Don’t Say That! Colorful terms in #historical #fiction #wordplay #amwriting #amediting #mustread #histfic

Color me a tad sad as today I’m wrapping up my Don’t Say That! series with one final post about words related to color: ecru, hue, luminescent, multicolor, and vibrant. Do any of those words surprise you as not entering English until after the 18th century?

I’ll start with one of my favorite words for a soft off-white color, ecru. I imagined Emily wearing an ecru colored night shift. Only, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word didn’t enter English until 1869. Can you picture the color? The definition is “the name of a color; the color of unbleached linen.” Something lighter than eggshell but not white. It’s of French origin, so it does surprise me that it didn’t get picked up by Americans earlier than the middle of the 19th century.

The next one is a tricky one. The word “hue” has been around almost forever. It’s from Old English and meaning “form, shape, figure; appearance, aspect; species” first cited in 900 A.D. However, meaning “color” it had a bit of an interruption in use. The OED says, “Down to the 16th c. app. exactly synonymous with ‘colour’; but it appears to have become archaic in prose use about 1600.” The citation dates reflect the interruption: 971, 1050, 1225, 1375, 1450, 1576, 1616, 1694, 1791, 1808, etc. Archaic doesn’t mean it was never used, but given my A More Perfect Union series takes place in America in 1782-83, I had to consider whether my characters were likely to have picked up on it. I wrestled with this decision…but finally chose to use a different word. I’m certain beyond a doubt that most readers wouldn’t know the difference, but I would and that was enough of a reason for me to steer clear of “hue.”

But what about “luminescent”? Couldn’t the candlelight be such? Actually, no. Mainly because the OED defines it as “a. Emitting light, or having the property of emitting light, otherwise than as a result of incandescence. b. Pertaining to luminescence.” The citation is dated in 1889, a full century after my stories. And since it’s definition relies up production of light “otherwise than as a result of incandescence”—which by the way didn’t enter our language until 1794—I chose to describe the light in other terms. Keep in mind that my stories took place when light was produced by candles, oil, tallow, etc. No lightbulbs yet!

So what about a “multicolored” quilt? I’ve seen them in historic homes and displays of traditional quilt making. They exist. However, the word did not. The OED doesn’t include this word for some unknown reason, but my Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary does. According to Webster, the word “multicolor” became a word in 1840-50 as a back formation from “multicolored” which entered English in 1835-45. So again, I had to describe the quilt as having many colors, perhaps I even stated what they were.

Couldn’t my characters have a vibrant personality? Or wear vibrant clothing? Not by a long shot! The word has existed since the 16th century but meaning “Agitated with anger or emotion” or even “Brandishing, flourishing.” But as applied to colors that usage of “vivid, exotic. Also applied to other visual attributes, and to objects with an appearance suggestive in some way of vitality or the exotic” not until 1971. After I was born for goodness sake! So again, no to using that word in my historicals.

What all of this word sleuthing has taught me is first and foremost how to better describe what is happening, where it’s happening, and how it’s happening so I don’t rely on a single term to encompass the action or visual. My intent is to write a story that employs all of the senses so the reader can virtually experience the story playing in my imagination.

I’ve come to the end of my Don’t Say That! series, so next week I’ll start another round of Between the Lines posts where I share some interesting tidbits I’ve picked up while researching my stories, whether historical or contemporary. In fact, I’ll start with the research I did for my next paranormal/supernatural romance, Veiled Visions of Love, which will be available next month. More about that book next week. Until then!


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Emily's Vow Finalist SealEmily Sullivan’s greatest fear is dying in childbirth, as did her twin sister and their mother. Despite her half-hearted protests, her father insists Frank Thomson is the perfect man for both her protection from the vengeful British and as a husband. Frank always loved Emily despite her refusal to return his affections. A patriot spy posing as a loyalist officer, when Frank learns Emily’s been imprisoned for her father’s privateering, he risks his own neck to free his love.

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