Words, words, words: Mental states

My characters get into tight spots. They get whacked on the head and pushed down stairs, sometimes being knocked right out. They’re trying to solve mysteries, which are supposed to be difficult, so sometimes they’re stumped. Each has his or her own agenda in each book, so they often throw each other for a loop.

I know lots of words for mental states; unfortunately, so many words of cognition, like those exemplars, are anachronistic for my period. It’s yet another minefield for writers of historical fiction.

Out like a light

The first citation for ‘unconscious’ in the OED is from Thomas Hobbes, who was Francis Bacon’s secretary for a while. He used it thus in 1678: “moves in hast… (Unconscious [L. inscius] of its fault which tortur’d cryes).” Uh… I don’t know what that’s about. Some being is unwittingly causing pain. But note that Hobbes includes a Latin translation to help his readers interpret his new word.

Synonyms are offered, of course: heedless, unwitting, unaware. To me, these mean the person is awake and in her right mind, but not paying attention. I want the word that means dead to the world. That one doesn’t appear in the OED until the 19th century. “1832   T. Roscoe tr. M. Alemán Guzman d’Alfarache in Spanish Novelists I. 226   On beholding the deed, her parents both fell unconscious at her side.”

It took Hobbes’ neologism 150 years to turn into the word I want. Now, to my ear, ‘unconscious’ chiefly means “[d]evoid of consciousness,” as the OED puts it. I’d use ‘oblivious’ for the other sense (1854.) For the sixteenth century, the historical thesaurus gives us ‘unsensible,’ (sounds like ‘impractical to me) or ‘insensible’ or ‘senseless,’ which are both OK, although they aren’t the words that leap to my mind whilst first-drafting.

Lost in the labyrinth

‘Puzzle’ is another problem. I love this word. It has z’s in it, you see, which add sizzle and zest to prose. It’s a fun word, but it won’t do in our usual sense, of a complex thing to be solved.

You can be in a puzzle. Bacon was: “1612   Bacon Ess. (new ed.) 40   While they are in the pussle of busines they haue no time to tend their health.” We pause to remember that the word ‘business’ still has a strong whiff of ‘busyness’ about it in Bacon’s time.

The ‘perplexing question’ sense of the word doesn’t appear until 1655: “H. More Antidote against Atheism (ed. 2) App. xi. 376   To the last puzzle propounded, whether these Archei [seminal forms] be so many sprigs of the common Soul of the world, or particular subsistencies of themselves..it may be either way.”

Hm. It’s possible I’m being overly punctilious about this word. I usually use 1626, the year in which Francis Bacon died, as my cut-off for words that catch my ear as potentially out of tune. Maybe I should allow myself to forage freely until the Great Fire of 1666.

Shocks and surprises

My first novel was a historical romance set in 1101. I remember getting stuck one day, trying to express my heroine’s state of mind. She was shocked. No! That’s electricity. She was galvanized. Worse! Nor could she later be hypnotized or mesmerized.

Turns out I was wrong about ‘shock.’ It’s much older in the sense I wanted: “In early use, to wound the feelings of, offend, displease. In later use, with stronger sense: To affect with a painful feeling of intense aversion or disapproval; to scandalize, horrify; to outrage (a person’s sentiments, prejudices, etc.). Often in passive, to be scandalized or horrified at.”

The first citation is from William Congreve, after the great fire, alas: “1694   W. Congreve Double-dealer v. i. 74   Thy stubborn temper shocks me, and you knew it would.”

If I were to balk at ‘shock’ owing to its modernity, I would have little to fall back on. The thesaurus only gives us ‘startle,’ which has none of the overtones of disapproval or outrage. ‘Aghast’ is good, but in c16 has overtones of the supernatural.

Charlotte Bronte gets first citation for ‘galvanized’ in the metaphorical sense: “1853   C. Brontë Villette I. iii. 39   Her approach always galvanized him to new and spasmodic life.” You go, Charlotte! The word appears in its technical sense for the first time in 1802.

For the sixteenth century, OED’s historical thesaurus offers us ‘exsuscitate,’ which is hopelessly hissy and means nothing to me or my readers, probably. That leaves me with the less colorful ‘bestir’ and ‘arouse.’ The connotations for ‘arouse’ have narrowed in our times, ‘rouse’ will have to do.

You may be as surprised as I was to discover that ‘gobsmacked’ is not an old word. Alas and alack, because I used it in Misrule, the word is younger than I am. In fact, I was working in the software industry when this word first entered the OED: “1980   R. Hattersley in Listener 16 Oct. 506/1   It was his dazzling display of simultaneous social and intellectual sophistication that left me, in the patois of the place whence I came, ‘gob-smacked’.” Perhaps that patios was simply never recorded?

Synonyms are hard to come by. ‘Flabbergasted’ (1773) and ‘dumfounded’ (1682) are at least intelligible and legitimately old-fashioned. Historically correct terms are not that useful, although I like ‘forferly’ (1400.) The thesaurus shifts us from participles to verbs and offers ‘admire’ (1598), ‘thunderstrike’ (1613), and ‘stagger’ (1556), which I like.

Still, my characters get whacked upside the head, both literally and metaphorically, on a semi-regular basis. I need more than one word to describe the results1


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