I have access to the OED and I’m not afraid to use it

The thing about writing historical novels is that you have to be really careful about your diction. Word choice matters a lot — you don’t want to choose words that are too obviously modern or that refer to concepts that would have been alien to your characters. I often find myself running into walls where medical and technological terms are concerned, even if they’re only used metaphorically.  You can’t have your Tudor-era heroine say, “You nearly gave me a heart attack!” the way a modern heroine could, since the term “heart attack” doesn’t come into use until 1836. Other problems might involve geographical details. A Roman novel I read recently had Mark Antony referring to pumpkins — a squash only found in the New World. Apart from just plain being inaccurate, those slip-ups can jerk a reader out of the world of the narrative, and we never want that.

The situation’s more complicated when you’re not writing in the language your characters speak — especially when your characters speak, say, Latin. How do you translate linguistic intent out of a dead language? How to make dialogue sound colloquial without crossing that threshold of modernity? What to do about metaphors? All well and good for Shakespeare to have Cassius referring to the clock striking three, but you can’t get away with that sort of slipshod work in today’s industry of fiction. It’s particularly hard when it comes to idiomatic speech. If the word itself didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, because the language didn’t — could the concept for those words exist? Yesterday, for instance, I realized I had a character referring to needing an outlet for her energy — and it gave me pause. Did the word “outlet” pre-date electricity? Oh dear.

outletOEDThe OED is one of my best friends. I love that, since I work for an institution affiliated with a college, I retain my access to its wonderful online compendium. It means that it only takes me a few clicks to verify that, yes, the word “outlet” is older than electricity, and its original usage refers to the movement of water. (If I’d thought about it for a few minutes, I probably would’ve realized that on my own, but… this way I get to use the OED!) The word dates to the 13th century as a noun, all the way back to Old English as a verb, and comes to us via Dutch, but its concept is certainly something the Romans would’ve had familiarity with. Admittedly, the emotional sense of the word didn’t come in to English until the mid-17th century, but I think the metaphor translates reasonably well for my purposes. (Latona’s own word for it, incidentally, probably would’ve been emissarium, or else egressus, exitus, or even porta, the gate — though if she were speaking literally of a water-channel rather than figuratively of her emotions, it would’ve been effluvium).

Something I once looked up for another project was “automatic”. Initially, I thought this might date only about to the time of clockwork — but  no! Both the Greeks and Romans had the concept of the automaton! The root words refer more to plants, strangely enough, with more of a sense of “spontaneous, happening by itself” than the more mechanical connotation we give it today — though when you look at things like the Antikythera Mechanism, it’s certainly plausible that, at some point in time, at least in some parts of Greece, they might’ve had the concept in the mechanical sense as well.

Words are fantastic. I’m so happy I have access to a resource that lets me in on their secrets.

Figures in History: Hortensia the Orator

Coolest new thing I learned today: So in 42 BCE, the Second Triumvirate found itself in need of a lot of cash. They did the usual thing, proscribing their enemies. Proscribing, for those who don’t know, meant murdering them and confiscating their estates as forfeit to the state — or, for the ones they felt more tenderly towards, driving them into exile and then stealing their stuff. But they then also did something entirely unprecedented: they levied an exorbitant tax on all women who controlled their own estates in suo iure, demanding a full year’s income from them.

And this pissed off a lot of ladies.

One of them, Hortensia, was the daughter of a famous orator, and she decided to put her heritage and her education to good use. First she appealed to Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia for help — but Fulvia, who had been exempted from the tax, basically laughed in her face. So, with a tribe of other aggrieved women (possibly including Caesar’s widow Calpurnia), Hortensia stormed the rostra in the Roman Forum — thus occupying a decidedly male space — and proceeded to give a pretty bad-ass speech.

Appian renders her speech thusly (translation found here):

‘As was appropriate for women like ourselves when addressing a petition to you, we rushed to your womenfolk. But we did not get the treatment we were entitled to from Fulvia, and have been driven by her into the forum. You have already stolen from us our fathers and sons and husbands and brothers by your proscriptions, on the grounds that they had wronged you. But if you also steal from us our property, you will set us into a state unworthy of our family and manners and our female gender. If you claim that you have in any way been wronged by us, as you were by our husbands, proscribe us as you did them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, if we did not demolish your houses or destroy your army or lead another army against you; if we have not kept you from public office or honour, why should we share the penalties if we have no part in the wrongdoing?

Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in pubic office or honours or commands or government in general, an evil you have fought over with such disastrous results? Because, you say, this is a time of war? And when have there not been wars? and when have women paid taxes? By nature of their sex women are absolved from paying taxes among all mankind. Our mothers on one occasion long ago were superior to their sex and paid taxes, when your whole government was threatened and the city itself, when the Carthaginians were pressuring you. They gave willingly, not from their land or their fields or their dowry or their households, without which life would be unlivable for free women, but only from their own jewellery, and not with a fixed price set on it, nor under threat of informers and accusers or by force, but they gave as much as they themselves chose. Why are you now so anxious about the government or the country? But if there should a war against the Celts or Parthians, we will not be less eager for our country’s welfare than our mothers. But we will never pay taxes for civil wars, and we will not cooperate with you against each another. We did not pay taxes to Caesar or to Pompey, nor did Marius ask us for contributions, nor Cinna nor Sulla, even though he was a tyrant over this country. And you say that you are reestablishing the Republic!’

If that was anything like her actual speech, then yeah, her rhetoric kicked ass, especially by first-century-BCE Roman standards. Romans loved them some tricolon and erotema. And here’s what Valerius Maximus has to say about her:

Hortensia vero Q. Hortensi filia, cum ordo matronarum gravi tributo a triumviris esset oneratus nec quisquam virorum patrocinium eis accommodare auderet, causam feminarum apud triumviros et constanter et feliciter egit: repraesentata enim patris facundia, impetravit ut maior pars imperatae pecuniae his remitteretur. revixit tum muliebri stirpe Q. Hortensius verbisque filiae aspiravit.

Hortensia, the only daughter of Quintus Hortensius, together with a league of matrons, felt the burden of the heavy tribute demanded by the triumvirs, but when she could dare no men to lend protection to them, she pled the case of the women against the triumvirs steadily and successfully: for exhibiting the eloquence of her father, she obtained that the greater part of the money should be remitted; thus were the words of Quintus Hortensius revived in his feminine offspring, breathing in his daughter.

(And, dude, I did that translation myself because there is no translation of Valerius Maximus’s Facta et dicta memorabilia, which is a damn shame if it’s full of gems like this. And I did it with only a little help from a dictionary — so if it’s a little wiggly, blame my out-of-practice skills; it’s been a long time since I had to remember what to do with all those ablatives).

So basically Hortensia was a badass who stood up to three guys who were blatantly murdering a few hundred people at the time and told them to stuff it. No taxation without representation, she said — and while we should not construe this as a demand for female enfranchisement, she did bring up the very good point that the citizenship of Roman women was not subject to either the same burdens or the same privileges as male citizenship. When the triumvirs tried to send in people to remove her and the other women from the forum, they flat-out refused to go. And the triumvirs blinked. They drastically reduced the number of women who were subject to the tax, and then utterly failed to enforce it.

Yeah. Definitely filing her away for future use.