By Jeremy Edwards
In embarking on an erotocomedic novel set in 1930s Hollywood, I knew that part of my mission would be to avoid glaring anachronisms. This, of course, is a basic requirement faced by any conscientious writer setting work in a past era—not counting deliberately anachronistic steampunk authors, or humorists wielding choice anachronisms for comic effect.
To begin with, there were times when I had to give some thought to the risk of material anachronisms in drafting The Pleasure Dial: An Erotocomedic Novel of Old-Time Radio. Yes, there were automobiles, but who would or would not own one? Where were swimsuit fashions at in the mid-thirties? What was a 1930s department-store mannequin made of? (Believe it or not, that question was of some importance for my book.) My dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.) did not document the existence of step-stools, of all things, prior to 1946 (at least not under that name). Thus I revised to “little ladder.” And before you congratulate me on having had the perspicacity to check whether step-stool (of all things) might be an anachronism, I should explain that in this case, though I can’t remember for sure, I probably did not look it up with that concern in mind; I probably looked it up only to see whether my dictionary treated it as a closed or hyphenated compound—and the date jumped out at me. But all roads lead to Rome (1391).
Then of course there were questions to explore regarding the conventions, business practices, and infrastructure of the era. Was there Spanish-language radio programming in Los Angeles at this time, and if so who provided it? Where did the streetcars run? When did Culver City become a moviemaking district? Thanks to the Internet, researching such questions was easily manageable, for the most part. Oh, I’m sure I’ve overlooked things here and there—but hopefully nothing egregious. Sometimes I knowingly tampered with historical reality just a touch in order to make something work artistically, relying on the well-informed reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. And certainly, I’ve willfully utopianized things where sexual mores and freedoms are concerned. As befits the nature of my book, my characters exist in a happy, liberated bohemian world of their own making, a type of world that may perhaps have existed here and there within pockets of the Hollywood subculture, but which definitely was not—and still is not, alas—the prevailing societal norm.
But what I found most interesting were my adventures in avoiding anachronistic language. The step-stool affair (and I use the term advisedly: my characters do use their “little ladder” to further their relationship), though it may have been more about patents than parlance, hints at this area of authorial concern. There were many terms that, unlike step-stool, I deliberately checked on with an eye to avoiding linguistic anachronisms.
One element that was fascinating to me was observing which of the terms that I checked were of postwar origin; which had been around a hundred years or so; and which were centuries old. It turned out that placeholder and opt out and laundry list (used metaphorically for a list of something other than laundry items) were off limits, showing first documented use dates in the 1950s; whereas fan (i.e., enthusiast) and the interjection wow are traceable to the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively—which really wowed me. (N.B. the verb “to wow” shows documented usage only beginning in the 1920s.)
I did have to keep in mind that when a dictionary gives an “earliest documented” date for a term, it’s likely the term was in use for some time prior to that. Coinages, adaptations, idiomatic expressions, and new uses of words are most likely to occur in oral discourse before becoming enshrined in print. Furthermore, documenting usage depends on the lexicographer’s ability to access a written source. When one considers how many documents of yore have disappeared from our collective archives—and how many might be lying in the far corner of a lone library or private collection with only very limited accessibility—it seems reasonable to conclude that the earliest source the lexicographers have found is quite possibly not the earliest source that included the usage in question. Thus, when my dictionary told me that the singular back-formation bicep can be traced to 1939, I chose to believe that it might have been used in conversation at the time of my novel, which is set a mere five years earlier. And even though Merriam-Webster dates the phrase “dead air” (i.e., radio silence when a station is supposed to be broadcasting) only back to 1943, I took the liberty of deciding that people in the radio biz might have been using this lingo during the thirties, before it gained more mainstream currency:
“He could be in competition with any other program—or dead air, for that matter—and he’d still be every bit as lousy and listenerless.”
As noted in The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, slang may be especially slow to surface in print. For obvious reasons, I assume this to be particularly germane where “underground” vocabulary such as sexual slang is concerned. Thus I did not hesitate to use words like rubber [i.e., condom] and head [i.e., oral sex], despite Partridge’s inability to document them quite as far back as the 1930s.
Incidentally (or not so incidentally), though in theory my faceless third-person narrator did not have to be “of the time” in the way the characters are—I mean, the story is told in the past tense, and for all we know the narrator could be telling the story right now—it was obvious to me that he (I’m saying it’s a “he”) should in fact conform to the era’s vocabulary as well, so as to blend with the dialogue and be part of the novel’s world. Partly, I think, this choice was dictated by the fact that although it’s a third-person narrator, he is a limited-omniscient type, relating things from the point of view of Artie, my male protagonist (with the exception of two chapters told from other characters’ POVs); with the narrator thus anchored inside characters’ heads, it would have felt strange for him to sound like he was speaking down through the decades at a distance. The tone of The Pleasure Dial also, in my opinion, demands a narrator who is “immersed” rather than “removed.” And, after all, though my narrator is “faceless,” he certainly isn’t voiceless; and I wanted his distinctive voice to be compatible with the era.
Now, a good dictionary gives an answer, if not necessarily a definitive one, where the age of a precise, single-meaning word like upcoming is concerned. But the dictionary (my dictionary, at least) is not always helpful in differentiating the age of a metaphorical or other specialized usage of a term from the age of the literally used term. It seems that while all well-established meanings, from the earliest to the more modern, are listed, there is sometimes only one date given. For this and other reasons (e.g., idiomatic phrases that don’t appear in the dictionary per se), I often turned to Google’s book-searching function—searching on terms and restricting the scope, say, to 1920–1935 or 1900–1940.
