Can I say that in 1910?
Can people date in 1910? Or must they simply keep company? What does it mean to make love in 1910? Would you prefer to date someone who is square or who is cool? Can you have a hunch about something in 1910? Are reporters collectively the media or even press? I have a story in which a character investigates by working in a factory; can I say she has gone undercover? What is okay to say in 1910?
I like to be careful to use only words that were being used at the time of my stories. That means I have to dig into the etymology of the words I use. My favorite site is etymonline.com, the Online Etymology Dictionary, hereafter referred to simply as “Online.” It doesn’t answer all my questions, and I sometimes turn to a variety of hardback books. I also read novels written about the time of my stories or just before, to get a sense of words and phrases in use.
Etymologists, in their studies of word origins, use the word “attested” to indicate the earliest documented use of the word. For example, Online says, for undercover, “Sense of ‘operating secretly’ attested from 1920.” So, I should not use the word “undercover” in a novel set in 1910.
Here are some more cautions and interesting items:
“To make love” was a common phrase from Renaissance times. But it meant "pay amorous attention to.” You can read in 19th and early 20th century novels about a man and woman “making love” with their eyes or hands. It is a description of advanced flirting. However, as a euphemism for "having sex," Online says it is only attested from about 1950. Definitely not usable in 1910. Neither is “love life,” as we use that phrase. It was originally a psychological term, dating from 1919, according to Online. Lots of psychological terms seem to have come into the language about then. What about a “love affair”? Perfectly fine to use: it’s also from the Renaissance period.
So, what about dating? The 19th century phrase is “keeping company” or, less interestingly, “seeing someone.” The word "date" for a meeting was coming into style in the late 19th century; it had romantic connotations by the 1890s. Online says “date” as a verb is attested from 1902, meaning “have a romantic liaison.” That one’s tricky for me. Just because there is evidence of its use, was it in common usage? My characters do live in the fourth largest city in the country and are interested in modern, twentieth century ideas. Therefore, I would probably be safe in using “date” as a verb. Julia (my protagonist) could say she is dating someone or that they had a date. What she cannot say is that the man is her “date.” Online says that word, “meaning ‘person one has a date with’ is from 1925.” I am very careful with the word “date.” I’m quite sure my characters would still say, with comfort, that they are seeing someone or keeping company. And that they are looking forward to the next date.
By the way, the word “dated” meaning “looks old-fashioned to me,” was attested from 1895. My protagonist, Julia, is starting to think that corsets look dated. The fact that she doesn’t wear one marks her as a “new woman.” See more about that in the section on St. Louis Women.
When I was growing up, which was a good while ago, the word "square" was derogatory. We took it for granted that most of our parents were square. But it was a much more explosive expression in the halls of my high school. If you said someone was “square,” it meant they were out of it. It meant they believed in the establishment. It might have meant they dressed in “dated” clothes or had a “dated” hairdo. They were conservative in their social habits: dating, partying, etc. Most importantly, they weren’t cool. We were picking up on the negative connotation of “square” from the world of jazz, from the beat movement. Online puts the first use of the word in that negative sense at 1944; “squaresville”—as in “that’s squaresville, man”—is put at 1956, plenty early for me to use it in high school!
However, in the late 19th and early 20th century, square was a good thing to be, if not an exciting thing. It was best applied to people who did things on the up and up, who were straightforward and not devious. It carries implications of honesty and fairness. I have one character describe another’s actions as “a square thing to do” when the man could easily have been less than fair. By the way, you could have heard people in 1910 or today refer to “three squares” in the sense of getting three square meals a day. A square meal, meaning a hearty and sufficiently filling meal, comes from 1860 according to Online.
So, could you be cool in 1910? Well, you could be, but it meant something slightly different and slightly negative. It is a very old use of the word to say that someone is “unperturbed or undemonstrative,” coming from Old English according to Online. However, to “keep” or “lose” one’s cool couldn’t happen until 1966. Online says cool is a synonym for “mildly audacious” in 1825; it means fashionable by 1933 (from black English); it was an indication of approval, of having done something in an acceptable way by 1940.
And, finally, “cooler” meant “jail” from 1884.
Now, when I put all that together—along with having seen the word used as an adjective in reading old novels—my rule is to use cool as an adjective but not as a noun. It might be useful to say that someone is cool toward someone else, meaning they don’t show any noticeable warmth. But I use the term for another purpose. I have one character who is notoriously cool, meaning he is not easily excited, always keeps his temper, always seems in control. Maybe he is even calmly audacious. But I cannot say that he or anyone else, keeps or loses his cool. Cool also can’t be an expression of approval. None of my characters could say, “Cool, man,” in appreciation of an action or attitude. Tricky business, isn’t it?
In the midst of a mystery plot, I found myself wanting to say that a character had a "hunch" about something. I had a hunch I should check out the word. The word originally meant to push or thrust, and then it became a noun. We almost always use it in the figurative sense. Apparently it morphed from meaning a push toward a solution—therefore a hint or tip. That was mid-19th century. The idea that a hunch could be a sort of subconscious notion that led to a solution didn’t come along until 1904. So, I’m back in that gray zone. Would my characters, decently-educated readers living in a bustling city, know the word? I’m going for okay on that one. It’s just so useful.
