Saturday, August 29, 2009


Here are some of the words I realized I couldn't use while writing The Golden Mean:

velvety I used this to describe a baby's scalp before discovering that velvet was a Medieval fabric, unknown to the ancients.

rubbery To describe a person's face. Oops.

stirrups Invented by the Romans. The Greeks had saddles; the Macedonians, great horsemen, liked to ride bareback.

Caeserian This operation actually was performed by the ancient Greeks (with one shudders to guess what success), but the term was obviously of Roman origin. I had to get the incision in the right direction, too; initially I had Aristotle's father make the cut along the bikini line, as surgeons would today; but until quite recently, surgeons cut from the navel downwards, leaving a vertical rather than a horizontal scar.

And some of the words I got away with:

silk The famous silk roads, the great trading routes between Europe and Asia, were opened up by Alexander, so silk would have been all but unknown before his great campaigns. I had to change all Pythias's dresses from silk to historically accurate linen. I did allow myself to keep one metaphorical use ("the truth slipped like silk") because I just couldn't come up with a word I liked better.

tar The ancients had pine tar, particularly useful for sealing ships.

beer The Macedonians brewed barley beer, something like Medieval mead. Because the weather in mountainous Macedonia tended to be cool and rainy in the winters, grapes didn't thrive as well as in the warmer, sunnier south, and wine had to be imported.

fuck The Greeks looked on the Macedonians as vulgar barbarians, wealthy but crude, who had to import what culture they possessed. Looking for a way to distinguish in English between Greek and the Macedonian dialect, I struck on an analogous use of British and North American English. My Athenians would speak like Brits, my Macedonians like North Americans. "Do they have to curse like rappers?" an acquaintance (born in England) asked me plaintively after reading a draft. Exactly!

The 26-volume Oxford English Dictionary was an invaluable resource when anachronism became a worry. It not only provides definitions, but cites the first known use of your word, a huge bonus for the historical novelist. If anyone's wondering what to get me for Christmas....

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