Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Avoiding Anachronistic Words in Historical Fiction by Christy Distler

Writing good fiction—no matter the genre—takes time, talent, and fortitude. Writing historical fiction adds some challenges to the mix, one of which is avoiding anachronisms.

An anachronism is anything that’s out of place in terms of time or chronology. For example, a dairy farm using
automatic milking technology in the 1930s (this technology wasn’t available until the 1970s), a character reading Little Women in 1855 (the book was published in 1868), or a Revolutionary War officer saying a young soldier is “scrappy” (scrappy didn’t become a synonym of feisty until 1895).

Obviously, any anachronism should be avoided when writing fiction, but for this post I’m going to address anachronistic words. After all, stories are made up of words, so it’s not hard to slip up now and then. Just how can we as writers avoid using words that … well, in our time setting, don’t exist yet? Of course, reading books, diaries, and documents written during the time period is incredibly helpful, but what if we just want to know (quickly) if a certain word was in use? Here are three ways:


I love this dictionary. All you have to do is go to the site, type in your word, and click the hourglass. Within a second or two, you have not only a definition for your word but also the year of its first use. Background information is often provided as well. I found this particularly helpful when determining whether to use contractions in my novel set in 1756, and then deciding which ones to use.

Option #2: Merriam Webster

This is another helpful website that provides definitions and, in many cases, years of first use. If Online Etymology Dictionary doesn’t return information for a word, Merriam-Webster (in my experience) does. You usually don’t get the background information, but it’s a great option if the former dictionary doesn’t help or if you want confirmation from two sites.


NGram Viewer is pretty amazing. You type in a word, set the time frame you want to use, and click the search button, and it scans the content of an enormous number of books and gives you a graph of how often the word was used in books published during your time frame. You can even search more than one word at once if you want to determine which word was more commonly used. Of course, keep in mind that NGram Viewer is searching books, and book language is often more formal than everyday dialogue. For example, won’t doesn’t show up in NGram Viewer books (it’s changed to will not), but that doesn’t mean people don’t use the word won’t. They do, and they have been—since the 1660s, according to Online Etymology Dictionary. Still, this is another great option, especially if you’re comparing usage of words.

Accuracy is one of the pillars of great historical fiction. Anachronistic words be gone, and happy writing!


Accuracy is one of the pillars of great historical fiction. #SeriouslyWrite


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For as long as she can remember, Christy Distler has dreamed her most vivid dreams with her
eyes wide open. Names became people—people who didn’t exist in this time and place but couldn’t have been more real in her heart and mind. So she did the only rational thing: gave them a voice by writing fiction.

Christy’s novels, whether historical or contemporary, delve into betrayal and reconciliation, faith and grace, and always involve the intertwining of cultures. Her debut novel, A Cord of Three Strands, releases on June 15 in print and ebook format. When not writing, she works as an editor for publishing houses and independent authors.

Obsession with words (and history) aside, she lives with her husband, children, and dogs in Pennsylvania, less than two miles from where her debut novel is set. Visit her at www.christydistler.com, or connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest.

14 comments:

  1. I always use Google Books (and the others you mentioned), but I didn't know about the NGram Viewer. Thanks for that additional source, Christy!

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    1. You're welcome! NGram Viewer is fun to play with. ☺

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  2. Thank you for sharing with us, Christy. For me personally, that's the most challenging aspect of writing historical fiction--making sure the words my character speaks were actually used during that time!
    Congratulations on your debut novel! :)
    Blessings, Patti Jo

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    1. Thank you, Patti Jo! It's definitely challenging. I'm so glad for resources like these!

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  3. Very interesting. Knowing these facts makes reading historical fiction even more interesting. :-)

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    1. Thank you! It's one of those behind-the-scenes things that isn't really seen but makes all the difference. ☺

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  4. Christy, thanks so much for this information. I was not aware of NGram Viewer, and it sounds like a great resource. One of the books on my table next to my writing chair is English Through the Ages, which I refer to often, but anytime I can find what I need on the internet, it seems much faster and easier.

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    1. You're welcome That's an excellent reference book! I wish they had a searchable ebook of it.

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  5. Thanks, Christy! I wasn't aware of the NGram viewer either!

    I've also used replicas of Sears catalogs - and copies of magazines from the early 1900s that I found stashed in a relative's old trunk! Boy, did they serve me well!

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    1. I've done that too, Dawn. I have two Sears catalogs that are from over one hundred years ago. I think they're replicas, but they're so much fun to look through!

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  6. Great post. Thanks for the online suggestion. I have a reprint of Websters 1820 dictionary. Fascinating.

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    1. Thank you, Cindy! What a great resource that must be!

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  7. This is a great post with some very helpful resources I was not aware of. Thank you so much for sharing!

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    1. You're welcome, Bonnie! Thank you for visiting!

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