What to call a zombie when? Some tools to assist with period-accurate writing

Posted by @ 4:52 pm on January 31st, 2013

Over at io9 there’s this post, “How to make sure the language in your historical fantasy novel is period-accurate.” And while “fantasy novel” and “period-accurate” seem contradictory to me, I was happy that the article directed me to two interesting online resources that may also interest . . . you!

1. The Jane Austen Word List: Author Mary Robinette Kowal compiled a list “of all the words that are in the collected works of Jane Austen” (14,793!). You can install it as a “language” in OpenOffice (click here for instructions), then spell check your document against it, which will highlight any words that Austen didn’t use. (Kowal: “It also includes some of Miss Austen’s specific spellings like ‘shew’ and ‘chuse.'”) This would obviously be useful for anyone who wants to write a project using only Austen’s vocabulary. And assuming that Kowal didn’t slip up, we can see that Ms. Austen’s works are zombie-free, the only z-initial words that she used being zeal, zealous, zealously, and zigzags. (Sorry, Seth Grahame-Smith.)

2. The Google Ngram Viewer: This allows you to see check how frequently a word appears over time in any book that Google Books documents. So, for instance, here are the results for “zombie”:

Google Books zombie ngram

Thus, while it would certainly be all right to have a zombie appear in a novel set before 1920, if you want to remain period-accurate, none of the other (English-speaking) characters should know to call the thing that.

. . . So those were the tools linked to at io9. But I wrote this post mainly because I wanted to call attention to another, related tool:

3. The Historical Thesaurus of the OED: The online version of this isn’t free, true, but you can find a bound copy in many libraries (and many schools provide online access). More than forty years in the making, this thesaurus tells you when a word was a synonym for another word (or since when). Thus, if your zombie novel were set in the 15th century, its monsters could be referred to as “carrion,” that term having once been “applied to a dead man or corpse that ‘walks’ or returns to earth” (but which has since then become obsolete).

. . . Know of any other tools such as these? If so, please do chime in. Meanwhile, here’s hoping that these links help any historical fiction writers out there out!

Bonus: Here’s how Charles Dickens describes a zombie in Oliver Twist: “a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life” (Chapter 48, “The Flight of Sikes”).

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