I am blessed with an editor who has an old-fashioned attention to detail–and an OED. (That’s the Oxford English Dictionary, for the uninitiated.) My own OED is the two-volume one with a magnifying glass which I acquired through a friend at a library. Somebody donated it to the book sale, and she knew I was looking for one.
So the manuscript notes for my new historical fantasy included the observation, “Blackguard was not documented in use until 1532.” And that’s almost two hundred years too late. Now, when considering historical documentation, we usually allow that a word has likely been in use for a while before somebody writes it down. We don’t have a lot of written matter from the 1300’s, and much of that is church documents and household records. So the search for medieval slang, or worse yet, insults, is tricky. If a word wasn’t appropriate to say, then it likely wasn’t appropriate to write down in most contexts.
On my quest for the right substitute, I stopped by Shakespeare. I figured I could track something back from the Bard. Shakespeare is known for his creative insults, after all. But here’s the trouble: creative. It turns out, Shakespeare had to get creative because most of the real insults of the time where forbidden on stage by laws preventing obscenity in the theater. And so, he used the common framework of insults (parentage, employment, personal habits, animal references and sexual references) to craft a series of put-downs still memorable today. As rich and delightful as it would be to call someone a “prating mountebank” once Shakespeare has claimed it, no other need apply.
Our friend Chaucer, on the other hand, tends more toward narrative insult where someone’s character can be impugned at witty leisure, rather than directly affronted in a single, handy phrase. Even the lovely people I spoke with at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo could come up with few options, though late medieval insults are hardly a dissertation topic. Even the word “bastard” at the time referred to a fact of parentage without necessarily being considered a slight.
And the one we can locate carry little weight with the modern reader. Which presents a particular challenge of character development and world-building to show the impact of an antique word.
O vile wordsmiths! They do vex me with their ingenious jibes and obscure obsolescences!