at creating an authentic voice is one of the reasons why Romance is shit on for being a sloppy, sub-par genre), but at least it’s, I don’t know, more honest. If an author wants to try, then I think she should make it at least halfway good, and it’s not as if slang and etymological dictionaries are that difficult to come by. Or, you know, 19th-century novels and collections of letters.

    @ Katie L: I’ve totally heard and read people use the term “minge” and “minger” to refer to a person. I confess that I haven’t personally used it to refer to a person, either. Though now I feel like I should.

    @ Missy Ann: Interesting! What makes a Friday post vs. a Monday post? I post what comes to mind pretty much as soon as it hits my brain, which is why during the semester I don’t post at all, because I seriously doubt you guys want to read about, say, federal forestry and wildlife statutes as interpreted by the Ninth Circuit, or the evolution of functionality doctrine in trademark law.

  16. 16
    Katie L says:

    Which would be fair enough if the Old English reference was what they were angling for but I don’t think that’s the case most of the time, as I think Fall’s mostly used as the books are usually printed for the American market. It can just be quite jarring in some books when it pops up and it sounds rather unnatural to an English ear, and some of the sentence structures can be quite American. But then when the story and the characters are verging on the A-mazeballs, then I tend to suck it up and ignore it.

  17. 17

    Oh. Hell. Yes.
    I’m British and I have spent all this year looking for a new, exciting writer of historical romance. All F-ing year. Not yet. I might do a post on the ones I’ve tried and – well, I’ll see.
    “Bloody hell” gets on my nerves. The two seperately – perhaps, but the phrase is a 20th century one.
    You don’t have to know, you can just tell, sometimes. I mean, you don’t have to read with the etymological dictionary in front of you, sometimes it just doesn’t scan right, or sound right in your head.
    It can be tricky. In one of my Richard and Rose books, one that had been through three excellent editors, Angie James still picked up a word I shouldn’t have used. Terrorise. Yup, although “terror” is fine, turning a noun into a verb is a 20th century thing.

    Virginia – if you use history, the least you can do, out of respect to people who lived then, who existed then, is to do your best to get it right. “Fiction” doesn’t equal “making everything up.” It’s a detailed and complex construct that people spend their lives trying to define and discuss. It certainly doesn’t give a writer of historical romance the right to make it up and then say “oh well, it’s only fiction.”
    If we want other people to take the romance genre seriously, we should try to get it right.
    If we think we owe the people of the past something for borrowing their times, we should try to get it right.
    If we want to strive to get a richly detailed world with depth and the characters to match, we should try to get it right.

  18. 18
    Alex says:

    Candy – minger isn’t really related to minge in terms of insults.  Minge (as far as I know) is only ever a fairly crude term for ladyparts but minger is pronounced differently (with a hard g) and has only really become common over the past few years.  It’s more of a mild insult for someone who is ugly/a bit pikey although I personally find it quite useful to describe needing a wash (ie when I’ve been camping and haven’t showered for 2 days “ewww, I ming.”  Hope some of that makes sense.

    Back to the main topic; I hate the use of the word gotten in the speech of English characters.  I know, similar to fall, it’s an old English word but it hasn’t been in common usage over here for a long, long time and it really gets on my nerves when I see it in books.

  19. 19

    Candy, btw, “minge” is pronounced with the soft “g” and is a word for the woman’s bush, rather than the cunt.
    “minger” is pronounced with a hard “g” and isn’t, as far as I know, connected. It just means that something is pretty bad.
    Here’s a bit from “The Office” with “minge”
    And here’s “minger”

  20. 20
    Candy says:

    Oh, thanks for the clarification re: minge vs. minger.  I think I just made the leap from minge to minger in my head, in terms of meaning. This has turned into a really fascinating educational experience for me. *The More You Know Star shoots across the sky*

  21. 21
    Joy says:

    I never noticed the word “minge” before today, I don’t think.  Maybe I saw it before and thought it a typo for “mange.”

    Sex scenes done totally in period language, by the way, might make me laugh if they were Fanny Hill-ish.

  22. 22
    DM says:

    I posted over at Dearauthor in the open reader thread about this in regards to Julie Ann Long. Her Irish, Cockney, and generic working class characters all use “dinna” and “canna” which are Scots. This is particularly jarring in one of her books—the hero masquerades as an Irishman and fools absolutely everyone…but he’s speaking Scots. It totally destroys the illusion she is otherwise successful at creating.

