This week, I was writing a scene in my work-in-progress and hit a wall. The scene is between Maggie and Tryphena Moore. In the course of their conversation, Maggie says this:
“It’s been a long time between my poor little Gideon and our baby Faith. But I find it all comes back to me.” She chuckled softly. “Although, I must say, the energy I had as a young mother has decreased somewhat.”
“That is to be expected.” Tryphena tipped her head. “I would be more than willing to hold Faith, so you may have your tea.”
“But then your tea would then grow cold,” Maggie politely objected.
“Pish posh! I am an old woman. I have had a surfeit of tea throughout my life. What I lack is a small child on my lap.”
Maggie cautioned, “I’m afraid this small child may respond to nature and ruin your gown.”
“And that is why we have napkins!” Tryphena spread her napkin over her lap. “Pass the young one to me, please.”
Did you see what tripped me up?
I’m not surprised. It only stopped me because I had asked myself a similar question a couple of years ago. This time my question was, "Would a nineteenth century upper-crust woman (or anyone, for that matter) say ‘napkin’? Or would she say ‘serviette,” as an English woman might do?"
So, off I went on a search for the proper term. When an author writes historical fiction, that author needs to make the characters’ language historically correct, or at least as correct as possible.
Much to my surprise, I discovered that the term “napkin” was very much in use in nineteenth-century America. One of the earlier examples of this may be found in the 1840 book, Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches by American Eliza Leslie.
So, yes, I feel confident in saying that Tryphena Moore would use the term “napkin,” unless of course she was trying to be pretentious. If that were the case, then she might resort to “serviette.” But, knowing Tryphena, she isn’t about pretention. She’s all about power. If you know Tryphena, you're saying "of course" right now. What she doesn’t give a fig about is pretense.
Now that the use of "napkin" has been settled, you might be wondering what the other term was that slowed me down. Some years ago, when I was writing about Maggie and Eli’s newborn daughter Faith, I wanted to use the term “diaper.” However, my research then (and my research now), revealed that Americans did not use the word “diaper” in the 1860s. Recently, I was at Dictionary.com and learned that it offers historical illustrations of how and when a word was used. Unfortunately, the examples for "diaper" on that website all came from the early 20th century.
Later, I found a useful comment on an unlikely place for research, a website called Lil Baby Cakes (https://www.lilbabycakes.com/history-of-baby-diapers.html). “...the term diaper didn't originate until the late 1800's. The term diaper didn't mean what it means today. It was the term for a cloth with small geometric patterns. The first baby diapers were made of this kind of cloth, and thus called, diapers.”
I found similar references in various dictionaries indicating that the word’s etymology had to do with a geometric-patterned cloth called “diaper.” Apparently, it took a while for "diaper" to come in usage, and that makes we wonder what people living in the early- and mid-1800s used instead.
My answer: I don't know. In the Saint Maggie series, I have them refer to "diapers" as "cloths." Awkward, but it works for now.
One other interesting point: the British don’t call the cloth covering on a baby’s bottom a “diaper.” They call it a “napkin” (better known as a “nappy.”)
And so we have come full-circle and find ourselves once more at napkins.
Writing historical fiction is a start-and-stop process, and for me, some of that starting and stopping involves the weird world of words.
Until Monday, gentle readers!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder