In writing a story about slaves and plantation owners, I have enjoyed rummaging around old words and expressions. I can only wonder why some seemingly serviceable words fall into disuse. Why not say yesternight, nightfall, forenoon, naught and shant? Did these useful words have social problems that put them in decline?
I am learning to be aware of changing connotations. In an excerpt I took to workshop for critique, I wrote of joint grass in the corn field, a common complaint in antebellum diaries. When one of our writers asked if the slaves were digging up marijuana, I realized the word joint had so changed in meaning from 1857 that it couldn’t be used without causing confusion. Take a look at how these words appeared in antebellum times: I don’t truck with his kind; One of his boots flew off and lit on the roof; The woman was sold as a tolerable good cook; He didn’t have the lights to feed the pigs; She couldn’t marry without leave of her father; I have four plugs of gold in my teeth.
Expressions come into fashion and go out. Though you probably wouldn’t use any of these in your everyday conversation, you can figure out what they mean— Don’t set store by him; He was obliged to lay by to recover; and I was too sparing in my praise.
If clichés are dated, does that make them acceptable, if not commendable, in historical fiction? After all, the gist of the era may well be captured by clichés. I haven’t used these in my writing but that’s not to say I won’t: don’t care a scrap; diked out; greased lightning; fit to kill; not worth shucks.
Many plantation owners who left diaries excelled in using urbane language. At the same time, the slave narratives contain some of the most colorful descriptions I’ve ever read. From my notes, I’ve taken miscellaneous quotes from slave narratives (first line and every other one) and plantation owners (second line and every other one) for this nonsensical dialogue which, I hope, illustrates the wealth of imagery in their conversation.
She’s about to drive him crazy and he don’t have far to go.As one of my characters might say, I dassen write any more, for I’m nigh on to the master’s word count, and I gainsay go over the limit. For the nonce I’ll bid adieu.
Him? He can’t manage a turnip patch.
He’s powerful mean when he gets riled.
Her hair is curled so tight she can’t open her mouth.
They wrassle and hug and carry on awful.
She cooks up some terrifying mixture of victuals.
But not enough to feed a cockroach.