Recently I was reading a fantasy novel set in a parallel universe, and one character commiserated with another, saying, “You’ve suffered a calvary”: that is, she’d suffered a great ordeal. The word comes from the hill named Calvary where Christ was crucified, but the Messiah hadn’t come to that parallel universe, so no one could suffer a “calvary.” Nothing important had happened on that hill in that universe.
In another book, set in medieval Europe, a friend found a remark that someone “had his bases covered” – that is, he was prepared. This is a baseball expression, and baseball originated in the United States in the mid-1800s, so people weren’t covering their bases centuries earlier on a distant continent.
Yet another book, also set in medieval Europe, spoke of plans being “dynamited” by a setback. Dynamite was invented in 1867 by Alfred Nobel (who is also famous for prizes).
Speaking of medieval expressions, we all believe kings back then could shout: “Off with his head!” Actually, they probably didn’t, not even Richard III (1452-1483), because that exclamation comes from the play “Richard III” written by Shakespeare in 1592, and it was made popular in “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll in 1865.
Speaking of the Bard, the expression “lie low” also comes from one of his plays, as did “green-eyed monster” and “break the ice.” Lewis Carroll didn’t invent the “Cheshire cat” or “March hare,” however: these expressions originated a century or more before his book.
I pay attention to this because as a writer and translator, when I’m working with historical or fantastical material, I have to bear in mind that all words and expressions originate at a specific point in time and space, and they need to be congruent with the origin and setting of the work.
For help, besides Google, there’s the Historical Thesaurus of English:
It contains almost 800,000 words from Old English to the present day, primarily based on the Oxford English Dictionary.
There, I learned that “home run” only dates back to 1953. Additional research told me that home runs became more common around that year, so apparently athletes and sports writers finally needed to give a four-bagger an evocative name.
The lesson, for me, is to be sensitive, remain alert, do research – and expect surprises. The past was another country. They spoke differently there.