  23. 23
    Tam says:

    The thing that drives me crazy is when Americans try to write an English working class dialect.  It’s just – awful.  The Regency aristocrats are all speaking twentieth century American (especially Julia Quinn, bless her) and their maids or villainous kidnappers or whathaveyou have their dialogue written like this: ‘Blimey, wot do you think you’re doin’, missy?’  And it’s always this bizarre Appalachian-cum-Cockney hybrid.  Don’t get me started on the attempts at Scots dialect which followed the ‘Cross Stitch’ novels…

    I’ve got to say, I don’t really want to read a Regency written in Austen (or God forbid, an attempt at Heyer).  I’m happy enough provided the authors can avoid having their rakish hero saying ‘Okay, my bad’ and the like.  The things that bother me most when reading Regency romances written by Americans is a) a complete lack of understanding of the nuances of English class (read some Poldark, for Pete’s sake), and b) the names.  Oh, the names.  Julia Quinn, Englishwomen do not use their maiden names as middle names now, and they did not do it in the nineteenth century, so your feisty heroine would NOT be referring to herself as ‘Francesca Bridgerton Stirling.’  Mary Balogh, you will not find an early nineteenth century Englishwoman called ‘Lauren’ because prior to Lauren Bacall, ‘Lauren’ was a rare masculine name.  Ditto any Regency Samanthas, as the name was coined in the late eighteenth century US.  This stuff takes about two seconds to look up on the internet nowadays, and I don’t know why authors don’t bother.

  24. 24
    Tam says:

    Also?  If you’re going to give your English aristocrat a currently fashionable Irish name like Aidan or Brendan or Brennan, I’m going to need a veeery good explanation, because at this point in time, the native Irish and the English aristocracy were not BFFs.

  25. 25

    Goes to show you.  I thought minge meant whine or complain.  West side Chicago here.  And is it a bad thing to tease your boyfriend if he says “Fookin’ “?

  26. 26
    Another Damn Sarah says:

    Lynne Connolly,

    “Terrorise” apparently makes its first appearance in writing in 1823, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. (Forgive me, linguists, I do not have a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary.) Since that’s just in writing, it probably appeared in spoken language earlier than that. Also in use before the 20th century:

    orientate (1849)
    caramelize (1842)
    cannibalize (1798)
    incubate (1721, comes from the noun incubation [1610s])
    calibrate (1864)
    constipate (1530s, from constipation [~1400])
    ruminate (1530s, ultimately from the past participle of the verb form of the Latin noun rumen)
    masticate (1640s, from mastication [1560s])

    I could go on, but verbs formed from nouns are absolutely not a 20th century thing. They are something that springs from antiquity and which most languages do. Especially Latin! Not all of my examples are going to be period accurate for a book set in the 18th century, but you shouldn’t avoid using the verb forms of nouns because it’s something that started being used in “modern” times.

  27. 27
    Barbara W. says:

    Virginia Llorca, that’d be whinge.  lol, ‘cause I have a kid that does a lot of it.

    I’m not commenting on some other things I was going to (and actually saying I’m not, ha!), because it looks like I’d be crucified if I got a detail wrong since I’m a Yank and all.

  28. 28

    Yeah.  We gotta just back down, and damn, how I hate that.  Trouble is when I write a story the first part is basically ‘who should I (have sex with) and the second part is basically ‘darn, why did I (have sex with) him’.  I freely admit I make stuff up.  And invent words. I’m not even gonna try to ‘enlighten’ anyone.

  29. 29
    EbonyMcKenna says:

    Ooooh, rude words. LOL!

    Recently I read a novel set during the 1100 s in Britain and they ate potatoes . . . and there was a bear. It almost became a sport to look for the inaccuracies. It took me completely from the story.

    For those of us who don’t have the benefit of years of study, there’s a wonderful etymology site that gives the dates when am English word was first recorded and then came into general usage.

    Magnificent – and free – resource.

  30. 30
    Jenn LeBlanc says:

    OI! Perfectly timed piece Candy, thank you so much. I’m sending my novel off to some eager volunteers next week (hopefully), and my questionnaire now includes the tone, as it is also a historical romance.

    I found it easy to write within the tone once I had submersed myself in the period (I chose Victorian Era) and my father had a bunch of periodicals and whatnot that I read as well as letters. I did a great deal of etymological research as well, but a few things I’m sure have slipped in (Bloody Hell comes to mind.)

    Anyway, thank you for the post. I hope I did well!

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