But one must be careful! While naturally the phrase “I mean” (which does not have an entry in my dictionary) shows up in Google Books, it takes attentive reading of the search results to differentiate between a literal usage like “I mean the house on the corner, not the one next to it” and the colloquial usage pattern (“I mean, why not just ask her?”) that I was looking for—and, happily, found. Low-key, by contrast, foiled me: while M-W dates this adjectival compound to 1907, I was not able to document it in use pre-1935 with our present metaphorical meaning. (It was, as I learned from M-W, originally a typesetting term.) Similarly, I could not ascertain when check, to mean “yep,” came into use. (How would one search on that, after all? I’m pretty creative as far as search strings go—“I kid you not” to find kid, the verb, and weed out all those pesky kids [n.]—but separating check, the interjection, from a huge stack of personal checks, acts of checking things, and loud clothing patterns, I confess, stumped me.) However, since the verb phrase “check off” was in use in the nineteenth century, I gambled that this interjection, clearly a logical offshoot, might have been current by the mid-twentieth:
“Damn, what a statuesque bottom that woman has.”
“Mickey could caress that bottom all night.”
“Remember, she went to see him during the day.”
“All right, then, all day. I can visualize her creamy flesh as he sculpts it. I can feel how warm it is.” He gestured, his hands poised as if to squeeze two magnificent cheeks. “The hue drifts a bit toward pink as he stimulates every inch of her skin there. And when he tickles the crack she dances for him, grinding her mound into the mattress while her derriere does the rumba in his face.”
With the ironic retort “you should talk,” however, I felt I had to take the cautious path. Unable to verify the expression’s use in my era, I substituted the verifiable “you’re a fine one to talk”:
“I didn’t know it was formal,” Mariel teased, indicating Artie’s black trunks. The other men’s swimsuits were a lush forest of plaids. “I guess you can take the boy out of New York . . .”
“You’re a fine one to talk,” he quipped back. “Aren’t you going to get undressed like the rest of us?”
One more caveat: I discovered in the eleventh hour that the dates attached to documents in Google Books are not always reliable. (I specifically ran into trouble when trying to bring up early usage of the term Art Deco. Space considerations do not permit me to give full details, but suffice it to say that Google Books showed multiple cases of faulty data on this score.)
I’ll conclude with some additional short excerpts that show off some of my “acceptable language” finds. But first, a general disclaimer about the language in The Pleasure Dial: I have no illusions that I have totally avoided the ever-present pitfalls of anachronism; I claim only that I did my best to catch them and research them, especially where they might jump out at the historically savvy reader in a blatant way. So if you happen to catch an anachronism that slipped through—or that perhaps I knowingly left in, exercising a little poetic license—there’s no need to tell me about it. That steamship (1790) has sailed.
switcheroo: documented back to 1933 (per Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)
“Isn’t it interesting how you can always tell when a comedian is without a writing team?” Mariel said loudly to Mickey. “The recycled material goes stale so quickly.”
recycle: documented back to 1926 (per M-W)
Mariel shrugged. “Why do big businesses do half the crazy things they do? No one will question it. All we need to do is come up with an idea for a company that makes something that other companies use.”
“I’ve got it!” said Artie. “Mannequins.”
Mariel laughed. “Oh, you and your Trixie.”
“Who’s Trixie?” asked Nanette.
“Trixie is Artie’s best mannequin back home.”
come up with [with the idiomatic meaning illustrated above]: in use by mid-1930s (per Google Books)
He led her into the corridor and toward a small office that Mickey had shown him earlier, which, though unoccupied after business hours, was left unlocked in case anyone needed pads, pencils, and the like.
“Need any pads or pencils?” asked Artie, after they’d locked the door.
“I need a pencil, all right,” said Mariel. “A big, fat, jumbo pencil right up my—”
Before she could even finish the line, he had her bent over a desk. “Hold that thought—and that position,” he said.
and the like; jumbo [adj.] both in use by mid-1930s (per Google Books)
The Pleasure Dial - Summary
The year is 1934, and amiable New York gag writer Artie Plask has taken the West Coast plunge. His first day on staff with a top radio show introduces him to the irresistible Mariel Fenton, a wit among wits who immediately takes an interest in all aspects of Artie’s life—especially his private life. As Artie finds his feet in a world of blustering comedians, pansexual sex goddesses, timid screen legends, exhibitionistic scriptwriters, and self-infatuated geniuses, Mariel leads him on a zany journey up and down the pleasure dial—a giddy romp through Hollywood that’s chock-full of airwaves showdowns, writing-room counterplots, devious impersonations, naked meetings, and a sensuality-drenched assortment of erotic escapades.
Jeremy Edwards is the author of the erotocomedic novel Rock My Socks Off (Xcite Books, 2010), the erotic story collection Spark My Moment (Xcite Books, 2010), and most recently The Pleasure Dial: An Erotocomedic Novel of Old-Time Radio (OC Press, November 2011). His quirky, libidinous tales have appeared in over fifty anthologies, including three volumes in the Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica series, and he has read his work live at New York’s In the Flesh and Philadelphia’s Erotic Literary Salon. Jeremy’s greatest goal in life is to be sexy and witty at the same moment—ideally in lighting that flatters his profile. Readers can drop in on him unannounced (and thereby catch him in his underwear) at www.jeremyedwardserotica.com .