Monday, January 21, 2008

Elizabethan superlatives

Ask me for an Elizabethan swear word and I'll happily oblige - pretty much the only lines I remember from Henry IV Part I (I studied it for O level) is the insults that Falstaff and others heaped upon each other. For a brief while when I was 12 a "bull's pizzle" was never far from my lips when I was looking to cast opprobrium.

Although I know the swears I don't know how Elizabethans used to express delight - which superlatives they used. I had this problem in a recent story and it was then that the lack of knowledge struck me. So much of the way we talk about these things is tied to our culture and the words we use change so quick. In 1993 I heard two people in a lift chatting about their weekend. Said one of its start: "Friday was enormous" which seemed so much of that time. Similarly can anyone imagine saying "fab gear" anymore, even ironically?

So I had a look online consulting a concordance which didn't really help much. Will Bill did use "fantastic" but in its proper sense - ie to do with fantasy not the usage that, according to the OED, started to mean "good beyond expectation" in 1938.

This PDF helped the most though - and suggested "marry"(by Saint Mary), "Now by my faith" and "i'faith" as the 16th century counterparts of Wow! Sweet! and Awesome! respectively.

But of course it's not just the words that change it is the usage too. In Shakespeare's time the world was changing so much that language had to change to accommodate all the novelty. New words were coined and they started to be used in new ways.

And that got me worried about the fantasy stories I write. Not that I should be aiming for versimilitude but has anyone analysed how our language has grown? Listed the earliest words? I'd love a source, or tool, which dated words by their meanings so at a stroke I could check if a story was authentic enough. Marry, 'twould be a boon.

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