by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Etymology is the study of the history of words. It’s something surprisingly few writers know much about, considering that words are all we actually have to work with. However, knowing where a word originated and the era it came out of can be of much use in telling truthful stories. If you ever write tales that took place in any decade before the one you were born in, you might be unaware that certain words and phrases didn’t even exist in the time period you are crafting your story.
Sometimes, understanding the history behind a word or phrase actually provides a great deal of insight into how and why people said such things. For example, did you know that the word mortgage actually comes from the French mort-gage that literally means “death pledge?” Tragedy comes from the Greek word tragodia, which means song of the male goat, telling us something about the originator’s opinion of certain Greek dramas. Here are twelve other words that you might reconsider using if you are writing a period piece in a specific era.
There are a number of stories about the etymology of the word “ok.” The most reliable is that that it dates back to 1839, when the Boston Morning Post began using the term as an editorial joke that went viral. If your story takes place before 1839, follow Léon’s instructions to Mathilda in The Professional and “Stop saying ok all the time.” Ok?
Some claim this word originated from the Swahili words jambo which means hello and jumbe which means chief. The term as we know it originated in 1860 in a London Zoo, where an elephant took on the name. P.T. Barnum later bought the elephant and brought him to international acclaim, propelling the word into our lexicon. The Disney film Dumbo is partially inspired by the real life Jumbo, who died in 1885. Everyone knows what the term means now, but if your story pre-dates 1860, no one would have had a clue.
Originating around 1520, the word is derived from the Latin quardraginta, literally meaning 40, and referred to the number of days a widow had the right to remain in her dead husband’s house. In the 1660s, a similar Italian phrase quarantine giorni, which meant the span of 40 days, referred to the period a ship suspected of carrying a disease had to remain in the harbor before docking. A decade later the term took on the more general meaning of any period of forced isolation, which was hundreds of years before Ripley warned us about breaking quarantine in Alien.
From the mid-15th century, the word referred to an opening in stone walls for shooting arrows through or admitting light. In the 1660s, the term became more generalized as a means of escape and later developed into the even more common idea about any ambiguity in a system, much like the one Ben Affleck and Matt Damon search for in Dogma.
Referencing time in a period film can be tricky business. We have only mostly agreed on a calendar system for roughly two centuries. Before this, most cultures had their own unique ways of tracking time. Our term noon comes from the Latin phrase nona hora, which literally means ninth hour. In ancient Rome, noon was around 3:00pm, which might be why you never heard Russell Crowe referencing the time in Gladiator.
Our common parlance for money didn’t exist until American frontiersmen began using deer skins as units of commerce in the 19th century. Trading the bloody skins was likely as grotesque as Penny being sold to Humble Pie for fifty bucks and a case of beer in Almost Famous.
In Greek mythology when Theseus entered the labyrinth to kill the minotaur, he unraveled a “clew,” or ball of string, so he could find his way out. Our iteration of the word didn’t come about until the mid-1500s when people began using the spelling we recognize. Take that Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the candlestick.
Originally the word was a military term used during the Korean War, before we adopted it as a description of anyone forcing another person to think a certain way. A number of films set before the 1950s use the term incorrectly. The Manchurian Candidate is not one of them. Released in 1962, the film brought the word to the attention of popular culture.
Our term for freelance photographers that stalk celebrities actually originated in a fairly recent film. Signor Paparazzo was a street photographer in the 1960 Fellini classic La Dolce Vita. The name is a nod to the dialectical Italian word paparazzo, a buzzing insect.
From the Greek meaning “terrible lizard,” the term is a relatively new one and was first coined by Sir Richard Owen in 1841, but still more than 150 years before Jurassic Park would be released.
The word denoted a mistress in the 16th century and became a nickname for girls named Dorothy years later, before referring to a toy baby in the late 17th century. In 1955, the term again shifted its most common cultural meaning with the Marlon Brando film Guys and Dolls.
Originally meaning a trick, hoax, or practical joke, it was not until the 18th century that the word came to take on its present idea of amusement. So, if you’re writing the next Braveheart or 300, remember that no one had fun.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.