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Writing AH: Anachronisms

By Tom Anderson


"My God, Sir, I've lost my leg."

"My God, Sir, if you had a GPS tracker device fitted to it, you'd never lose it."

Picture from Wikimedia commons.



Let’s say you’re writing an Alternate History (AH) or historical fiction novel that includes a scene at the Battle of Waterloo, and you’ve just finished these paragraphs:


The Duke of Wellington mopped his brow as he surveyed the apocalyptic scene. All around him were shell-shocked soldiers retrieved from the wreckage of Hougoumont Farm. But though they had made the French pay a costly price, a jumbo column was now approaching.


Damn Boney, he thought. A few months ago, those blue-clad men had been the shattered remnants of the Grand Armée. But like Dr Frankestein, the erstwhile Emperor had stitched them back together into a capable fighting unit and electrified them with the lightning of his own personality. Not long ago, Wellington had walked the streets of Paris as a conquering hero; if he wasn’t careful, he would soon be paraded through them as a humiliated captive. No. No, he wouldn’t let it happen. He would be the one to bring Boney back to Blighty in chains, his ambitions exploded once and for all.


“We must suffer the bombs and bullets of outrageous fortune,” he muttered. “Blast that scallywag.”


Wellington’s aide, Henry Percy, arrived on his bicycle in a flurry of pedals. “Iron Duke! Sir! This is it,” he warned. “If Ney breaks our square here, we’re done – pop goes the weasel.”


“Damn the German government for not committing Blücher sooner,” Wellington complained. “Very well, if it comes to this, we have to hold him long enough. Die hard, men! Die hard!”


“May the Force be with you,” Percy agreed as he put away his smartphone.


What’s wrong with these paragraphs? Well, just about everything, but some of the anachronisms are more obvious than others. Let’s go through them now in turn....


Shell-shocked. I actually made this mistake myself once when writing something set in the 1810s. We are often used to using this term in a cavalier fashion nowadays, which we shouldn’t, because it was coined during the First World War (1914-1918) to describe the very serious condition later named ‘battle fatigue’ and today ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ or PTSD. Regardless, while PTSD certainly must have existed in some form during the Napoleonic Wars, the term ‘shell-shocked’ is anachronous.


A jumbo column. As I have written about in a previous article, the adjective ‘jumbo’ meaning large only entered the English language by analogy to the very famous Jumbo the Elephant in the 1860s-1880s. Wellington would never have heard the word, which is probably a corruption of a word of Swahili origin.


Dr Franskenstein. There are two layers to this one. Firstly, and most obviously, Frankenstein had not been written at the time of the Battle of Waterloo (June 1815) – though only just, interestingly. Technically, Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) wrote the novel only a year later, in 1816, after a challenge from Lord Byron and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley to write the best horror story. (For more details, see the excellent rundown by Ryan Fleming in the first of his ‘An Alternate History of Horror’ articles). However, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, was only published in 1818, quickly becoming well known.


So, would Wellington’s words have been fine if they had been attached to a scene set in 1820 instead of 1815? Oddly enough, no. Frankenstein is one of the best examples of a work of fiction whose most iconic scene (in pop culture) isn’t actually in it. At no point does Dr Frankenstein stitch together body parts from dug-up corpses, including a brain, with the help of a malformed assistant, and bring them to life via a lightning strike. That stems from the iconic 1931 film adaptation by James Whale. As a concept, it actually flies in the face of the message of the book, which is about discovering the secret of creating life from scratch; merely revivifying bits of existing dead bodies surely shouldn’t count in the same way. Electricity and lightning are also not involved at all, which is remarkably confusing to a modern reader, as Shelley’s work is so frequently tied to the bio-electric experiments of contemporary early 19th century researchers like Luigi Galvani – yet there seems to be no evidence of any connection. On the other hand, if Wellington was aware of Galvani’s work by reputation, this analogy could perhaps have been tweaked to compare the reinvigorated French army to Galvani’s electrified frog’s legs.


Blighty. This one surprised me when I first learned about it. ‘Blighty’ as slang for Britain is derived from the Urdu word vileti, meaning foreign, ultimately derived from the Arabic word for province, via Persian. So, it’s a word from British rule in India; Wellington cut his teeth as a ‘sepoy general’ out there. Surely he could use it? Probably not, in fact. While the word did begin to circulate with the meaning of ‘British person’ in India some years before the end of the 19th Century, it did not start to be used by British soldiers until the Boer War and was not popularised until the First World War, probably about 1915. A wound that would leave a soldier alive but ‘invalided back to Blighty’ was commonly associated with the word. Regardless, Wellington wouldn’t know of it or use it; even if he had encountered it in India, at this point it was probably used more vaguely to mean ‘European’ or just ‘foreign’ rather than British specificly. This one is a rare mistake in James Clavell’s Tai-Pan, which generally has very good research about sounding authentically 1830s/40s English. But then, when he wrote it in the 1960s, it was much harder to research specific things like this.


