Sunday, February 19, 2012

When a word won't do

One of my favorite passages from This Time, my first book about Richard III in the 21st-century, came about because I couldn't use the word sympathy. Early in the novel, Richard observed what we would call a sympathetic expression from Katarina, a linguist who was part of the team helping Richard adjust to this century. Being a man of the late 15th-century, he spoke what is now called Early Modern English. According to The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Word Histories, sympathy did not come into use until the late 16th-century, and the adjective, sympathetic, until the mid 17th-century. The following short paragraph is the result.
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.


  1. I love how you handled that. I also love your sensitivity to the difference between the early modern sensibility and our own. We use a lot of shortcuts and pop-psych vocabulary to talk about feelings much of the time, but those short cuts don't belong in the emotional world of 15th and 16th century people. It would be like having Richard talk about his "personal space" or saying that someone "hero-worships" him. You handled your problem beautifully in a way that tells us what we need to know about his perception but using his own terms.

  2. That you Maggie. I was just reminded of something Mark Twain said about using the right word, "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."