Don’t Say That! “Highlighting” Word Choices in #historical #fiction #wordplay #amwriting #amediting #mustread #histfic

Let’s talk about words like “accentuate” or “underscore” that evolved from typesetting, or at least that’s my shorthand way of grouping these words together for my purposes.

I enjoy the sound of “accentuate” – meaning emphasize – and really wanted to use it in my 18th-century historicals, but alas it was not to be. Sure, it existed as a word but not to mean what I meant. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) told me I had to wait until the mid-19th century to use it that way:

1. To pronounce, or distinguish with an accent.

1731 Bailey, Accentuate: to pronounce in reading or speaking according to the accent.    1827 Hare Guesses at Truth II. 212 They [the French] never accentuate their words or their feelings: all is in the same key; a cap is charmant, so is Raphael’s Transfiguration.    1880 Paper & Printing Trades Journ. xxx. 7 You will find that he accentuates his words‥quite naturally.

  1. To mark with the written accent.

1846 T. Wright Ess. on Mid. Ages I. i. 9 The [Anglo-Saxon] scribes not only omitted accents, but they often accentuated words wrongly.

  1. fig. To mark strongly, emphasize.

1865 Lecky Rationalism I. 371 To accentuate strongly the antagonism by which human nature is convulsed.    1875 Hamerton Intellect. Life vii. v. 254 His marriage would strongly accentuate the amateur character of his position.

Okay, fine. How about “stressed”? You know, “she stressed how important his next words would be…” Well, no. That’s even later in the 19th century!

1. Distressed, afflicted. Also absol. Obs.

1559 J. Aylmer Harborowe B 3 b, With a certain choise and judgement to giue passage and safetie to the stressed.    1590 Spenser F.Q. ii. x. 37 Stird with pitty of the stressed plight Of this sad realme.    c 1590 J. Stewart Poems (S.T.S.) II. 88 The stressit knycht all stupefact did stand.    1632 Lithgow Trav. vii. 328 Stress’d Saylers.

2. Marked with a stress, emphasized.

1885 Meredith Diana i, The stressed repetition of calculated brevity while a fiery scandal was abroad concerning the lady.    1913 A. C. Clark Prose Rhythm in English 18 Rhythm in poetry depends upon the recurrence of longs and shorts, or stressed and unstressed syllables, in a regular order.

So, then what if I used “underscore”? Would that work? Hardly… The figurative sense of “emphasize” is even later than “stressed” in entry to English written language. And if you look closely at the figurative 1891 usage its really reflecting the act of putting a line under the words moreso than the true figurative sense of emphasize, which isn’t reflected in the OED until 1939. So to be safe, I chose to not use it in my 18th-century historicals.

Verb. a. trans. To draw a score or line beneath; to underline.

1771 Luckombe Hist. Print. 249 [They] either underscore the word, or make some other token, which may inform the Compositor of the Author’s intention.    1838 Lytton Alice xi. v, The notice to Howard, with the name of Vargrave underscored, was still on the panels.    1874 Blackie Self-Cult. 35 Underscore these distinctly with pen or pencil.

b. fig. To point up, to emphasize, to reinforce; = underline v.2 1 b.

1891 W. S. Gilbert Rosencrantz & G. iii, He who doth so mark, label, and underscore his antic speeches.  1939 Sun (Baltimore) 17 Apr. 8/2 A look at the gold statistics underscores the fears which are so often expressed on this score.

A couple of other words surprised me that I had wanted to use but found couldn’t without being anachronistic. Typeset and typesetter, for example. These show up in the OED but without a date of origin, so I bounced over to and looked them up. “Typesetter” didn’t become a thing until 1825-1835, and “typesetting” was first recorded in 1855. Mind blown that it took that long for those seemingly basic words to enter English.

One last one that surprised me. “Showcase.” I admit I do not remember specifically how I wanted to use this word, whether as an actual case for displaying stuff or the figurative sense, but it didn’t much matter once I checked it in the OED. No form or usage of it entered English until 1835. This is a good example of one of the kinds of words I’ll talk more about next time, since it’s original usage included a hyphen, as in “show-case” or even “show~case”.

Until next week when I’ll talk more about how two words slowly evolve into one! Happy reading!


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Evelyn's PromiseDetermined to fend for herself in an independent America, widow Evelyn Hamilton faces soaring post-Revolutionary-war inflation as she struggles to provide for herself and her infant son. Militiaman Nathaniel Williams finds his heart ensnared by the smart, beautiful widow, forcing him to make the hardest decision of his life.




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