“The thugs vandalised the wall with vile grafitti” – words you won’t find in Shadows of Athens

As those who’ve already read the book know, this line could have been in the book. It’s stuck in my mind because that was a point where my typing completely crashed to a halt over the question of vocabulary. It’s something that definitely challenges historical fiction authors.

Where do you draw the line between ‘realism’ and clarity for readers? Because on the one hand, complete realism for readers would mean me writing Philocles’ adventures in Attic Greek, writers like Simon Turvey brushing up their Latin, and James Wilde reaching for his copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. That would be ridiculous.

On the other hand, the wrong word can throw a reader out of a story completely. That’s happened to me more than once. The last time was thanks to a Roman legionary using a Napleonic era military term. No, I can’t remember the book, and wouldn’t cite it if I could.

The fact that English is full of so many loan words complicates things still further. Just look at that sentence above. ‘Thug’ comes from the era of British rule in India, ‘vandals’ harks back to the rampaging Germanic tribes in the so-called Dark Ages, while ‘graffiti’ comes from Italian and wasn’t used before the 1850s. All of which are so far removed from Classical Athens, that the sentence above would surely have been a real stumbling block for the reader.

Though I wonder if it would be the use of all three words so close together that would make the real difference? Would the reader’s eye slide over ‘thug’ or ‘vandal’ if those were the only potentially out-of-place/period words in a sentence? Perhaps, and also, any reader response is going to be a very individual thing. One reason why I wouldn’t cite that time-travelling Roman legionary, even if I could, is because, let’s face it, you have to be a major military history nerd to pick up on something like that. The majority of readers wouldn’t have a problem with it at all. Indeed, that probably added atmosphere to the book for a lot of them.

Add to that, I know full well that I’ve seen ‘graffiti’ used in books set in Ancient Rome, and my Pedant Sense barely buzzes. It’s an Italian word with Latin roots, and as a consequence, that doesn’t seem nearly so far out of place in that setting for me.

Then there are the times when using wholly accurate vocabulary can give an entirely misleading impression of a historical period and place. I remember seeing an interview with the scriptwriters for the TV series Deadwood, set in the Wild West, i.e. America from the mid 1860s to 1900 roughly. The writers were being criticized for the frequent use of ‘cocksucker’ in their dialogue. They pointed out that contemporary newspapers and other records invariably mention the unmitigated and incesssantly foul language of these frontier territory towns. Men and women alike couldn’t get through a sentence without a ‘bloody’ or a ‘damn’… Er, that would seem positively quaint today, wouldn’t it? It would certainly fail to convey anything like an accurate sense of the era and setting.

So as with so much in language, context is everything. Writers certainly have to be aware of potential unhelpful associations with particular words, but an excess of pedantry/accuracy can be a waste of everyone’s time, and sometimes actively counterproductive. I will continue to examine my own word choices to strike the best balance – and to discuss borderline cases with my editors to see if I need to put my Inner Nitpicker firmly back in its box. Fresh eyes are always invaluable for things like that.

And yes, I am very much looking forward to the upcoming Deadwood movie on Netflix. Seeing that advertised got me thinking about the use of historical language, hence this piece.

Author: JM Alvey

Studied Classics as an undergraduate, once upon a time. Lifelong history buff, and crime fiction fan. Now writing historical murder mysteries.

4 thoughts on ““The thugs vandalised the wall with vile grafitti” – words you won’t find in Shadows of Athens”

  1. This speaks to me. For my sins, I’m 50,000 into an 18/19th C tale told by first-person narrator. Even though I’m scrupulous in checking that the words I use predate the time, I might easily be using them unidiomatically. But it will FAB when it’s finished!

  2. Yes, I know this problem well. Just published the first of a duology on Alexander as a boy, and this was a plague throughout. Swearwords, for instance, are a pitfall. I wound up using some plain ol’ *Greek* (oimoi, oa) to get around it. I figure, with repition, the meaning will be obvious. But as you note, it can be as simple as the word “thugs.” Vandalize wouldn’t bother me because it’s become a common verb, but yes, “thug” would trip me up as it’s far more of a colloquialism. I’ve read fiction set in ancient Greece that used modern slang, even military-style contractions, that felt just so *wrong*. The other wise, of course, is trying to mimic ancient Greek *too* much, as it’s such a formal (if beautiful) language. I hope I managed to walk a middle road. I enjoyed your post, and recently picked up your detective novel. My mother, I dare say, would have been delighted to find it. Her two favorite genres were historicals and mystery novels. 🙂

    1. It does get tricky, doesn’t it? And wrong-era language is even worse, to my eye and ear. Good luck with your Alexander books 🙂

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