Victorian Words in Steampunk

My dive down the rabbit hole.

I am working hard on the edits for our steampunk short story and novels. My co-author, Nancy Bach, is a whiz at translating what I write into a Victorian-ish speech and pattern when I get things wrong (usually). I find it hard to do myself, but in other books and in our own writing I can read it and say “Yes! That’s good!” Though Nancy is fine leading the way for now, I need to brush up on my Victorian Skills. Knowing we have plenty more to write in the steampunk world we created to play in, I have to do better. I am learning from Nan, but I searched online for dictionaries, guides, and examples for me to follow.

What I discovered is that true Victorian writing and speech sends me into hysterical howls. I giggle at needing to balley to some balloon juice, after I apply some flounce, and maybe we can play some fly loo and hope to get some Queen’s weather soon. Words need context and judicious use in order for a modern audience to understand them in a steampunk. Use too many, and the story gets lost, right? Don’t go far enough, and your audience can get annoyed and feel it’s too modern.

The art of the author is to add enough to be relevant and give the flavor of the Victorian Era, like sprinkles of an herb mix, without going into the realm of an inedible piece of writing so steeped in Victorian language that we can no longer comprehend without intense research and plain work. I don’t want to look up words every sentence and paragraph. This is fiction for entertainment! I am here for the adventure!

We chose to use occasional words a modern audience will understand easily, combined with speech patterns and sentence structure borrowed from the era so our readers will enjoy the story. You have to keep the flow going.

“‘Passing English’ ripples from countless sources, forming a river of new language which has its tide and its ebb, while its current brings down new ideas and carries away those that have dribbled out of fashion.”

J. Redding Ware,
Passing English of the Victorian Era : A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase (1909?) London: George Routledge & Sons, Limited. Retrieved from Archive Online

Steampunk seems to run the gamut – some more flexible, and others heavier on the Victorian side like a Victorian Historical Romance. I come from the Science Fiction side of reading where I can understand the compliance issues involved. You get science words or concepts wrong in SF and the audience will let you know pretty quick. I am sure there are Victorian experts out there who will tell us where they believe we have erred, though I hope most of our readers will just enjoy the stroll and want to discover more of our steampunk world.

Top 5 Sites I Enjoyed:

  • Passing English of the Victorian Era : A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase by J. Redding Ware (1909?)
    • A great book celebrating the Victorian phrases and words. You can download this book scan, and page through it. Looks like so many on the internet have taken from this text, so why not download the original and peruse?

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