When I am writing historical fiction, one of the biggest (and often most fun) challenges is to make sure my characters are speaking the way they would have spoken in the time period in which they lived. While I usually adapt the vocabulary and styles of speech to be a little more accessible to modern audiences, I never let them use an anachronistic word or phrase if I can help it!
Before I discovered the OED online, this could involve long searches thorough standard dictionaries, etymological dictionaries, and thesauruses (both on and offline). It often seemed endless and frequently provided me with uncertain results. Enter the OED online, and I have the best tool possible for such questions. While a subscription to the OED online isn’t cheap (unless you belong to a library that will give you a log-in–make sure to check), the following little demo should show you why it is ‘pure gold’ for anyone writing about events in the past (fiction or nonfiction, come to think of it).
In the OED online, they call one etymological function the ‘historical thesaurus,’ which includes all usages of the word in question back through the ages, dated, and with relevant quotes from each era included. This is what I find most wonderful. For example, I had a character in 1811, saying something like “Funny, I wouldn’t think that would have upset her so.” I thought funny might be too modern a usage and went to the OED. The main online entry for “funny” gave me this sub-entry of FUNNY (which would exist in the paper OED, but would take much longer to find in the many volumes of the full OED):
This showed me immediately that funny wouldn’t have been used this way in common parlance in the US in 1811 (the woman speaking was a housekeeper in upstate New York), so I clicked on the Thesaurus link in the upper right of the FUNNY sub-entry (see image above)—that took me to the historical thesaurus for a dated collection of words used in this same sense:
The list is much longer, but you can scroll up and down and see what appeals. Note that funny is dated 1806 here. Taking into account that this looks first at usage in Great Britain (though American usages are always noted), and that my character was far from the UK in 1811, I thought this usage couldn’t have gotten to her yet. In this case, I thought most of the other words listed here were likely a little too off-putting for a contemporary audience (‘queerish’ would sound very different to a modern reader, certainly!), but noted that strange was used in most of the definitions. So, I went to look at the primary entry of STRANGE to see if it would work, and found this entry:
Bingo! This was the word then . . . it was in wide usage in this sense by that time, it wouldn’t sound too “funny” to contemporary readers, and it seemed to fit the character. So Mrs. Ewing now says, “Strange, I wouldn’t think that would have upset her so” (about a critical little clue that could reveal the affair the character in question is trying to hide).
These little excursions in search of ‘le mot juste’ often provide me with wonderful fun in my writing! Don’t know if that says more about the OED, or about my somewhat nerdly predispositions, but I bet anyone else who loves words will understand!