Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Writing the Right Word

Last week I talked about words that don't work in a period piece, and my surprise to learn that both spud and smack were anachronistic for my setting in the year 1701.

But of course there are plenty of words that do work, and I don't mean just that they existed at the time, as important as that consideration is. Words that give not just the meaning, but the sense of being from a different era.

Porridge, for instance. It's more specific than oatmeal, has more of an older sound. Since the porridge in question was prepared by sailors, I could have gone a bit farther and called it burgoo, but I don't want to send my youngish readers scurrying for a dictionary every time they turn the page, for fear that they stop turning pages altogether.. The late, longtime grammar and style maven James Kilpatrick advised that you should use big words selectively, when nothing else will really do, not to show off how smart you are but when it conveys a shade of meaning that no other word does. They should be used like "rifle shots," he said, carefully aimed, and not as a linguistic scatter gun.

(And speaking of which, I had to be careful that in 1701 my characters were threatened by pirates carrying muskets, not rifles.)

Some of the right words just sound funny, which is a good reason for using them. Even if you don't know the word, context should get you most of the way to meaning. I'm proud to say I worked one of them in. I expect an editor somewhere down the line will question me on it, want it out, but I'm gonna fight for it.

When the tutor is yelling at Spider and calling him an unrefined, uncivilized fool, he calls him a "dunder-headed clinchpoop!"

Now, the first time I heard the word clinchpoop I assumed it referred to a person so obsessive-compulsive, so anally retentive, that he walked around with his butt tightly clamped. Actually is has nothing to do with constipation.

According to an article I found in the NYTimes online, clinchpoop is "a term of contempt for one considered wanting in gentlemanly breeding." A jerk, a slob, a rustic. And its origin goes back to the 1500s. So clinchpoop is in! And in the context, even if readers don't know the definition, they'll certainly understand the meaning.

Here are some other archaic terms that might be worth resurrecting, from

Groak: To silently watch someone while they are eating, hoping to be invited to join them. Origin: Unknown.

Hugger-mugger: To act in a secretive manner. Origin:1530s.

Crapulous: Like clinchpoop, you might think this has something to do with excretory functions, but it doesn't. It means to feel ill because of excessive eating/drinking. "On March 18, after a night of St. Patrick's Day revelry, I felt crapulous." Origin: 1530s.

Firkytoodling: Foreplay. As in: "My boss caught me firkytoodling under my desk with the cleaning lady again." Origin: Unknown.

Jargogle: To confuse, bamboozle. Origin: 1690s.

Elflock: Tangled hair, as if matted by elves. Origin: 1590s.

Gorgonize: To have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect on someone, but the reference clearly goes back to Medusa in Greek mythology. Origin: early 17th century.
Stupid, imbecilic. Origin: 1590s.

Slubberdegullion: A slovenly, slobbering person. Origin:1650s.

Callipygian: This is one of my all-time favorite words. It means, "Having beautifully shaped buttocks." I long for the day I walk past a group of people and hear one of them say, "Hey, he's pretty callipygian for an old guy." Origin: 1640s.

Fuzzle: To make drunk, intoxicate. "Don't drive if you're fuzzled." Origin: 1910s.

Quockerwodger: A wooden puppet controlled by strings. As in: "The chairman has no real power, he is a mere quockerwodger." Origin: 1850s.

So next time you're writing and feeling puckish, take careful aim and let fly with one or two of these. But not too many. You don't want to jargogle your readers and make them feel fuzzled or beef-witted.

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