Wednesday, 16 October 2013

What's the opposite of anachronism?




Today’s blog is about phrases, words and artefacts in literature that seem to be anachronisms but aren’t: hanging out, flossing your teeth and wearing a big B on a necklace. 






The entry appears on the Guardian newspaper’s books blog here. And don’t miss the comments – there are some fabulous examples from readers.



Whether we're reading the Booker prize books or watching Downton Abbey, we all love to catch out an author in an anachronism. Philip Hensher, in a piece on this year's Booker longlist, found problems in several books, and took particular issue with the use of "Hello" in Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, set in 19th-century New Zealand. It seems that "Hallo!" – meaning "Stop, wait, hang on" or as a surprised or informal greeting (and much used in Dickens) – hadn't yet morphed into "Hello" as a gracious salutation. On the plus side, Hensher gave a date to one novel, Jim Crace's Harvest, because of the use of mauve – the name for the colour was invented in 1856.

At the other end of the literary spectrum, with the new series of Downton Abbey in full flow, we can expect the usual criticisms that the language and activities of staff and aristos are inauthentic and too modern – there's a website, Prochronisms, devoted to such TV nitpicking. There's no harm in that – the site is funny and informative – the site proprietor refers to it as Downton Crabbey – but other critics can be too ready to assume that because something doesn't sound right to them, it is automatically wrong…..

Click here to read more.




Some of the items featured in the entry have appeared on the blog – Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl, James Joyce and the dental floss, Agatha Christie endlessly. Julian Fellowes has an entry, F Scott Fitzgerald has several, and Philip Hensher is here too.


10 comments:

  1. A very interesting article at the Guardian blog, Moira. Just as I don't notice clothes so much in books, anachronisms usually pass me by. Unless they are really obvious, and even then I give the author the benefit of the doubt. I always thought of myself as detail-oriented (in programming it helps but is not essential) but not in reading I guess.

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    1. Thanks Tracy - different things hit different people - sometimes I think I notice too much detail and I should be concentrating more on plot or character...

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  2. fun - to look for these oddities. We in NZ are so excited that a Kiwi has won the Man Booker - The LUminaries is now on order at the library. Cheers

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    1. Thanks Carole - and that is great news about Eleanor Catton, you must all be so proud.

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  3. I am amazed by the examples. I would not have associated any of them with the actual author.

    I spend very little time on anachronisms. If the language sounds about right that if enough for me.

    Now if someone in a nation following the Anglo based legal tradition asks questions in court improperly or fails to follow proper procedure I am not pleased.

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    1. Exactly - as I said to Tracy above, we all have our little niches, and we rely on someone like you to tell us if the legal details are wrong...

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  4. Moira - What a wonderful discussion here. And well done on getting it into the Guardian. You make a well-taken point about the origins of words. Once you do a bit of research, you see that many expressions have been around for a long time...

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    1. I should have known this would appeal to you, Margot, with your love AND academic expertise with words. It's a fascinating area, isn't it, with surprises all along the way....

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  5. It is hard to get language right in historical novels, without sounding too fakely old or too glaringly modern. At least modern historical novels have given up on the kind of pish-tushery that seems to once have been common.

    I try not to worry too much about anachronisms, unless they are really glaring, but a really bad one can pull you right out of your involvement in a book, just as any really bad error can. A really good book will suspend disbelief over quite severe errors (Piggy's glasses in Lord of the Flies were almost too hard to swallow for me), but nothing will help if they are really bad. As you say, most readers have some personal degree of specialised knowledge that makes them sensitive to particular examples. I am especially irked by errors in plant species and varieties, but have accepted that I just have to get over them. I give them much less leeway in books than in films or TV, but have been known to shout "They wouldn't have had tomatoes" at the TV from time to time.

    One interesting point that came up in the discussion of the article is that American English retains a lot of words and usages that have dropped out of use in British English, so that a British reader can be pulled up by an "anachronism" that really isn't one, like Chaucer using "fall" for autumn.

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    1. Yes I agree with everything you say! And of course we all have our own tutting areas - I once wrote a book on etiquette so I am always alert to errors of manners in period dramas - eg the first daughter should be Miss Bennett, the next one Miss Elizabeth - but I can't claim that's of vital importance, and the makers of costume dramas tread a fine line between making it accurate and making it watchable and interesting to as many as possible. And, like you, I'm much more fussy about books than films and TV.

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