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Historical language dictionary (or other source for language)

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Sheila Berenson

Am writing a historical fiction and would love to find a good dictionary (or other source) that only gives the words/expressions used during the nineteenth century. My story is based in eastern Europe but at this point I would welcome an American dictionary from that time period, too. I'm been finding and copying words/expressions from writers during that time period, but it is quite laborious. Any books or websites, anyone?  THanks.
#1 - May 01, 2011, 07:30 PM


A good research university library will have period dictionaries, although that might be useful only for spot-checking certain words to make sure they're not anachronistic.  The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) would be useful too because each entry usually includes historical usage notes, when the word entered the English language, etc.  But if you're trying to establish an authentic-sounding 19th century voice, probably the best thing you can do is read, read, read from the period so that the flavor and tone and style will seep into your own writing.  But you'll need to be careful about what kind of 19th-century English you want to be emulating.  American and British authors, for example, differ widely.  Expressions and vocabulary change from region to region, from social class to social class, and from year to year.  In Europe, at least, the 19th century is a time of enormous change--political, economic, social--and these changes could be reflected in the language. 

In another life I was a scholar of 19th-century French literature, and so I'm responding to you as an academic.  I've never written historical fiction (though I have written scholarly, biographical articles). Just wanted to let you know where my two cents are coming from.  Hopefully some folks with direct experience writing historical fiction will give you the benefit of their expertise!

#2 - May 01, 2011, 07:48 PM

Avalon Ink

That's a very good question! My wife writes that period and outside of reading a LOT of books published in that time frame and a few dictionaries and non-fiction we've found at used book stores (Cheap and in rough shape, of course) have been all she's been able to stumble across.
#3 - May 01, 2011, 07:57 PM

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I haven't written historical fiction, but I love the history of the English Language.

PBS did a series on "The History of English" and the book is still available, it gives a good background to the varies regions that speak English.

I just hopped over to Amazon and there are some interesting books that are on 19th century English Language.  

However, you are going to have to be very class and education conscious as you write your book.  Also early 19th century and late 19th century are far apart in what was happening in the world.  Watch out for oxymorons - things that would not have existed, or even if they existed at the time, who would have owned them.  

I lived in a house built around 1900 in Nashville TN.  It originally had a stable in the back yard (we found a full sized horses tooth).  This was a classy neighborhood.  Within Twenty years garages were replacing stables.  Yet the streetcars were still running and people had an easy ride downtown (about a mile away).  (I know I went into the 20th century, but I am just showing that while some people in the neighborhood owned cars, others still had their horses.)
#4 - May 01, 2011, 08:02 PM
You must do the things you think you cannot do.  Eleanor Roosevelt

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Have you checked out the Corpus of Historical American English page? It might be worth a look.
#5 - May 01, 2011, 08:48 PM

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Have you seen the Historical Dictionary of American Slang? It's super cool, and it goes back into the 19th century. Some entries compare American to British usages.

A couple of fun & easy but edifying reads by Bill Bryson: The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way and Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. It might be worth checking Bryson's source lists, too.

#6 - May 02, 2011, 10:24 AM
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