Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Words, Words, Words

I remember using the "n" word as a child (the 1970s) with my friends when "eeny, meeny, miny, mo" had different words than it does today. Yes, I'm white. No, I did not live in a white supremacist community/family. At the time I didn't understand the history or the impact; now the word gives me the creeps. As a teacher I've dealt with students who have used the word to hurt, knowing full well the impact, but having no empathy for the recipient. I like to think caring will increase with age (hooray for optimism).

Today I used the word "tinker" and the woman with whom I was speaking winced. Based on my life experiences, tinker was a commonly used word and, at the time, didn't seem negative -- as far as I knew, it's just what the travelling people were called. I gather by the reaction today that the word's connotation has changed. Or, perhaps, the word always was offensive and I wasn't aware (innocent ignorance - the same could be said of the word in the first paragraph). Either way, I was embarrassed by my usage today.

In my historical manuscripts I strive to use accurate words for the times. If I question something's historical authenticity, I look it up just to be sure I'm correctly representing the era. That said, values have changed since the fifteen seventies and the significance of historically accurate terms to the modern reader may seriously impact the reading experience. My most recent research was on the terminology for early condoms (one nickname: scum bag.... ewwww).

Bearing in mind the reaction of the modern reader, I do not put faggots on the fire. I do not call ladies wenches, but nor do I use the term to imply a woman of ill repute (wench meant female and was not rank or morality specific). As much as I avoid addressing the hygiene norms of time in order to maintain reader buy-in to the romance, I keep obsolete, though era appropriate words to the minimum. As far as words go, black people in Tudor England would have been referred to as Moors or Ethiopians (to name a few examples) and were present during this time, not only in a slave capacity. I wonder if, at that time, there was objection to the generalization and massive grouping of a people comprised of many tribal identities. Either way, during those times, they were certainly considered more socially acceptable than those known as Gypsies or Romany. That said, I would never disparage the Gypsy people, even in a historical when that would have been the attitude of the day. It could alienate the reader.

The question this brings to mind is: should I? Should I aim for historical accuracy despite the potential for reader reaction? I think the answer lies in whether I'm writing historical fiction or historical romance. I addressed abortion in my second manuscript, but I did so keeping in mind the modern reader response rather than the Elizabethan attitude toward it. I did this to be safe, if not true to the era (and worked it into my main character's arc of self acceptance). Today, abortion is controversial and involves the question of when life begins. All my reading of Queen Elizabeth's court shows there was no such moral quandary.

These same issues were prevalent when I performed in a living history group. How much history do you sacrifice to the need to be entertaining/non-offensive? It's a delicate balance that can be upset by a single word.


1 comment:

Susan Kane said...

Language morphs over time, often with some negative consequences.

I don't know...people today do not have the historical references and understanding of language, which makes authenticity a delicate matter.

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