Don’t Say That! Evolution of Spelling in #historical #fiction #wordplay #vocabularly #amwriting #amediting #mustread #histfic

Did you know that usage of words evolves over time? Not necessarily the letters used but how they are joined together? Compound words today are often evolved from two separate words, then maybe joined by a hyphen, before becoming one continuous string of letters. Let’s take a look at a few to give you an example.

Before I do that, though, let me just say that while the precise spelling of a word—or rather whether a word includes a hyphen or a space—may vary, the meaning is still clear to a modern reader. I know that without any doubt. The only reason I prefer to explore the “current usage” at the time of my stories is to add another layer of realism to the fiction. Since I write in close third person point of view, I try very hard to think like my character. Wouldn’t he or she then envision the spelling of the word using a hyphen, or making it two separate words entirely? Again, while a modern reader wouldn’t notice, I’m striving to create a semblance of the past within a story written today.

So, one of my favorite discoveries was that the word Thoroughbred did not exist in the 1780s, the time of my A More Perfect Union historical romance series. But one of my sources declared that two thoroughbred horses arrived by ship in December 1782 in Charleston. Since I knew the word hadn’t come to be yet, I needed to see for myself how the secondary source knew they were Thoroughbreds. Thankfully, the secondary source cited the primary source newspaper article. So when I made a second research trip to Charleston (love that city!), I went to the Historical Society and asked to see the newspaper article. I cannot tell you just how anxious I was to see that few inches of newspaper column, either! It took what seemed ages before the librarian came back with the paper and I quickly skimmed the text until I came upon the fact that “two thorough bred horses” had indeed arrived in South Carolina.

A closer look at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) shows that “thorough-bred” meaning “thoroughly educated or accomplished” has been around at least since 1701. The OED also says that “of a horse” to mean “a race-horse whose pedigree for a given number of generations is recorded in the studbook” didn’t begin until 1796, and then hyphenated as “Thorough-bred.” As I said, I’ve seen the term used with regard to horses as two separate words, lower cased. So there is some doubt as to the exact lineage of the word, including whether to hyphenate it or not. Indeed, the OED definition shows the term hyphenated until the 1880s. Thus it becomes more of a stylistic choice than a matter of correct or incorrect usage. (Something I’ve found to be true of commas quite often, but that’s a debate for another day!)

English Water Spaniel-1
English Water Spaniel

Okay, so I wanted to have a dog in one story. I love dogs, so why shouldn’t my characters, right? Besides, Samantha needed a friend… So I thought about a rather generic description of a terrier dog as a “black-and-tan” but found out in short order that the adjectival phrase didn’t come into use until 1850. There are other definitions in the OED (an alcoholic drink and an armed forces unit), but all dated later, some with hyphens and some as individual words. Why couldn’t I use the colors as I wanted to? I suppose I could have, but then wondered whether it would be outside of the realm of possibilities for my characters. Now, I could have gone round and round debating whether or not I should use it despite what the OED implied, and finally decided to come up with a different dog! It was easier. So I did some research and discovered the English Water Spaniel, a breed now extinct or at least assimilated into other spaniel breeds. From my perspective, it’s a double win. I found a historically accurate pup for Samantha and I learned something about how dog breeds have changed over the centuries.

“Good night” is another interesting term, since the OED cites Chaucer in 1374 as having used it in his Troylus. Note he used it as two separate words, but the OED cites many examples of hyphenated usage. From what I can glean, two words is generally used when wishing someone to have a “good night” but people will say their “good-nights” before going to taking their leave of others. A little mixed usage never confused anyone, right? Looks like another stylistic choice to be made.

I can think of more recent examples of how people change the spelling of words over time. Electronic mail used to be “Email” or “E-mail.” Now I see it frequently as “email.” Same sort of thing happened to being “on-line” or “online.” Can you think of any other recent examples of word evolution?

I’ll let you all ponder word evolution until next week!


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Elizabeth's HopeThe fight for independence has become personal… Elizabeth Sullivan feared for her brothers, fighting for American freedom; for her father, pretending to be a loyalist; for family and friends, caught between beliefs; but mostly for Jedediah Thomson, the man she loves, who was doing his duty. They’d only begun their courtship when the occupation of Charles Town, South Carolina, trapped her in the city and sent him to fight. She cherished every moment they had together, knowing how swiftly it could be taken away. And that made her willing to risk everything to claim a piece of him forever….


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