Jump to content
Paul

Anachronisms

Recommended Posts

I was originally going to post this in the Spelling & Grammar Q&A sticky, since we seemed to be heading in the direction of usage that changes over time ("all right" vs. "alright"), but I figured the following is too much of a drift.

I've always been quick to notice anachronisms in period pieces, be they films or fiction. My favorite most recently was in the 2001 film "The Cat's Meow," set in 1924. There's a close-up shot of pages in William Randolph Hearst's address book, and most of the addresses have ZIP Codes.

This, of course, is a danger for younger writers when attempting to set stories in times before their own. Not only can facts and details be gotten wrong, so can language.

For example (and I intend no disrespect for the Awesome One, it's just that he's provided a convenient target, one that set off my anachro-dar the first time I saw it): The Dude's sig, which is attributed to Mark Twain: "Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it."

Now, exaggerated reports of his death notwithstanding, the guy did die in 1910, and I believe the use of the phrase "put on" in the sense of deceiving or kidding did not come into use until much later in the last century. In addition, though there are zillions of references to this "quotation" floating around cyberspace, I've never seen an authenticated source for it. Also, http://www.twainquotes.com/ doesn't mention it at all.

I didn't mean to rain on anybody's parade, but I think that's a useful example of what to look out for if you're going to be writing a period piece. Or scrounge up some old codger for your editor.

Link to comment

A good point, though digging up an old codger for a piece set back before 1900 would be difficult, as you'd probably have to do that literally (dig up, I mean) with associated problems.

On the other hand, you also need to make things readable. If you tried to write as they spoke back in the middle ages, few people would be able to understand it -- the language as drifted that much.

Naturally, you don't want to introduce artifacts that didn't exist (middle ages peasant drags out his cellphone to call for help when rampaging wolves attack his flock of sheep), but the language itself can be more lenient ("Bloody hell! Those wolves are as annoying as Barry Manilow!") as long as you don't refer to people/events incorrectly, or use inappropriate terminology for the era. ("I'll just touch base with him" in a pre-baseball era, if such a time ever existed).

Graeme

Link to comment

You know what MY pet peeve is? People who ASSUME things about word use through time. You know? Mike's use of the word has been in American currency since 1895, according to Stuart Berg Flexner, author of Listening to America and Hear America Talking. The fact that the quote isn't listed on YOUR pet quote site means nothing, quote sites, or even good quotation books, do not list everything the person ever said, and Twain made quite a few funnies in his lifetime. The ONLY authenticated source would be Twain's actual writings, not a quick check of available quotation compilations.

And I think you're missing the point. But I have more to say, to wit:

I also notice anacronisms, but don't always assume something IS one. The zipcode, Zone Improvement Plan, was introduced by the Post Office in 1963, of course (http://www.usps.com/history/history/his2_75.htm), but that's a pretty small mistake for the movies, a medium generally overstuffed with contributors. Who knows who made that small error? Maybe it wasn't an error, maybe USPS prefers zip codes to be listed in films, as part of their education efforts. A whole host of things are controlled that way by persons outside the actual filming, not even including real advertisments, meant for profit, of copyrighted ideas, products and persons.

Examples of 'modern' phrases and their earliest authenticated use with the same meaning:

creepy 1880

discombobulated 1837

frazzled 1872

gripe 1932

bitch (to complain) late 1920s ('to bitch' , same meaning, since 1675)

chat 1440

terrific 1888

crummy 1931

mugger 1863

rip off 1960s

phone (verb) 1880s

cigs 1890s

sweet (meaning 'excellent' or 'wonderful') 1880

ball buster WWII

sticky 1915

tough luck 1890

tough titty 1929

tough shit 1949

crappy 1940s

bogus 1827

cash 1596

faggot/fag 1905

fairy 1908

queer 1920s

pansy, fruit, queen 1930s

swish 1941

homo 1925

ass/jackass 1400

dimwit 1922

cool, crazy, far out, wild, weird-are all from the 1950s

dumb 1736

have kittens (and related phrases) 1900

fool 1275

idiot 1300

pissed off 1948, and earlier

ticked off 1940s

pretty boy 1920s

ignoramus 1577

moron 1910

millionaire 1820s

billionaire 1861

Mother's Day first observed 1908

Father's Day first observed 1910

...and Thomas Jefferson introduced hamburgers and french fries together as a meal, not McDonald's. Daylight Savings Time was adopted by Congress in 1918, to save coal and electricity during WWI, but was based on 'railroad time' which, including time zones, had been in use since 1883. Vitamins were invented/discovered in 1912. Cigarettes and pajamas didn't become popular until the early 20th century. People didn't start wearing underwear until the 1830s, but that was mostly men and children, women didn't regularly wear them until later. Night shirts for men first came into popularity in the 1840s, but current estimates put the number of men who still sleep in either underwear or the nude at 60%.

