One of the attractions of history as a source of stories is its strangeness, the diverse behaviours, attitudes and beliefs of the chosen period. However, another is the peculiarity of language that has passed out of common parlance. There is seduction in the words themselves: words that are on the periphery of your memory or are entirely new to you. As I research, I pick them out like gems among pebbles. I fall upon them with delight, knowing that they will sparkle away at the back of my mind as an inspiration. What writer could resist words like ‘proggle’ (to prod), ‘pulpatoon’ (a dish of game in a forcemeat crust) or ‘petrichor’ (the smell of the earth after rain)? And that’s just the ‘p’s!
What are the uses of such words for the writer? They can certainly add colour and a sense of the era. In Helen Simpson’s wonderful story, Good Friday 1633, which describes the marriage of a young girl to the greasy Squire Clodpoll, the wedding feast includes baskets crammed with ‘plum-cake’, ‘Naples biscuits’ and ‘neats’ tongues’. These foods, on the edge of our awareness today, lend the scene period interest and also speak of Clodpoll’s gluttony. ‘Usquebaugh’, also included in the feast, is completely unfamiliar, demonstrating that using wholly forgotten words can be a challenge for the writer and that some context needs to be given. When Clodpoll asks for ‘a tankard of usquebaugh with nutmeg and sugar to stay [my] stomach’, the reader understands it is a drink, which is sufficient for clarity. But is it alcoholic (a continuation of Clodpoll’s excesses) or medicinal (its nastiness needing the addition of nutmeg and sugar to cover it up)? There lies the intrigue and glamour of words that are new to us — the element of speculation drives the reader to read on.
A vivid imagined picture can sometimes lie at the heart of an author’s inspiration for a work. For example, Carol Maso writes of an image that appeared to her of a girl walking with bare, red feet in the snow. This emotionally charged image haunted her writing for three years and lay at the heart of her novel, Ghost Dance. Albeit on a smaller scale, I have always felt that particular words can have a ‘charge’, an intense appeal or a sense of mystery. As a child, unaware of their meanings, I treasured some words purely for their sound, such as: ‘aurora’, ‘pusillanimous’ and ‘étoile’. Others I collected for their peculiarity. With a Devonshire father and a Scottish mother, I soon became aware that the same object may be called by different names and that some are more evocative than others. My father used old–fashioned country words such as ‘flittermouse’. This word always seemed to me to conjure the creature far better than ‘bat’, as it carried with it the associations of fast movement, furriness and timidity. And nothing could sum up an earwig more intriguingly as a ‘mini monster’ than the riddle my mother used to recite:
The horny goloch, soople and scaly, He has twa horns, a hantle of feet and a forky taily!
Even now, I’m drawn to research areas with a vocabulary that is new to me. Sometimes it’s a technology or a craft that provides a new lexicon to discover. Old farming methods yield ‘windrows’ (hay laid out to dry to catch the optimum amount of sun) and ‘root clamps’ (vegetables kept under mounded earth to last out the winter). Weaving yields ‘shoddy’ (originally a noun and the nineteenth-century name for cheap mass-produced stockings).
In researching the injured soldiers of WW1, I found that warfare on an industrial scale had spawned a whole new and sometimes brutal vocabulary; men who had been facially disfigured were called ‘gueules cassées’ in French (broken faces), and a hospital department that made masks was colloquially referred to as the ‘tin-noses shop’. Sculptors were recruited to make the masks, bringing with them the vocabulary of the trade such as ‘clay squeeze’ or ‘feathering’. Whatever the historical subject, as I research, unfamiliar or odd-sounding words glow off the page and instinctively I feel the charge of creative promise.
A good example of this occurred during the exploration of silk ribbon making for a novel set in 1812, the year that the Frame Breaking Act was passed to establish the Luddite destruction of looms by desperate workers as a hanging offence. My character, the silk master Septimus Fowler, plans to save money by introducing new machines that can be worked by unskilled labourers and to employ paupers who need only be paid in ‘bread and slop’. Although I greatly enjoyed creating a thoroughgoing villain, I felt that the character needed rounding out to avoid becoming a stereotype motivated only by greed and social ambition. However, no believable redeeming trait immediately sprang to mind.
When I came across a list of the many types of silk ribbons manufactured at the time, I was struck by the rich variety of the words and their mellifluous sounds such as: ‘galloons and ferrets, houppes and crépines, bourrelets and cordons’. For days, the words ran through my head accompanied by a nagging feeling that they were connected somehow to Fowler’s character. Eventually, I put the list in Fowler’s mouth, as he waxes lyrical to a prospective investor when showing him around his factory. Suddenly I realised that his softer side could be a love of beauty – the sensuous loveliness of the silk ribbons he creates, the pleasure of seeing women dressed in them, the delicate colours of the silk moths – all these could delight him and fuel his business obsession. A character problem had been solved through an intuitive attraction to a set of unfamiliar words.
Redundant words from obsolete technological processes provide rich pickings but lost words can be unearthed from many other sources. They can be particular to geography, as in the case of the dialect words that often continue in use in areas with a low level of demographic or social mobility. In The Poet’s Wife, set in nineteenth-century rural Northamptonshire, I drew on a dialect full of strange names for common things: a long-tailed tit is a ‘bumbarrel’, couch-grass is ‘twitch’, a snail is a ‘pooty’. Droll sayings also persist in out-of-the-way places, my favourite find being ‘he couldn’t stop a pig in a passage’ (said of a bandy-legged man).
Discovering lost words can be an inspiration for the writer and a pleasure for the reader. However, beyond this is a more serious point. Our words are what we think with and we cannot afford to lose them. Any translator will tell you that in a given language there are words that signify a concept, for which other languages do not have a single word equivalent. For instance, on the subject of rectifying mistakes, the Inuit have: ‘natkiksruktuk’, ‘correcting one who has unknowingly erred’ and ‘silgiksuktuk’ ‘correcting one who has wilfully erred’, which strikes one as a useful distinction. They also have ‘kivguruk’ meaning ‘leaves home because angry’, where the compression into one word somehow gives the action more force, as if it were a serious transgression.
In Light at the Edge of the World, the anthropologist Wade Davis speaks of the old languages that are lost as tribes are ousted from their habitats to live in ‘modern’ compounds, squeezed into smaller and smaller corners of an earth exploited for palm oil, timber and shale gas. Language holds the thoughts, feelings, knowledge and histories of a people and chronicles their beliefs, myths and intuitions. Unless historians and archivists record the precious words, all this will be lost. On a smaller scale, perhaps historical fiction writers too are doing the past a service in keeping words alive, not in a dusty cabinet of curiosities but in use in the mouths of characters and the description of bygone worlds.