Sue Burke (mount_oregano) wrote,
Sue Burke

Calvary, bases, and other anachronisms

Recently I was reading a fantasy novel set three thousand years ago, and one character remarked sympathetically to another, “You’ve suffered a calvary”: that is, she’d suffered a great ordeal. The word comes from the hill called Calvary where Christ was crucified, but the Messiah hadn’t come yet, so no one could suffer a “calvary.”

In another book, set in medieval Europe, a friend found a remark that someone “had his bases covered”: that is, he was prepared. This is a baseball expression, and baseball originated in the United States in the mid-1800s, so people weren’t covering their bases centuries earlier on a distant continent.

Speaking of medieval expressions, we all know kings back then could shout: “Off with his head!” Actually, they probably didn’t, not even Richard III (1452-1483), because that exclamation comes from the play Richard III written by Shakespeare in 1592, and it was made popular in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll in 1865.

Speaking of the Bard, the expression “lie low” also comes from one of his plays, as did “green-eyed monster” and “break the ice.” Lewis Carroll did not invent the “Cheshire cat” or “March hare,” however: these expressions originated a century or more before his book.

This is the label from a brand of peanut butter available here in Spain. Peanuts are a New World vegetable, and peanut butter was patented in 1884.

I say all this because as a writer or translator, when I’m working with historical material, I must bear in mind that all words and expressions originate at a specific point in time and space, and they need to be congruent with the origin and setting of the work.

For help, besides google-fu, there’s the Historical Thesarus of English:
It contains almost 800,000 words from Old English to the present day, primarily based on the Oxford English Dictionary.

There, I learned that “home run” only dates back to 1953. Additional research told me that home runs became more common around that year, so apparently athletes and sports writers finally needed to give a four-bagger a name.

The lesson, I suppose, is to write only and always about things that occur here and now. Or to be sensitive, alert, do research – and expect surprises. The past is another country. They spoke differently there, because reasons.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website,


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