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Etymology And Its Importance When Writing Period Material

By Expert Author: Jesse Ross

Timing Is Indeed Everything
I recently had the pleasure of editing a draft for a long-time client, with a storyline that took place in the 1600s. I found the plot immensely appealing, and everything was moving along swimmingly for me until I decided I'd better check some words to make certain they were in the lexicon of the period.
"Hooligan" Made Complete Sense
Since the tale involved an English protagonist during the King James Era, I assumed the use of "hooligan" was a nonissue. Yet after seeing my author using all sorts of descriptions for thugs in one scene, and applauding him for seeking a multitude of nouns to avoid redundancy, a little bird told me to check "hooligan." I was stunned to learn it evolved in 1898 in a London newspaper article and was attributed to the "lively" Houlihan family (whatever that was supposed to imply), even though the word is decidedly Irish.
It Got Worse
My writer's protagonist suffered many major events at sea, one of which left him injured and hallucinating. Now, I was certain that "hallucinating" was a word ascribed to the drug culture or perhaps the morphine days of the 1800s at its furthest stretch. Stunned again. The word developed from Latin circa 1595, and right within the timeline of my client's story and therefore perfectly acceptable.
"Fellow" Was a Given, But "Guy" Really Threw Me
"Fellow" originated around 1050 or before. And since most everyone has heard of Robin Goodfellow from Shakespeare's AMND, it's fair to assume that "fellow" was certainly around in the 1600s. But do many people know that its counterpart "guy" wasn't in use as a name for a person until the early 1800s, and the enactment of Guy Fawkes Day as a national holiday in Great Britain?
What Makes the Word "Guy" Confusing Is Twofold
Here's what I found fascinating about "guy." The actual "Guy Fawkes" event, in which this man and his co-conspirators tried to blow up Parliament, occurred in 1605, but the word was not coined in the U.K. until the early 1800s. And then it meant "a weird person." In the U.S., few people knew of Guy Fawkes or his "Day," and in the 1900s "guy" became what it is today, another name for "fellow."
But to compound the problem of determining the correct chronology for "guy," the word was originally coined in the mid 1300s to refer to a guide rope or apparatus used to steady something. Ever heard the phrase "throw me a guy line"? I used to think someone misspoke, really wanting to say "guide line." Regardless, both are correct, but the issue with "guy" is that it was a word in the 1600s, just not one that referred to a "fellow." Tell me that's not a pistol for someone simply trying to write a good story without stepping on the gun barrel.
It's Impossible to Look Up Every Word
If someone is writing material involving a contemporary setting, other than the most recent slang--which nobody cares about anyhow and is best to avoid--all words are in play. Words in existence at the time of the story only become at issue if analogous to Victorian-era vernacular in a tale depicting Elizabethan chivalry. Ignoring time-specific slang, I doubt many word historians would get too bent out of shape about a decade or two, but 250 years is tantamount to time travel when it comes to etymology, and traipsing around this sort of timespan, regardless of the era, requires great care.

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