The bombs and bullets of outrageous fortune. I put this one in as a joke about how, especially in science fiction (and sometimes in fantasy) writers feel the need to update or modify existing idioms as technology changes – such as “I get the hologram” instead of “I get the picture”. This is silly and unrealistic, as we can see by looking at how English has failed to change its existing idioms with technology shifting. We still say ‘put the cart before the horse’, not ‘put the trailer before the lorry/truck’. We still say ‘ring me on the phone’ or ‘ring the doorbell’, even though phones don’t literally ring bells anymore and nor are the buttons on our doors connected to physical bells. Furthermore, idioms can survive when their origins are obscure because the metaphorical meaning survives – ‘get it straight from the horse’s mouth’, for example. An idiom can survive even its internal logic being destroyed. I am as annpyed as the next man about young (especially) Americans saying: “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less”, but we still understand what they mean. And it is just part of the same process of linguistic evolution as us saying “Head over heels (with joy)”, even though our heads are always over our heels if we’re standing up. The original phrase from the seventeenth century was: “Heels over head (with joy)”, ie, doing somersaults, but this proved too difficult to say and it ended up being spoonerised into the illogical version we use today.



Putting the cart before the horse.

Image from Wikimedia.


Also, the quote here is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s actually entirely possible for Wellington to quote this and maybe even put his own spin on it as I’ve done here. But it is worth remembering that just because a work existed does not necessarily mean that it was popular in a particular era; interest in Shakespeare underwent a revival during the eighteenth century, and Shakespearean references might not be as appropriate before then.


That scallywag. Though it sounds nicely archaic, this pejorative is from a later era than 1815. Properly, it should be spelled scalawag. James Clavell uses this one in Tai-Pan as well and it is at least arguable, as the word was probably in circulation by the 1830s/40s, but was likely more obscure than implied in the book. It was popularised by its use in the years following the American Civil War (1861-65), applied to white southerners who accepted the federal plan of Reconstruction and joined with black freedmen rather than trying to restore white supremacy through a campaign of terrorism. So, by that definition, it should be a word of honour rather than an insult!


His bicycle. This one is an obvious anachronism, but probably actually seems more anachronistic and unfitting to the casual reader than it is. Proto-bicycles like the Draisine or Dandy-horse were first invented only a couple of years after Waterloo in 1817-18, although they lacked pedals. The inventor, Karl Drais, said he was inspired by the shortage of horses and fodder following the Napoleonic Wars and the ‘Year without a Summer’ in 1816 following the eruption of Mount Tambora (which also influenced the writing of Frankenstein!) Drais actually envisaged armies using his vehicle for courier dispatches or carrying the wounded when horses were in short supply. This may seem risible to those not conversant with military history, but in fact bicycles – in their more sophisticated later form, with pedals – have occassionally proved decisive in warfare, notably in the unexpectedly rapid Japanese conquest of Malaya in 1941-42.


Iron Duke. This is probably my favourite anachronism in the text because it is so deliciously misleading. Almost everyone who hears the Duke of Wellington’s nickname ‘Iron Duke’ today assumes it was a positive appellation suggesting his strength as a commander on the battlefield. In fact, the nickname was pejorative, and given to him years after Waterloo, during his controversial tenure as an ultraconservative Prime Minister. Wellington had iron sashes installed on the windows of his house in London in 1832 to protect them from being smashed by angry mobs, mostly due to his opposition to both reforming Parliament and extending voting rights to more people. But this is seldom remembered, not least because the nickname hardly sounds insulting, and has even been used as a name for Royal Navy warships. Regardless, the nickname did not exist at the time Wellington was winning his battlefield victories such as Waterloo.


Pop goes the weasel. There is a popular tendency to assume that nursery rhymes are older than they are, although sometimes things are left ambiguous by a lack of written sources. In this case, though some argue there are older antecedents, ‘Pop goes the weasel’ was not popularised until 1852, when it was used as the name of a dance with a recurring refrain in both the US and UK. Many things we think of as ancient and unchanging are better understood as ephemeral pop songs or even proto-Internet memes, and this is no exception; by 1856, letters to the editor were complaining it was overused and everywhere. People have tried fruitlessly to divine any meaning from the nonsense lyrics ever since the song became popular, and it is likely there never were any. Regardless, Wellington might just barely have lived long enough to hear the phrase as he died in 1852, but he and Percy certainly wouldn’t have used it on the fields of Waterloo.