What about okay as a word? This one has a fascinating history, and Online goes on about it in detail. It seems that in the late 1830s in Boston and New York, there arose a slang habit of using the initials of “jocular” phrases. For example, one hip young person would make a point to another by saying “N.C." That stood for “nuff ced.” I trust you will read that as meaning “enough said.” Can’t you imagine people having a great time making up new initials for this kind of slang? I’ll bet that drove some parents crazy. One of the newly-minted phrases was “O.K.” for “oll korrect.” Clever, huh? Most of these initials/phrases disappeared, probably as their users decided they sounded too juvenile. But, in 1840, Martin Van Buren was running for re-election as President and his nickname was “Old Kinderhook” from the village of Kinderhook in New York state, where he was born.
There was an O.K. Club in New York made up of men who supported Van Buren. Online says, “Van Buren lost, the word stuck, in part because it filled a need for a quick way to write an approval on a document. . .” It was starting to be used as a verb, as in “I’ll O.K. that,” in 1888.
So, why do we spell the word “okay”? Or do you? At some point, an English teacher has, or will, tell you that is the correct spelling. And, it is now—but it wasn’t until it was established in 1929. As I write this, I haven’t had to deal with actual publication of my work. I use “O.K.” because it was correct in 1910. Who knows what an editor will say?
By the way, I’ve always thought “okey-doke” was sort of cute, but it didn’t pop into the language until students came up with it in 1932. No problem: it’s really too cute for any of my characters.
St. Louis connection: The man who did a lot to establish the predominance of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was long-time editor Oliver K. Brevard. Not only were his initials O.K., but he used them frequently in signing off on news stories. A biography of him is entitled Bovard of the Post-Dispatch, (James W. Markham, Louisiana State University Press, 1954.) It is an interesting look at St. Louis from 1898 to 1938 through the lens of the press.
Speaking of the Post-Dispatch, can we really talk about the press? Press in relation to publishing obviously first applied to the printing press, the machine itself. When the Census Bureau refers to a pressman in 1910, it means a man who works a press, as closely as I can tell. By the early 1800s, “press” also refers to “periodical publishing” and “journalism” according to Online. But “press” as a reference to the reporters themselves didn’t come along until 1921. And now, of course, we usually say “media” referring to the reporters as well as the organizations they work for, given that most of them don’t write for paper printed on a “press.” This is highly inconvenient for me given that two of my main characters are reporters. I’ve taken to referring to the “reporter corps,” almost entirely a male group in 1910. (There is a woman working as a special correspondent for the Post-Dispatch by 1920.) Understandably, I can’t use “press conference” (1931) or “press secretary” (1940.) I could, however, use “press agent.” It dates from 1873. Go figure. I can also use “cover,” as in “cover a story,” attested in 1893.
(Here’s an interesting note of the sort you find on Online. “Middle English in press meant ‘in public,’ a coincidental parallel to the modern phrase in the press,” and stemming from press in the sense of a crowd. I am unlikely to write a story in Middle English, however.)
"Scoop" seems to be okay as both a noun and a verb as applied to news reporting. Beat was used in the sense of a route, meaning the assignments a reporter covered. Both of my reporter characters start out working the police beat, as opposed to, say, the city hall beat. In reading about reporters in the era, they also used the word beat in the sense of beating the competition, a more violent synonym for scoop. (While we’re beating around this particular bush, the word beat meaning "exhausted by the day’s efforts" is attested from 1905. A bit close, but I wouldn’t hesitate probably, for some hip character. Beat-up, referring to an object that’s been abused, doesn’t appear until 1946. Who knew.)
Because I mentioned “undercover” above, I was reminded to look for the word "sting." That word didn’t refer to more than an insect-bite-kind-of sting until 1930 when it meant a “carefully planned theft or robbery” according to Online. It was 1975 before it meant a “police undercover entrapment.” This is Online’s definition; I would be more careful using the word “entrapment.” I learned as a reporter myself, that a sting is clever; an entrapment is illegal. But that is another matter.
Another useful word not to use: "stereotype" doesn’t have its usual meaning until 1953.
"Contact" is tricky: meaning "put in contact," is from 1834; meaning "get in touch with" is 1927; meaning “connection, communication” is from 1818; meaning a signal to spin an aircraft propeller is from 1913. Here’s a surprise, “contact lens” is attested from 1888; the short form “contact” is from 1961. To make eye contact with someone is from 1953.
Lesbianism isn’t in common use. We could use “romantic friendship.” Lesbian isn’t common either; the contemporary word was “sapphist” from the Sappho legends.
Finally, this is not the last word, but it does involve a “verbal retort.” A comeback in that sense dates from 1889. If you want to talk about a comeback as in the “comeback player of the year,” a category in many sports awards, that’s from 1908. Again, that’s close for me. I think I will stick to comeback as a verbal retort. I have a couple of characters who are good at those.