Never, ever assume.

TR

Link to comment

Ouch! Duly chastised, he hangs his head in shame. Still, the customary willfulness of the miscreant cannot help but surface, albeit timorously.

I'd be interested in seeing Flexner's cite(s) for "put on" from that period, to see if they're fully consonant with what you might call the "Laugh-In era" sense of the phrase. Maybe it's just because I find it difficult to place Mark Twain and Dick Martin at the same spot on the drollery scale.

Link to comment

I'd note that those are likely the first recorded usages of words or phrases. I would bet "pissed off" and "ticked off" are probably much older, for instance. The meaning of "weird" has drifted, but its current meaning is probably older than the 1950's.

Yea, Chauceres inglische mought been a bit myckel to asken menne to readen noue.

What's that you say? Don't want to dig up an old codger? I suppose one could always ask some vampire or highlander immortal or demigod to edit one's manuscripts. Although I suspect the lapses into various extinct languages might be... distracting. You'd have to be very saguine about such things. Very!

Link to comment

The moral of the story... Language is a living thing. We don't speak or write English like they did in the middle ages, or in colonial times. That also goes for other languages... Modern French has evolved from what it was in middle ages or during the French revolution - so have most other living languages.

I personally feel a balance needs to be struck... some "archaic" language can be placed into a piece, but each writer must ask what audience they are looking to reach.

Sure if you're writing a period piece based on historical accuracy as a "scholarly work" and the majority of readers will be experts in that field you need to be faithful to the original because you're credability will be questioned. But on the other hand if the work is for general consumption; strange, ancient, or unfamiliar words and phrases need to be balanced with modern day language. If you have to explain every reference in your work, that gets ponderous and makes the piece heavy.

Just because you may know and understand all the esoteric phrases and their meanings your readers may not... and instead of impressing them with your great knowldege it may have the opposite effect and might turn off to those trying to wade through it.

As always moderation in all things.

Jamie

Link to comment

Yes. For example, you probably would avoid "thou, thee, thy, thine" and associated verb forms when writing about the 1700's and earlier, even though a number of people (not just Quakers and Shakers) still used the second person singular pronouns and verb forms. You'd use "you, you, your, yours" instead, unless you were making a special point. Why? Because to a modern reader, using "thou" forms sounds too archaic.

Heh, and there wasn't a whole lot of difference in medieval French and what of that was incorporated into medieval English via the Normans.

The living quality of language and how it changes over time is why Shakespeare and the King James Version bear so little resemblance to our early 21st Century English. Also, now we're seeing the regional dialects merge back, at least online and in the media.

I went on a tangent in there.

Link to comment
Just because you may know and understand all the esoteric phrases and their meanings your readers may not... and instead of impressing them with your great knowldege it may have the opposite effect and might turn off to those trying to wade through it. As always moderation in all things.

It's ALL about the details. Really. If you know something's wrong just don't do it.

In a novel I wrote some years ago (not published) I created an entire world. I researched geography and weather patterns so deserts would appear on the correct side of mountains, lakes would form in the correct place. Dialects would appear based on shifting population changes, and so forth.

I know you don't all like AWMS but everyone who's read it is amazed at how real it feels for a fantasy novel. It's the details. If you ever go to London you will find everything where I say it is. Every ghost train station exists where I say it does, every date on the trains is right, all the details about Scotland Yard are right. If you visit the airport terminals (SFO, JFK, or LHR) you will find everything was where I said was down the correct decor for that time period. You will find pilot announcements are accurate for the time, and so on.

It's the details. Overkill I know, but still. If you CAN do it right, that's the way.

My two pence.

Link to comment
It's ALL about the details. Really. If you know something's wrong just don't do it...Overkill I know, but still. If you CAN do it right, that's the way.

