I admit--I’m a word whore, from having about a dozen dictionaries (print), and about as many links to online dictionaries, etymologies, and phrases. In addition, I subscribe to “Word a Day” and “Phrase a Week”. Yet, armed with all these resources, I may still have some trouble finding the correct medieval term.
One challenge I had in writing This Time was to know which words Richard wouldn’t know or get an opposite meaning from when he awakens in the 21st- century. For example, early in the story, Richard observes what we would call a sympathetic reaction, but according to The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Word Histories, that word came into use in the mid 17th-century. So, instead of a single word, I ended up writing this paragraph:
“Katarina’s pupils grew large and her lips parted slightly. While Richard would not describe her expression as one of pity, the word that came to mind was in his Latin vocabulary-–misericors—caring heart.”
As it happens, I’m quite pleased with the end result because of the nuance it gave to the entire scene, but that cost me about a half day of research.
Despite my investment in those dictionaries and books on medieval words and phrases, the one thing that I found most frustrating was the medieval terms or phrases were listed alphabetically but there was no reverse lookup. For example, suppose I wanted to name a coned-shaped hat that fashionable women wore in the 15th-century. I would not have been able to find “hat” or “cone-shaped hat” but would need to have known that it was called a hennin.
The challenge for authors writing period pieces is even greater. For example, one can’t just say a horse, because like today, there were different types of horses, but the classifications have changed. The most expensive was the destrier, used mostly for the joust, and followed by the courser used for battle. A rouncey was the least expensive, often used as a pack animal, but also for riding.
My kudos go to those writers who successfully use the medieval terms so that they are meaningful to the modern reader without sounding pedantic.
Partial resource list:
--A Dictionary of Medieval Terms & Phrases. Christopher Coredon with Ann Williams. D. S. Brewer. Cambridge. 2004.
--NTC’s Dictionary of Changes in Meanings. Adrian Room. NTC Publishing Group. Lincolnwood, IL. 1996
--Medieval Wordbook. Madeleine Pelner Cosman. Checkmark Books. 2001.
--Ask Oxford (Word a Day)
--Horses in the Middle Ages (Wikipedia article)
--Phrase Finder (Phrase a Week)