The German government. Fairly obviously to students of European history, there was no ‘German government’ in 1815; Blücher was acting on behalf of the Kingdom of Prussia. I mention this because sometimes people can take it too far the other way and avoid mentioning ‘Germany’ at all prior to German political unification in 1871. The name was still well known and in common usage long before Bismark and the Kaiser created a politically united Germany. It was simply not used in a political context. We can conceive that at some point in the future, perhaps all of Africa might be united under a single government; while that means it would be wrong of us to say ‘African government forces’ now, it does not mean we don’t refer to Africa as a place. I have had lecturers in the past who preferred terms like ‘the German lands’ or ‘the Germanies’ before 1871, but this is misleading, because people who actually lived before 1871 mostly just said ‘Germany’. However, of course, they might mean it more broadly than we would now, including other german-speaking lands like Austria.


Die hard, men! Die hard! This is thrown in as the obligatory trick question. As I wrote in a previous article, the 1988 Bruce Willis film Die Hard became so popular and influential that now people generally just think of that first when they hear the name, rather thank thinking about what it actually means. At most, they might know that a diehard is a fervent supporter of a cause who refuses to be dissuaded. They probably do not know that it originates from the British Army in Spain in the Napoleonic Wars, coined by Lt-Colonel William Inglis of the 57th (West Middlesex) Regiment of Foot during the Battle of Albuera in Spain in 1811. The regiment came under concerted French fire and Inglis was wounded, but he refused to withdraw and insisted on remaining with his men and encouraging them with the regimental colours. “Die hard, men! Die hard!” (In other words – make your deaths mean something, take them with you, don’t give them an easy fight). Ever afterwards, the regiment became known as ‘the Die Hards’. It’s entirely possible that Wellington might borrow the phrase to encourage his own troops at Waterloo!.


May the Force be with you. Obvious anachronism as it comes from the film Star Wars (1977), although it is inspired by the Catholic and other Western Christian exchange: “May the Lord be with you” “And also with you” (or, more correctly,, “And with your spirit”). It is also known by its Latin form Dominus vobiscum. Wellington and Percy might well say something like: “God be with us!” I also mention this one because, like the Shakespeare example, a writer might judge a phrase as anachronous or not purely based on whether its originating media was out yet or not, ignoring the question of whether it was popular yet. Star Wars did make an immediate impact, (though it didn’t always appear in markets outside America until months later) but other cases are more ambiguous. There is a Stargate SG-1 episode, “1969”, in which the team find themselves in the titular year and Jack O’Neill pretends to be ‘Captain James T. Kirk’ to his interrogator, who takes the claimed name seriously. Some criticised this because Star Trek had already been on the air for three years by this point, but given the series acquired its mainstream popularity through syndicated repeats later on, one can argue that it’s plausible the interrogator hasn’t heard the name before.


His smartphone. Another obvious (hopefully) anachronism. I mention this one not only as a punchline, but also because society has been sufficiently changed by smartphones that it’s likely this will be a cause of anachronistic writing in the future. Even if a youthful writer does look up the dates, they might assume that the world became a smartphone-centric society overnight with the release of the first iPhone in 2007, for example. In reality, it took time for smartphones to become the norm. The final episode of the time travel series Ashes to Ashes, from 2010, features an off-camera time-lost policeman, implied to be from that same year of 2010, demanding to know where his iPhone is. Our protagonist Alex Drake, who had been time-lost from 2008, had never brought up smartphones as a big difference between that year and the past of 1981, and it was specifically highlighted by the writers here to indicate that this off-camera new policeman was from a few years later. This is a good illustration of how, if one really wants to have a clear understanding of how technology was seen, or the influence of media, at a particular time, the best way is to look up material produced at the time. Are people in a sitcom made in this year still using landlines? Are film magazines from that year doing parodies of the film that’s a big deal now but maybe wasn’t when it first came out? Are the lines they’re riffing on the ones that you know as iconic, or were people focusing on other aspects of the film that you now take for granted but which were novel then? This kind of research of primary sources is unquestionably valuable, and we now live in an era – to bring it back to smartphones and computers – where it is easier than ever before to take advantage of it.


Thus endeth this exploration of the minefield of pitfalls when it comes to anachronisms in AH (and general history) writing! Did you enjoy this article? If so, why not comment on our forum and I may put together another of similar format.


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