East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Shadufs, prodigal sons, cuckolds and other anachronisms


anachronismLanguage in historical and pseudo-historical stories.
We talked about it back when The Great Swape/Shaduf Debate took place, and I also discussed briefly Ancient Profanities, Their Use and Abuse*.

I tend to give a modicum of attention to the words I use and the way my characters speak.
And I realize their speech patterns and usages are anachronistic.
Nennius Britannicus’ men speak like soldiers in a Viet-Nam movie – “C’mon boss, don’t be so square!”
Amunet’s speech patters vary with her mood – the more melancholy or worried or distracted she gets, the less polished her wording becomes – she says “Dunno” instead of “I don’t know” if she’s got something else on her mind.
Aculeo drops a lot of stuff – pronouns, particles, adverbs, he uses fewer words the more the situation’s heated and urgent – “You right, wench?”; but he can be articulated when he wants to play Amunet, for instance, “I guess I should be impressed by this Aegyptian whatchamacallit you did, right?”

img-thingNow, I’m not afraid of anachronism.
I’m afraid of my editrix – because she’s very sensitive to anachronism, and I think she hides a sharp blade in her garter to cut the throat of anyone putting, say, “Prodigal son” on the lips of a well-before-Christ, Carthaginian character.
She can be lethal – Kipling got that bit right, you know…
But so far she has not shown me her blade, nor her garter, nor – thankfully – any particular criticism of the “modern” way my characters speak.
So ok, we discussed a whole night about swapes, shadoufs and keloneions, but that was fun, and it made sense.

On the other hand I was quite surprised – and amused – when a reviewer recently took exception at Aculeo using the expression “cuckold” to describe a gentleman whose wife had been unfaithful.
A Roman centurion would not use such an expression, apparently.
Terrible breach of consistency and all that.

And it made me wonder about what sort of expression a third century former centurion (or anyone else, actually) would have used.
You see, the proper Latin for “cuckold”, the word Aculeo would probably use in real life is “incestum” – but you can plainly see that the modern brain of the reader would not connect that word with marital unfaithfulnes, but rather with a different sort of sin.
So, by using the correct Latin I might sacrifice understanding for philology.

But there’s more – as I said, my characters’ speech patterns are not just because.
Zothique (collection)They connect with the story.
Now Aculeo is using that off-hand expression because he’s not taking the person he’s talking about seriously.
He does not empathize – and it’s pretty clear**, he’s actually trying to cope with the fact that yes, probably the cheating wife is the one who’s been miscast and mistreated.
So there’s a reason for that short sharp word and not anything longer and more… let’s say stylish.

And then, what the heck, I stand my ground on my choice and I invoke a Greater Authority – and mention Clark Ashton Smith‘s The Dead Will Cuckold You.
If it’s right for CAS and Zothique, blimey, it’s right for me and Aculeo & Amunet.

And then…
Just imagine had the reviewer noticed there’s a whole chunk of Walt Disney’s Fantasia displayed as a bas-relief on an Assyrian monolith, in that same story.
Go and talk about anachronism, what?
But he did not notice, apparently – too busy looking for nits to pick, probably***.

* now that would be a GREAT title for a post… I’ll have to write it.
** I know because my beta readers told me!
*** and, please, no, this is not “urgh, that nasty Karavansara guy, he sticks pins in voodoo dolls of his critics!” – I know the guy was doing his job and he was very kind, all things considered. But he pointing out that single detail sort of made me laugh, and hence this post.



Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

5 thoughts on “Shadufs, prodigal sons, cuckolds and other anachronisms

  1. I just went and re-read the Assyrian monolith section, and now that I knew what to look for, I giggled a lot ^^
    More on topic: swear words and not-so-nice words are always the source of somebody’s criticism, I once had to explain to a guy that using modern day swear words in a fantasy alternate world was the most economic and direct course of action. I guess he would have preferred a lexicon of invented profanities in some elvish-sounding, made up language. Go figure!


  2. 😀 Ah yes – you never can tell with fierce and fearsome, garter-wearing, knife-wielding editrixes… They’ll pounce on innocent swapes, and why, in some cases they won’t even wait for the warriors to have finished – never mind what Kipling says…


  3. Pingback: Cackling swords | Karavansara

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