Before we get started with our discussion of anachronisms, I want to extend to you an invitation to join me on this blog with your answer to this question, which came to me from one of my favorite readers, Janet Ann Collins: Can you please explain how and why you became interested in language? You might include some of your favorite works of literature that contain the language that intrigues you.
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One does not always think of anachronisms as literary devices. But these inconsistencies in chronological arrangement are not just something for the alert reader to point out and scoff at, but can be useful mechanisms for humor or other effects.
Anachronism brings the Greek words for “back” and “time” together to refer to the misplacement of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other. As Wikipedia says, “The item is often an object, but may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else so closely associated with a particular period in time that it would be incorrect to place it outside its prober domain.”
Of course, it’s true that anachronisms are sometimes included in works of art accidentally.
The idea of a caveman driving a car, in the case of Fred Flintstone, is an anachronism of an artifact which appears out of its time period and results in an hilarious, what film-makers call, “sight joke.” There are other such items in the cartoon series which are integrated into the lives of the cave family, such as the toucan telephone and the “steam shovel” operated with dino-power. And having a dinosaur as a family pet is astonishing, and probably something that little tv watchers wish they could have.
In the movie, Aladdin, Disney allowed the Genie to make out-of-place jokes by impersonating famous people of various time periods.
The film Titanic also contains a well-known anachronism. The Leonardo di Caprio character claims to have gone ice fishing on Lake Wissota, near Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Lake Wissota is a man-made reservoir which was not created until 1917, five years after the Titanic sank.
Other films are loaded with anachronisms, many of them dealing with costume and hair style. It’s interesting to compare the various versions of Cleopatra as she was portrayed by Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert, Vivian Lee, Elizabeth Taylor, and others (perhaps Catherine Zeta Jones?). Each one, though dressed to emulate Cleopatra, were icons of their own time periods.
Writers must be particularly careful to avoid anachronisms in their serious work so no one will cast aspersions on their work. Don’t put modern slang and figures of speech into the mouths of characters from the past. Someone from the 17th Century talking about finance would never use the expression “the bottom line.”
There have been incidents in futuristic science fiction where the technology was behind the times, as when the character speaks of “tapes.” They’re already almost obsolete.
In some works by Ray Bradbury, people travel in helicopters rather than cars as the usual mode of travel. This was supposed to have happened by now, but you will notice, it hasn’t.
I think there is only one time I have used an anachronism in my work. I will quote the opening of the article, “Mirror, Mirror,” which was published in Stories for Children.
A long time ago, there were no mirrors. A girl couldn’t see if her part was straight when she combed her hair. A boy couldn’t see if he had chocolate on his mouth when company came to the door. The only way people could see themselves was in a pool of still water. Imagine how happy everyone was when someone invented the mirror.
A related term is anatopism. This word (also from Greek: “against” plus “place”) describes something that is out of its proper place. For instance, an igloo would be out of place in Florida. Just because something is out of place doesn’t mean it is out of its proper time, although, it could be.
Remember, check your work for anachronisms and only use them if you intend to.
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