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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Word Choice Part 1: Is it regency or modern?

A challenge with writing historical fiction is getting the word usage right. I like putting in as many regency era details as possible—without bogging down the story—and, for me, that includes words in use when a book is set. That’s typically 1812, although I’ll go up to 1815-20 since words are often in use for a while before they’re used in print or added to a dictionary. While I always choose readability over accuracy, if I can use a word from the time, I will. Google’s Ngram is my bestie. Runner up is the Online Etymological Dictionary.


But sometimes things just sound off to a modern reader even if they were in use while Austen was alive. This is often called “The Tiffany Problem”. If a reader reads historical fiction and see a character named Tiffany, they’re going to think it’s wrong. It sounds like a character born in the 1980s. But Tiffany was actually common name for girls born around Epiphany during the medieval era. Theophania was another word for Epiphany. If you’re writing a twelfth century story, you could name your heroine Tiffany…but your readers will assume you’ve made a mistake.


I thought I would start a series on some words that might sound modern, but were actually in use in Austen’s day, and in use in the same context as we would use it.


One is ‘zigzag’. I was trying to describe a hike up a hill with abrupt left and right turns and was struggling with a word to use other than zigzag. Meander seemed too vague for a specific path and wind sounded too leisurely. In frustration, I looked up the word to see how far off I was. It turns out that zigzag was in English by 1712, from French (1670s). It was originally to describe the layout of garden paths. I needed it as an adjective and that was 1750. Perfectly okay for me to use in an 1812 during a steep walk in Derbyshire!


Look for that word in a book out next year.


Another word is ‘jargon’. Now it means the specialized terminology used in a particular field or area of activity. “The lawyers were using a lot of legal jargon.” And that’s also what it’s meant since the 1650s. I haven’t used jargon yet but Austen uses jargon in Sense and Sensibility when Edward, Elinor, and Marianne are talking about their appreciation, or lack thereof, of the picturesque.

“It is very true," said Marianne, “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Everybody pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning.”

While writing a time travel book (Nine Ladies) where someone from the past and the present spent time in the other era, I looked up words all the time. At least once a chapter. Usually more than that. It took forever, but I wanted to both get it right and it was a good opportunity to throw in some humor and relationship building. Two of the words that meant the same then as now were ‘cash’ and ‘broke’.

“Are you telling me you’re broke?" Elizabeth asked. "I mean, insolvent?”
He gave her a long look. “I know what ‘broke’ means! Why do you think so many words developed their meanings only recently? "

My regency Darcy would have understood those words to mean "money on hand" and "to be insolvent"—to my modern Elizabeth’s surprise. Cash meant money on hand by the eighteenth century and broke meant insolvent by 1716.


Would you be taken out of the story if you saw zigzag, jargon, cash, or broke? When you're reading historical fiction, do you assume you're correct or do you think the author is correct? Is the author correct if they chose readability over accuracy?


I’ll be back soon with more modern-sounding words that actually work in Austenesque fiction.


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9 Comments


Debra McMaster
Debra McMaster
Apr 07

I look up many words and expressions that sound dissonant to me. Sometimes I’ve been surprised.

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Debra McMaster
Debra McMaster
Apr 13
Replying to

Yes, it is. I’m an occasional beta reader, and I always learn something.

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Anji Dee
Anji Dee
Apr 02

I’ve rarely, if ever, come across anything to disagree with in your writing. Thanks you, by the way, for the Kindle Countdown price on His Choice of a Wife. Really looking forward to reading that one. Finally, Happy Birthday 🎂🎂🎂

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Heather Moll
Heather Moll
Apr 02
Replying to

Thanks for the birthday wishes and the vote of confidence, too!

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Anji Dee
Anji Dee
Apr 02

I love looking up words and their usage. Being in the UK and having a UK library card, I have access to the entirety of the Oxford English Dictionary website and have spent quite a few hours down etymological rabbit holes. It’s also come in handy on the occasions when I’ve put my British Beta hat on for some of your compatriots, Heather.

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Heather Moll
Heather Moll
Apr 02
Replying to

I would love to have free access to the OED. I used to as a student and I miss it. It's a fun rabbit hole and an easy way to get distracted from the "real work" of writing.

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catandrews.author
Mar 28

This is so interesting! And I never question anything you've put on the page - you have mad research skillz. 😀

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Heather Moll
Heather Moll
Mar 28
Replying to

Aww, thank you! I'm not perfect, but I try. Props to that information science degree 😆

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