The Problem of Plagues. . .and other Medieval Usage Issues

I am working my way through my editor’s notes on Elisha Mancer, book four in The Dark Apostle series, and encountering the difficulty of words.  Words are, in a novel, the primary tool for delivering the story.  In a historical novel, they take on a special significance because selecting an appropriate word for the historical context can really make the sentence spark and the work feel right.  And selecting the wrong word will annoy readers in tune with the history.

Which brings me to the problem of plagues.  The Biblical plagues of Egypt, for instance.  In modern parlance, “plague” retains a similar sense:  a plague is, as the OED puts it, “an affliction, calamity, evil, scourge” (a plague of locusts, a plague of survey callers, etc.)  But many readers of medievally set historical fiction immediately leap to a single meaning of the word, which came into use around 1382 to refer to a pestilence affecting man and beast.  And “the plague” wasn’t conceived as a specific entity until the 1540’s.  But basically, I can’t use the word in its more general sense because of the era the books are set.  (for more about *that* plague, check out my previous entry on the Black Death versus Ebola)

But my difficulty with language then versus now doesn’t end with the plague.  There is also the problem of things being lost in translation.  Saints, that is.  While we now use the word “translate” to refer exclusively to taking words or ideas from one language into another (sometimes metaphorically), the origin of the term is actually the transfer of a religious figure from one location to another, as a bishop who moves to a different see, or, more frequently, a saint or saint’s remains taken to a different church.  It is this idea of holiness being moved or removed which brought the word to its present meaning, because the first work translated was the Bible itself.

Broadcast is another interesting example.  Nowadays, we are used to broadcast news, a television or radio phenomenon by which information is shared.  It’s actually a farming term, referring to the sowing of seeds by hand over a large area–the literal casting of the seed.  But most readers, finding the word in a medieval historical context would leap to entirely the wrong impression.  And so, rather than submit to a plague of criticism, I seek a good alternative.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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