Ah, truly a man after my own heart. I fully understand the need to make some alterations in language for the sake of comprehensibility to modern audiences, but at the same time it's a slippery slope. The more that's changed to conform to modern ideas, tastes, feelings, worldviews, the more we're separated from the period depicted. And the whole idea of a period piece is to get an idea of what living was like in that period. At least for me, anyway. I have no interest in characters wandering around in Elizabethan, or Victorian or Edwardian garb while their behavior and attitudes are purely 21st-Century. It's a big gripe I have against so many period-piece films made thiese days, and it makes most BBC adaptations of the past 15-20 years well-nigh unwatchable.

Here's an example of what I think you're talking about. I got hooked, and easily, on Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series (source for the film "Master and Commander"), and wound up on a non-stop binge that took me through all 20 volumes. What kept me going, besides the exquisite characterizations and thoroughly involving narrative, was the feeling I never stopped having that this must have been the way it was. This is how people talked, how they felt, how they saw the world and their place in it. And how did O'Brian achieve this? By getting all the details right. How do I know he did, that every single detail was 100 percent correct? Of course, I don't. But never once did I come across anything that even seemed suspect; just a handful that were, or maybe even one, would have colored my whole outlook, spoiled the sense I had of looking through a window to another time.

The fact that O'Brian took his work seriously meant that I was able to as well.

Link to comment

Since I usually write in the 70s and 80s, I don't have this problem. It's like Dude, man, I'd be like seriously trippin trying to figure out how to write for another era. If I tried to write in the 50's I'd have to shake off the dirty, long haired hippie thing and get greasy and wear white socks.

70psyc.jpg

james.jpg

doorsgold.jpg

Link to comment
Maybe it wasn't an error, maybe USPS prefers zip codes to be listed in films, as part of their education efforts. A whole host of things are controlled that way by persons outside the actual filming, not even including real advertisments, meant for profit, of copyrighted ideas, products and persons.

That's thoroughly wrong, at least in my experience living and working here in LA for almost 30 years.

Trust me, somebody just wasn't thinking, and I bet the director wasn't even in this room when an insert shot of this address page was shot. No way would a Zip Code be "required" by anybody, and neither the Post Office or any other government agency can demand dialog be changed for technical accuracy. Hell, protesters haven't even been able to get smoking eliminated from film scenes, and that's almost a legitimate protest.

In the case of the scene in question, I have no doubt that if even a lowly grip or a honeywagon driver pointed that out to the director, they'd be thanked and it would've been changed immediately. I bet everybody was in a hurry, nobody noticed, nobody caught it, and it got shipped before it was too late. Simple as that.

There are whole books written on the problems of anachronisms and continuity problems in films, like Bill Givens' hilarious Film Flubs series. One that always bothered me was the car-inspection sticker on a 1962 car in the (otherwise great) movie Godfather II. The only problem is: car inspections didn't start until about 1972, around the time the movie was made. I also go nuts when they get the TV cameras, microphones, and other equipment wrong in movies about the 1950s or 1960s; the brand-new George Clooney film Good Night and Good luck does everything right, but then you see stuff like the 1979 Kurt Russell Elvis movie, where they have Elvis in front of 1977 color TV cameras... in 1956. Uh-uh.

Other flaws happen, too. I worked on about 30 projects for Miramax in the 1990s, and I caught (as one example) numerous spelling mistakes in end credit-crawls. The studio was always very gracious and chagrined when they discovered the error, and had to spend thousands of dollars to fix them for the home video releases. By then, it was too late to fix the theatrical, but we at least caught it for VHS/DVD. (I also caught a mistake in the end credits of SPY KIDS 2, but that was before the film came out, and they were able to fix that problem.)

I do agree with much of what you say. I believe if a writer can at least capture the "look and feel" of speech in a specific era, even if it's slightly off, you can get the gist of it and make it work for the story, and make the reader believe everything that happens. On the other hand, then there was the 2001 Heath Ledger film Knight's Tale, for which I worked on all the trailers. That one had characters saying "YES!" and making a fist, a modern gesture right out of the late 1990s. I've never seen a worse movie in terms of having the wrong historical attitudes for the time shown in the film. I also disliked the little kid in Mummy 2, who at one point turns to the villains and says, "my daddy's gonna kick your ass!" No kid would talk that way in 1932, certainly not the child of wealthy, educated parents. Both the attitude and the dialog are totally wrong for both historical examples.

