Since my historical fiction is set mostly in non-English speaking places, I’m not especially concerned about when particular words entered the English language. But when I attended a historical fiction conference recently, one of the presenters shared a link to an etymology site, and I must admit: I am now obsessed.
The Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) can tell you when any word, prefix, or suffix was first used in English—and includes a fair number of phrases and expressions, too. This obviously comes in handy if you’re setting your novel in a specific year and are unsure about a particular word. It can be surprising to see when words first appear: I would have thought that “bomb” was fairly modern, but its use actually dates back to the 1580s. Similarly, I always believed that “D-day” was first used to refer to the operations at Normandy during World War II, but it actually came into use in 1918.
The Online Etymology Dictionary does offer the disclaimer that its dates may not be entirely accurate, “since a word may have been used in conversation for hundreds of years before it turns up in a manuscript that has had the good fortune to survive the centuries.” I also believe that a word’s appearance in one manuscript at a given time doesn’t necessarily mean it was in common use. Still, if your novel is set in 1776 and a particular word wasn’t in use until 1976, you need a substitute. Resources like this one can make your novel stronger by pinpointing such anachronisms.
(And by the way: If I were writing this in the 19th century, I wouldn’t have used the word “pinpoint.” It was originally aviator’s slang, and it isn’t attested until 1917.)
Melissa L. is the YA Editorial Assistant for Wonders and Marvels. You can read more about her here: Editorial Staff.