word craft



Read­ers have asked me about my use of lan­guage in my his­tor­i­cal nov­els, par­tic­u­lar­ly words that them­selves are part of the his­tor­i­cal moment. Let it be said that, to begin with, I have a great fond­ness for words, and hap­pi­ly, the Eng­lish lan­guage has an immense vocab­u­lary. Also, I have access on my com­put­er to the Oxford Unabridged Dic­tio­nary which has an his­tor­i­cal the­saurus. I also own such books as Medieval Word­book (Cos­man) and Colo­nial Amer­i­can English (Led­er­er)

Medieval Wordbook; Colonial American EnglishHow can one resist such words as this 1774 word, mazy—wind­ingas in “Where the clear rivers pour their mazy tide.” Or, laver­er, the medieval court ser­vant “in charge of cer­e­mo­ni­al hand wash­ing with fra­grant, spiced water.” One of my favorite words is the late 19th cen­tu­ry word for sulk: pout-mouthed. That appears in my book, City of Orphans, set in that time.

Sim­i­lar­ly, if you are writ­ing a medieval his­tor­i­cal nov­el, you won’t include a steel sword, because the met­al didn’t real­ly come into use until the 16th century.

A page from Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales. Click for a larg­er, more read­able version.

When I wrote my New­bery book, Crispin, I had anoth­er prob­lem. The nov­el takes place at the end of the 14th cen­tu­ry, when the Eng­lish that was spo­ken was Mid­dle Eng­lish. You can get a taste of it by look­ing at Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales, as he wrote it. When you hear it read aloud you can hear our mod­ern Eng­lish, but it is hard to recite. Need I say: I can’t write it, nor can I read it.

What did I do?

In prepa­ra­tion for the book I read the major Eng­lish poets of the day, Chaucer, Gow­er, Lang­land. I real­ized they wrote their verse in iambic pen­tame­ter, “A line of verse with five met­ri­cal feet, each con­sist­ing of one short (or unstressed) syl­la­ble fol­lowed by one long (or stressed) syl­la­ble, for exam­ple Two house­holds, both alike in dig­ni­ty” which can be very close (but dif­fer­ent) to today’s spo­ken Eng­lish. So when I wrote Crispin I tried to write it in that verse pat­tern. How suc­cess­ful was I? I’m not even sure. But if you read the book aloud, you will (I hope) catch that rhythm, and it was, I think, enough to cre­ate, if you will, an “antique” sense of language.

Recent­ly I was read­ing an his­tor­i­cal nov­el (told in the first per­son) set in Tudor Eng­land. The author used the word “fug,” (“A thick, close, stuffy atmos­phere, esp. that of a room over­crowd­ed and with lit­tle or no ven­ti­la­tion.”) Lik­ing the word’s sound, and guess­ing its mean­ing by con­text, but not know­ing what it meant exact­ly, I looked it up in the OUD. I learned that the word fug wasn’t intro­duced into the Eng­lish lan­guage until 1888.

Was it wrong to use Fug in a nov­el set in the 16th Cen­tu­ry? I sup­pose from a purest point of view it is. But it sound­ed old, and it worked for me. Besides, I do think a writer is free to use any Eng­lish word. You can even make them up. Shake­speare, it is claimed, invent­ed some 1700 words, many of which we still use.

Or you could engage in Ken­ning: “The Anglo-Sax­on and Old Ger­man­ic poet­ic tech­nique of describ­ing some­thing with­out nam­ing it, achieved by join­ing two or more of its major qual­i­ties; the ocean as “the whales’ road”, a high prowed sail­ing ship as “a foamy-necked floater”; a well-wrought sword as “Ham­mer leavings.”

As long as the word’s mean­ing is clear—not fug—I think any word you want is just fine.

2 thoughts on “Fug”

  1. I real­ly enjoyed the slight­ly ‘old’ lan­guage in Play­er King. It real­ly con­tributed to the mood.


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