Link to comment

I STILL say moderation. Nothing wrong with being authentic, don't get me wrong, but if you are trying to reach a wide group make sure they understand what you're saying. The goal of writing is communication (at least that's what my high school creative writing teacher always said). Most writers want people to read and UNDERSTAND their work - the more the better. No?

Of course if you're writing for a narrow group (civil war reenactors for example) you better get it all exactly right or they will crucify your inaccuracy and point out each and every mistake.

There are anachronisims for authenticity's sake that are IMPORTANT, but there are also anachronisms the writer can put in to "show off" their knowledge. And I ask are those anachronisims critical to the work or will they muddy the waters... it's a question every writer has to personally resolve. If it contributes positively to the work sure put them it. If it is going to detract... again that's up to each writer to decide.

If you've written a work that hasn't been read by ANYONE why write it? (and I don't even mean broad publication here - even if only few friends read it would be nice). Share it here for example... I for one would be interested in reading it. Unless you're waiting to die so your heirs can find it, and publish it so you become famous posthumously and they become rich!

And Blue I wasn't sure if you were saying that the French language hasn't evolved since the Middle Ages? But it has and continues to.

Jamie

Link to comment
There are anachronisims for authenticity's sake that are IMPORTANT, but there are also anachronisms the writer can put in to "show off" their knowledge.

OK, just to clarify here... an anachronism is something that doesn't fit the time period in question, not the other way around. An example: President Lincoln goes to Ford's Theater that night to see "Cats."

Here's an example of how an author (though in this case, the example being a film, I should probably say auteur) doing a period piece can drop in an unfamiliar concept with no explicit explanation: In "Barry Lyndon," Stanley Kubrick (a noted stickler for detail and authenticity) depicts a duel which later turns out to have been a sham. Unbeknownst to both parties, the "winner's" pistol had been loaded with what is described in dialog as "tow." For years, and after many viewings of the film, I had no idea what the heck "tow" was. It was only recently that I discovered that "tow" was flax or hemp fiber. But the lack of explanation in the film made no difference in conveying what was going on; the context made it plain that a false bullet had been used. The use of the contemporaneous term "tow" served to heighten the feeling of period authenticity, even for those of us who, at the time, had no idea what the stuff was.

Link to comment
There are anachronisims for authenticity's sake that are IMPORTANT, but there are also anachronisms the writer can put in to "show off" their knowledge.

OK, just to clarify here... an anachronism is something that doesn't fit the time period in question, not the other way around. An example: President Lincoln goes to Ford's Theater that night to see "Cats."

Yes, but I think Jamie meant that when an author (or filmmaker) insists on technical accuracy to the detriment of the work itself. After all, we'd hate to watch a film about King Arthur where the characters spoke the English of the time. Also, some people don't seem to get the humorous intentional uses of anachronism, eg. the above references to A Knight's Tale. So there are a lot of reasons to use something that you know is wrong for the time, but is right for the storytelling.

Therefore I agree with Jamie's comments on this thread.

TR

Link to comment

It's all too deep for me, so I'll just point out that "Virginity like bubble; one prick, all gone. -ancient Chinese proverb" is unlikely to be a really ancient Chinese proverb, since it plays around the double meaning of the English "prick" and ancient Chinese would never have used that.

BTW, I hate the use of yellow center lines on highways in movies from before the changeover, which was in the early 70's.

Link to comment
It's all too deep for me, so I'll just point out that "Virginity like bubble; one prick, all gone. -ancient Chinese proverb" is unlikely to be a really ancient Chinese proverb, since it plays around the double meaning of the English "prick" and ancient Chinese would never have used that.

What is it with you people? I thought only lesbians had no sense of humor. :blob: Wanting satire clearly labeled, pointing out the obvious? What gives?

TR

Link to comment

I've been amused by that "proverb" joke since I first saw it in your sig. I get that it's a joke and that the "ancient Chinese proverb" is part of the joke; it's funny and true.

-----

Huh? No, of course I didn't mean that French had remained as it was in medieval times. That'd be no end silly. It's very much a changing, living language, despite the efforts of the Acad?mie Fran?aise to prescribe standard French. I wonder how I gave that impression? I think I was talking about how medieval French influenced medieval English. No matter, ce n'est rien, no es de nada.

Link to comment

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...


×
×
  • Create New...