Avoiding the paper-cut — Using language that matches the culture

I’m in the process of doing the language check on Of Noble Family, and have a little joke that I’m in the process of reworking. I thought that you’d like to see why I pay attention to language.

Jane worked the button free and felt a certain subtle shift in Vincent’s posture. “And attend to my husband’s needs, of course.”
He cleared his throat. “Is that safe?”
Jane undid another button. “His papers and correspondence? I shall endeavour to avoid a paper-cut at all costs.”

The problem is the paper cut. So far as I can tell, it’s not a concept in 1818. I suspect that this is because, with the way paper was made then, you didn’t have the sort of edges or paper to cause it. So… what to replace with? I started looking at the other things associated with correspondence in the day.

Slip with the pen-knife? No, that would actually be dangerous.

Burn with the sealing wax? Again. Dangerous and hence not funny

Something with the quill– Oh, oh, yes.

Jane worked the button free and felt a certain subtle shift in Vincent’s posture. “And attend to my husband’s needs, of course.”
He cleared his throat. “Is that safe?”
Jane undid another button. “His papers and correspondence? I shall be certain to take care when sharpening his quill.”

This is a better joke, and I got to it because I’m using language that reflects the culture. Doing so also forces me to really think about what is happening in the scene, and what the lives of people in the time would be like.

Just to be clear, because this always happens when I post one of these. When I do these vocabulary swaps, I don’t go for words that are meaningless to modern readers. If you think, “My! That’s authentic” it will pop you out the story every bit as much as an anachronism. But when writing in 1818, there are plenty of period appropriate synonyms that work for modern readers. And when there’s not a synonym? Well, that shows me a concept that doesn’t exist in the period yet. And maybe I should take another look at that section of the text.

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11 thoughts on “Avoiding the paper-cut — Using language that matches the culture”

  1. Snicker!!! I’m certainly going to miss Jane and Vincent when we stop spying on their lives.

  2. Yeah. It’s a lot harder to give oneself a paper-cut with a deckle edge. It can be done. I’ve managed it with paper I’ve made, proving that I can injure myself with anything. I can’t imagine that it would common enough to warrant its own descriptive phrase, though.

    Also: Apparently, I have a dirty mind, too.

  3. I wonder if “paper-cut” was not a concept because few people worked with paper.

    But, of those who did work with paper, I wonder if it was a very real concept.

    I ask because I’m not sure paper cuts are strictly due to how thick the paper is. I’ve gotten paper cuts from heavier bond (within reason) and even from handling cardboard (requires a backing like a label to stabilize the surface – and to be breaking down lots of boxes, and not pay attention).

    1. It’s not the thickness, it’s the material. Wood pulp paper wasn’t invented till 1840, and took a few decades to become common. In 1818 “paper” was typically made of flax, and was more cloth like. Similar to the “paper” US money is made of.

  4. Gary Piserchio

    Ha, my mind wasn’t gutter-bound, but being immersed in Agatha Christie of late, it went devious and her comment about sharpening the quill sounded like the threat of a literal poison pen.

  5. Ahahaha. Sharpening his quill, eh?

    As far as people working with paper in that time period–all the extant documents we’ve got from the period were written by the subset of the population that did work with paper, so I doubt the phrase would have been left out of the historical record. And given the social and economic importance of letters during the period, I’m pretty sure more people handled paper back then, not fewer (at least percentage-wise).

    I don’t think the difference is the thickness of the paper, but the technology used to cut the sheets. Modern industrial processes may be more likely to produce cleaner, sharper edges–and the material the paper is made from matters as well. If their paper had a higher content of softer fibers, it’d be less likely to have sharp edges.

    1. Good points . . . although even during the 60s and 70s, most of the people I knew did not write letters, although reading books and magazines was probably more widespread than now (referring to physical books and magazines).

      That said, I don’t recall many (any) paper cuts outside the school or office environment. It’s anecdotal, I know. Also anecdotal, paper cuts were not mentioned in any literature I read . . . ever (then again, I be getting on in years, so the memory might not be . . . what was I talking about?)

      Not discounting the factual information presented, just suggesting that absence from written records from a given time is not necessarily an indication of something either being common or uncommon. It’s just an indication of it not being mentioned.

      What I read from earlier times seems to carry an air of gravitas absent from modern writing, and it’s not unreasonable (at least to my mind) to assume they would not have bothered to write about paper cuts as being a part of their lives.

      All that said, what makes sense is the paper material, processing, and thickness as producing paper less prone to cause paper cuts. Thanks for the quick lesson. I’ll be sure to include paper cuts in anything I write, that way future generations will know for sure we had them.

      Also, if we all get together and avoid mentioning things like reality shows, maybe future generations will think better of us.

  6. As a college Physics professor (Natural Philosophy in Jane’s time), I not only handle a lot of paper, but use real chalkboards as well, which dry the skin considerably. Modern copying, laser and inkjet papers are precision tools designed to feed properly. Not feel pleasant against the hands. But the modern papers do slice through papers dry skin most excellently. Worst in winter after weeks of low humidity.

    Quill pens and quill knives are quite sharp — hence the double joke of “the pen being mightier than the sword”. You may not have a sword, but you can have quill pens and the words they produce.

    Dr. Phil

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