Don’t Say That! Them’s Fighting Words in #historical #fiction #wordplay #amwriting #amediting #mustread #histfic

Let’s talk about fight scenes in fiction and the words used to write them, shall we? I don’t have many scenes where people actually fight one another, it’s not my bailiwick. That said, some of the words used to describe fighting can be employed figuratively in some situations. However, I discovered that the figurative sense usually evolves sometime after the word is used literally. Let’s look at six of them: backhand, jab, sic, slug, swat, and tackle.

I wanted to say that someone hit the other with the back of their hand, i.e., backhanded the other person. The word existed as a noun and adjective as early as the 1650s, but as a verb meaning “to take a backhander” not until 1857, while the meaning I had in mind of “to hit or stroke with the back of one’s hand” not until 1935. Now, I probably simply stated the character hit the other character with the back of their hand instead of using the one word. One other definition of “backhand” is “handwriting with the letters sloped backwards.” Which has nothing to do with the meaning I needed, but I learned something new in reading the definition, so thought I’d share.

So what about a jab? A move used in boxing. Could my character take a jab at something, or someone? Literally or figuratively? Sadly, no. The verb meaning “to thrust with the end or point of something; to poke roughly; to stab” entered English in 1825-27. By the way, there are several related definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but I won’t belabor the point. For my 1782-83 stories, the word didn’t exist.

In Amy’s Choice, I hoped to have Amy sic the dogs on a threatening person, but the OED definition has more to do with the Scottish word meaning “such” than sending an attack dog after anybody. So I went over to  and found the verb meaning “to attack (used especially in commanding a dog): Sic ‘em!” which is recorded as originating in 1835-45. Sigh. So much for using that word, then.

Could Frank “slug” somebody to defend Emily? He most definitely was prepared and willing to do so. In fact, he even fights a duel for her honor! I didn’t know there are four definitions of “slug” in verb form. The one I meant, “to strike (also, to drive, throw, etc.) heavily or violently; to slog” is the third definition. Unfortunately, it originated in 1862. So I guess he just punched him instead, which entered the English language in 1530. Whew.

Maybe they could be swatting a fly or swatting away somebody’s unwanted hand on their arm. Surely, they could kill a fly by swatting it. Almost but not quite. In 1615 the verb meant “to sit down, squat” but that’s not I was looking for. The “right” one, meaning “to hit with a smart slap or a violent blow; also, to dash. Now esp., to crush (a fly, etc.) with a blow” came about in 1796, 13 or so years after the stories in my A More Perfect Union series. Close but no cigar, as the saying goes.

Then let me “tackle” one last word I had originally written into one of the stories but found out upon revisions and editing I couldn’t leave in place. This verb existed since 1400 when used to mean “to furnish (a ship) with tackle; to equip with the necessary furnishings,” which is cool to know but not helpful for my story. I could have used it if they wanted “to harness (a horse) for riding or draught.” However, meaning “to grip, lay hold of, take in hand, deal with; to fasten upon, attack, encounter (a person or animal) physically” didn’t come about until 1828. The more figurative sense of “to ‘come to grips with’, to enter into a discussion or argument with; to attack; to approach or question on some subject” not until 1840. So, out of luck on that one, also.

Next time I’ll talk about medical words like spasm and stressed. Happy reading!


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Amy's ChoiceWhen Amy Abernathy’s childhood sweetheart, Benjamin Hanson, leaves to fight in the American War for Independence without a word of goodbye, Amy picks up the pieces of her heart and chooses independence. When Benjamin returns unexpectedly, Amy flees to the country to help her pregnant sister and protect her heart.

Benjamin Hanson knows he hurt Amy, but he also knows he can make it up to her after he completes his mission. Then he learns that Amy has been captured by renegade soldiers. Now Benjamin faces his own choice: free the sassy yet obstinate woman he’s never stopped loving or protect Charles Town from the vengeful British occupation.

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