You know how it is, you’re reading a book when something – often just a single word or phrase – spooks you. Makes you look again and go ‘what?’ (or words to that effect).
More often than not, it’s probably due to a piece of poor editing, a word or phrase repeated too many times without intention, repeated instances of poor proof-reading – tpyos (sic). In a proof copy, you often just pass over on these, hoping that at least some of them will be picked up before the final edition goes to print.
Very occasionally, it’ll be a word or object seemingly so out of place that it becomes an obstacle to enjoying the book further, because it shouts ‘poor research’ or ‘wrong’ out at you. Anachronisms, words or objects usually from the book’s future, are typical examples.
I came across what I thought was an anachronism in a turn of phrase the other day, and it niggled at me whilst I carried on reading the book…
The book in question is set in post-war Germany in 1946. Here’s the phrase …
Heike went to the first offending plant, a waxy – almost plastic – green yucca.
The word that set me off therein was ‘plastic’. I thought to myself – it’s 1946! Plastics aren’t part of everyday life – they’ve only really got Bakelite and nylon, so how can you describe a yucca leaf as plastic – they didn’t have those sorts of plastics back then ?
Because it was irking me so, I did a little research…
Firstly plastic is a word of 17th century origin, from Latin/Greek via French in the sense ‘characteristic of moulding’ and in this sense is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as:
Plastic: a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, nylon, etc., that can be moulded into shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form.
Now I am by trade a Materials Scientist – I studied the science of plastics, but I’ll admit to knowing little about the history of them …
– apart from Bakelite which was developed in 1907, and was one of the first commercially available plastics as exemplified by the classic black telephone;
– and Nylon, developed by Wallace Carothers for chemical giant Du Pont in 1935, enabling nylon stockings to become a wartime currency after their introduction in 1940.
Which brings me to Polythene and PVC …
Polythene was discovered in 1898, but wasn’t able to be manufactured properly until the mid 1930s, and ICI the British company behind that kept it top secret during the war, so it wasn’t commercialised until the 1950s. It is now the most common plastic, and is primarily used in packaging – bags and bottles etc. It is a white and waxy material, but not flexible without further additions.
Now for Poly Vinyl Chloride or PVC – which we’re all familiar with, particularly in sheet form as used in clothing and upholstery etc. (I couldn’t find a nice, non-kinky photo of PVC clothes, so you’ve got a tablecloth, left).
I was amazed to find out that it has the earliest discovery of all, being discovered twice in the 19th century – in 1835 and again in 1872 by the French and Germans respectively. But, they couldn’t use it, and it wasn’t until 1926 when another big company, Goodrich, added plasticizers to make it flexible and easier to process, and in the early 1930s, that it began to be used to make waterproof cloth – but of course war intervened.
So … both polythene and PVC were around, but weren’t really commercially available until after this book was set. They were, and particularly PVC, widely used for military applications during WWII, so it’s possible that the soldiers in this novel had encountered some plasticky types of plastic.
I have to accept that although it still looks wrong to me to read that word in its context, plastics had been invented but, I can’t quite believe it was a word in common use at that time. However, the rest of the novel feels spot on. It’s certainly not 100% of an anachronism – maybe just a little!
Do you get wound up by things like this?
Am I being too pedantic?
What literary tics get your goat?