Researching the Etymology of Words for Historical Fiction

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Miners in the Gold Rush era

I try to keep the language I use in my historical novels true to the time period I’m writing about. This is particularly important in the dialogue between characters and in the thoughts of my point of view character. The accuracy of the language I use is as important to the verisimilitude of the novel as the settings I describe in my books.

But it is a constant battle. My current work-in-progress takes place between 1848 and 1850. I’ve caught myself using a lot of modern idioms as I’m writing, and my critique partners also help me find and eliminate these anachronisms.

For example, in a recent draft of the book, I wrote that my protagonist “tuned out” other characters who were squabbling in his presence. One of my critique partners told me that phrase didn’t sound appropriate for 1848. So I googled “tune out first use”. Merriam-Webster told me the first usage was in 1908. I rewrote that sentence.

On another occasion, I wrote that a character “updated” my protagonist about his family’s activities. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “update” was first used as a verb in 1944, and wasn’t used as a noun until 1967. Out it went.

In a recent submission to my partners, I had one character say he was not “suited” to another. My partners questioned this language, but this is an old usage. In fact, it “suits” my time period perfectly. I kept that—at least for this draft. Who knows what the final text will read?

In another chapter I wrote that one character “blasted” another (meaning he spoke angrily). When I was asked about this, I had to admit it sounded wrong, so I researched it. In fact, “blast” meaning “to belch forth” dates back to Old English, and has been used even to mean “to blow up by explosion” since the 1750s. (Though “blast off” dates only to 1950.) Still, I might change this in the final version.

A novelist friend and former newspaper writer swears by the Oxford English Dictionary.  I don’t have a subscription to the venerable OED, but I would never dispute its accuracy. I do use the free version sometimes.  But my favorite online resource for researching first uses of words and phrases is the Online Etymology Dictionary.  It doesn’t tell me everything, but it tells me a lot.

A writer friend recently told me about how to use Google Books to research the time periods in which words and phrases have most been used most frequently. Pull up the Google Ngram Viewer in your browser and type in the word or phrase you’re curious about. You’ll see in an instant how often your term has appeared in books over time.

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Google Ngram Viewer

Making sure my language can be understood by modern readers, yet evokes the era I’m writing about, is a difficult task. Almost every page in my manuscript presents a challenge. People may not have changed much in 160 years, but our language has changed a lot.

Writers, when have you been caught using an anachronism?

Posted in History, Writing and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. Yes, finding the right idiom or historical phrase would be a difficult thing to do, Theresa! We have a screenplay about a family during the Gold Rush, and we struggled with the same thing, though I’m not sure we were as thorough in our research as you are being. It seems challenging to correctly depict any former era that we did not live through ourselves. How do the TV shows and film people pull it off? Do they have scholars working for them? Thanks for the tip about the etymology resource. I’m sure I will use that in the future. All best for finishing your novel.

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