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Time Tracking Your Word Choices

Avoid Errors and Create Polished Writing

By Diane HelentjarisPublished 2 years ago 3 min read
Cossacks By Mykola Samokysh

With a Greek American father, our Ohio home ran as a democracy. Sort of. As the only girl in a family of four children, I was usually outvoted in choosing movies. My three brothers voted as a bloc: Shirley Temple, “No” and John Wayne, “Yes.” I watched my share of shoot ‘em up Westerns, World War II soldier sagas, and Japanese sci fi.

In 1962, we trundled off to see Taras Bulba, a war-laced feature faintly based on a novel by the Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Dad drove us the six miles to the Fairborn Theater. He went the back way from Medway — down Spangler Road, past the marshy areas, across the Mad River and over the spooky truss bridge. The movie, set in the 1500s, stars Tony Curtis and Yul Brynner.

We watched open-mouthed as the Cossacks, Poles, and Turks clashed on the steppes. Tony Curtis raced his steed…and then my brother Tim ruined it all. “Did you see that, Steve? That guy had a wristwatch on.” The mood was spoiled. The fantasy dissipated like fog in the sun.

An anachronism is, according to Merriam Webster, “an error in chronology, especially a misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other.” A wristwatch on a sixteenth-century Cossack, in other words.

For writers, anachronistic errors can sneak into their work through the narrative or dialogue. Such errors, when noticed by the reader, interrupt the flow of reading. They also dim the writer’s credibility.

Many word choices are clearly tied to an era. “Gadzooks” would not be a first pick for dialogue set today. “Pants” has replaced “breeches.” Those are easy. But what if you are putting together a tale or a biography set in the 1830s? Or 1513? When did “children” become “kids” and “Mams” become “Moms?” Writing about relatively modern times requires care, too. When did floppy disks first appear?

In 2021, words such as “contactless,” “quaranteen” (not “quarantine”), “doomscrollling” were added to dictionaries. Folks writing stories set in the time period bridging or just preceding the pandemic will need to walk a line to avoid jarring anachronisms.

An online tool to help you avoid these errors is The Historical Thesaurus of English. It is a free online resource offered by the University of Glasgow.

This effort to chart the development of meaning of English words began in 1965. First published as a print book in 2009, it is now online as the “largest thesaurus in the world.” Based on the Oxford English Dictionary and The Thesaurus of Old English, words from early medieval times to the present time are covered. Although chockfull of information, the main use for writers is to provide a quick and easy way to identify the first documented occurrence of a word.

For instance, a quick peek reveals “mom” originated in 1846, but “kid” was slang for a child as early as 1599.

Remember to check for and remove anachronisms to add authenticity to your writing and to keep your readers engaged.

Someday I might write about another trip to the movies — one I missed. To treat the group of boys who served as acolytes at Donnelsville Lutheran, the pastor decided to take them to the movies. He trusted the local movie house’s good sense and he took them to see Barbarella. The movie, by Roger Vadim, is set in an unspecified time in the future. My brothers mentioned nothing about anachronisms. They were more interested in the costume Jane Fonda almost wore. Oh, my.

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About the Creator

Diane Helentjaris

Diane Helentjaris uncovers the overlooked. Her latest book Diaspora is a poetry chapbook of the aftermath of immigration.

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