Karen Bovenmyer is the author of Swift for the Sun, a romantic adventure set in the 1820s Caribbean, complete with pirates, adventure, and love. She is also the nonfiction assistant editor of Mothership Zeta magazine AND teaches at Iowa State University. But most importantly for our purposes, she is a fantastic nerd, who loves gaming, sci fi, and fantasy, and whose geeky dress making skills rival my own. I asked Karen what made her geek out while she was writing her debut novel, and she said, "The Oxford Historical Thesaurus!" I had to hear more, so here she is, telling us what got her so excited!
Let’s say you want to write a pirate novel. You’ve boned up by reading pirate books across the last three centuries and watched a huge pile of nautical movies. You’ve got all five Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks on a repeat playlist. You sit down and start pounding out sword fights with cannonballs whizzing by…but how do you capture the feel of the time? The linguistic zeitgeist?
No sweat. The Oxford Historical Thesaurus is there for you, friend.
This subscription-only service has already been paid for by many libraries and can be accessed by logging in to your local library’s website, so don’t let that daunt (bash, dastardize, dishearten, intimidate, quail, subdue, unnerve, or vanquish) you.
In need of a malediction or curse? The OHT has nearly four hundred interjections from the ancient roots of Old English (“Lo!” meaning “Oh!”), to the creative medievals (“By the mouse-foot!” 1532), past our beloved pirates (“Shiver my timbers!” 1834), and through modern times (“By the hokey fiddle!” 1922).
Need period-specific terms for body parts? There are ninety-one for buttock, from flitch (700) to tush (1962). Warning—reading the list aloud may cause excessive giggling. Some of my favorites include bahookie (1939), bumfiddle (1675), catastrophe (1600), paddock (1475), and bewscher (1400).
English-speakers are not only good at maledictions and body parts, we’ve historically been excellent insulters also. There are eighty-three options under “good-for-nothing.” Vagabond and ragamuffin come easily to mind—but other delightful options include shackerell (1420), ragabash (1609), shabaroon (1699), and flabergudgion or slubberdegullion (1611).
It’s quite entertaining to wander the OHT using it like any other thesaurus, but its most vital use for me was fact-checking my vocabulary in my historical pirate novel SWIFT FOR THE SUN, which debuted last spring. My editor was excellent at pointing out words that she suspected were anachronistic, and the OHT was essential in finding alternate words from the correct period. Reading texts from the 1820s was an essential tool for me, and going back to the OHT to look up phrases I didn’t fully understand helped me consider if I wanted to use them or not. Take this random passage from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson for example:
I had made my mind up in a moment, and by way of answer told him the whole story of our voyage and the predicament in which we found ourselves. He heard me with the keenest interest, and when I had done he patted me on the head.
"You're a good lad, Jim," he said; "and you're all in a clove hitch, ain't you? Well, you just put your trust in Ben Gunn—Ben Gunn's the man to do it. Would you think it likely, now, that your squire would prove a liberal-minded one in case of help—him being in a clove hitch, as you remark?"
What does Ben Gunn mean by “clove hitch” and would your readers understand what you meant? The OED’s definition is “A ‘hitch’ or mode of simply fastening a rope round a spar, etc., formed by passing the rope twice round in such a way that both ends pass under the centre part of the loop in front; it thus appears united into one loop in front and ‘cloven’ into two parallel lines at the back.” The first use was recorded in 1769. “Clove hitch” is listed in the Thesaurus under society > travel > travel by water > vessel, ship, or boat > equipment of vessel > ropes or chains other than rigging or cable > [noun] > knot used by sailors > specific.
You may find it useful to use an earlier word your readers might understand more readily. Listed with clove hitch are bowline-knot, clinch, sheepshank, or wall knot, all from 1627. Visiting the definition of the word in the OED allows you to see the logged uses of it from primary texts. In this case, all these knots were listed in John Smith’s A Sea Grammar. From there, you can visit this title in the World Catalog, and, in this case, read a scanned copy of the original text for even more ideas. Instead of clove hitch, you might choose the word “clinch” to communicate clearly to modern reader that you mean your character is “in a bind,” which itself is an anachronistic phrase that wasn’t in common use until 1851.
It’s easy to see that the OHT is fun for us word nerds, and we can spend many happy hours combing through it for interesting discoveries, but, at least in my case, reading the entries, the source materials, and the synonyms lead to new, richer writing ideas for my world-building. You might, however, set a timer to bring you back to your fiction.
Thanks so much for joining us, Karen. And readers, be sure to check out Karen's work at her website!
Melanie R. Meadors is an author of fantasy where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She has edited two upcoming genre anthologies, MECH: Age of Steel and HATH NO FURY, and is the science and pop culture blogger at The Once and Future Podcast. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.