“My Fist Is Not the Hammer”

Or, OED: the Historical Writer’s Claw Hammer 

One thing I try to get right in my historical fiction is word use–that is, would that word have been used in that way at that time.  I will admit, I am not exhaustive about this. I don’t cross-compare every word I have used in a manuscript against, say, a database of every word used by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.  (If anyone knows of an easy app for that, though, by all means let me know!)  There are times, however, when I will question my word choice and feel unsure of a term’s appropriateness.  Often this comes with technical or scientific words.

The recent case I had concerned teeth.  Specifically, my heroine was feeling quite feral and dangerous, and ran her tongue over her canine teeth (because that’s what I can’t stop doing when I feel that mood).  But…would teeth have been called by modern terms 200 years ago?

There is one place to go for this kind of question:  the Oxford English Dictionary.  The one thing, as a writer, that I love about my day job is that it gives me access to the OED online database.   It is an indispensable tool for me, and one I would pay for out of pocket if I had to.

So what did the OED have to tell me about teeth terms?  Only that human teeth had been classified to include “canine teeth” since the early 17th century, at least.

Their first explicitly modern-usage reference:

1626    Bacon Sylva Sylvarum §752   The Teeth are in Men of three kinds, Sharp, as the Fore-teeth; Broad, as the‥Molar-teeth, or Grinders; and Pointed-teeth, or Canine, which are between both.

Ta-da!  Validation.  It took me 2 minutes to discover (and that only because of having to log into my work system remotely), and it is one small piece of accuracy that will in aggregate create a mostly accurate whole.  I can’t pretend to fact-check everything, but those details and words that give me pause are always verified.

Interesting trivia I have discovered this way?  Milquetoast is inappropriate for Regency usage because it didn’t actually appear in writing before the 1930s, and the earliest reference to “milk toast” as a dish is in the 1850s.  

So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Charles Darwood.


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