Anachronism or not? … and a potted history of plastics!

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.

Bakelite_telephoneNow 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.

pvc table clothNow 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?

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25 thoughts on “Anachronism or not? … and a potted history of plastics!

  1. I’ll be thrown out of the book when there’s a word that doesn’t quite fit with a character’s thoughts or speech and seems to have been dug out of a thesaurus. Can’t think of an example at the moment, damn it.

  2. Great post – I don’t think you’re at all pedantic! Anachronisms always bother me, and I would have thought ‘plastic’ in 1946 was one too. It would have set me off looking it up as well.Historical inaccuracies also make me pause or even stop reading a book, they just niggle me too much.

    • Now you see, having dropped history for more science, my history is generally very bad and its the science bits I pick up on. However I love SF when I read it, and if the storytelling is good enough, I can suspend my disbelief if the science doesn’t seem perfect!

  3. Sometimes you notice an anachronism, but it still seems to fit so you can accept it even though it niggles. One of my favourite sets of books – the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett – has one at the start of the third book, set in 16th century Scotland). A wedding party at Melrose Abbey (wearing armour under their party clothes), is described as being like ‘broccoli stuffed into lawn’. Out of context it doesn’t make sense really, but, take my word for it, it conjures a wonderful image as does a lot of Dorothy’s prose. It’s anachronistic, but the image it portrays overrides that.

  4. I’d be exactly like you and I don’t think it’s pedantic at all – you can’t have a character in place in a particular time using vocabulary that doesn’t work. Having said that, I find constant reference in older biographies (particularly one on Diego Rivera, the painter) to the “plastic arts” and I still haven’t got my head round that one…

      • I think you may be right! I just looked on Wikipedia and it says: “Plastic arts are art forms which involve physical manipulation of a plastic medium by moulding or modeling such as sculpture or ceramics. The term has also been applied more broadly to all the visual (non-literary, non-musical) arts.” So the last bit would apply to the Rivera biog!

  5. I read ‘Otter Country’ a couple of years ago and found it intensely annoying for what felt like me to be the over use of the word water (and watery) the author is also a poet and I think I understood what she was doing but on one page she used water 7 times and threw in a good few wets and oozes as well. It came to be that every time I saw the word it felt like I’d been poked with a stick. Otherwise it’s when I notice something that feels wrong because as soon as I have noticed it I can’t get past it.

    • I know how you feel Hayley. Each time I say ‘Absolutely’ I want to slap my own wrist, but what we can get away with overusing in everyday speech is overkill on the written page.

    • Thanks Tanya – I enjoyed researching it. Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed the book in question (review soon), but that word did niggle at me!

  6. That’s so interesting about plastic! I had NO idea it had been invented so long ago. I get very annoyed about anachronisms, but it mostly affects me in terms of attitude. I know a lot of readers want to see ‘strong’ female characters in historical novels, but when women’s survival depended on their reputation for the past couple of centuries it bugs me hugely to see them doing and thinking things they could not possibly have envisaged. My dad is a much more technical reader than I am and he gets really fed up if the details are wrong. I once lent him a John Dunning novel that featured a letterpress machine (my dad was a printer) thinking he’d like that and he hated it because the author hadn’t described its use correctly. I do think if you know about a subject and you see its facts deformed in fiction, it does make you doubt the credibility of the whole book.

  7. All this “thinking” and not enough data! Go to the Google Books ngram viewer (https://books.google.com/ngrams), type in plastics, click the case insensitive box and then the “Search lots of books” box. You will see a large uptick in word use in the 1940’s.

    Plastics may not have been the huge commercial success that they are today, but people knew what they were.

    • Blimey! It even peaks during 1943-6 – however at 0.0007% it’s still not what I’d call in common usage if I understand this properly. It just felt wrong in the text which was my initial point. Maybe I should have concentrated on the Yucca – which may not have been a popular houseplant in Hamburg in 1946! 😉

  8. You’re not alone. These things bug me too. I do a lot of freelance editing for specialist magazines and part of the job is to fact-check everything — otherwise the readers will notice and bombard the editor with letters/phonecalls of complaint (or, in these days of social media, flag it up on Twitter or Facebook). It’s one of my favourite parts of the job — have discovered so many (trivial) facts about all kinds of subjects, but this is the first blog post I’ve read about the history of plastic 🙂

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