Unexplained jargon in fiction

richard stark - the rare coin score - Parker - book coverI picked up this Richard Stark novel in a local second-hand bookstore and was attracted by the reviewers’ descriptions of its main character (click the photo to enlarge). Funny how repulsive can have a contra-semantic effect. The ‘unforgettable Parker’, it turned out, is the same one played by Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank. Sold!

The Rare Coin Score has one stylistic detail I want to analyse here. Parker, Billy, Claire and Lempke are in a backyard planning a heist of rare coins. Parker, the ‘supreme bastard’ protagonist, has suggested a shortcut in packing the loot. Billy, a rare-coin specialist, explains why it wouldn’t work (note: he’s holding a spatula because he’s barbecuing burgers):

‘You take valuable coins,’ Billy said, gesturing with the spatula, ‘you just drop a lot of them in a canvas sack, carry them off someplace, dump them out on a table, you know what you’ve done?’

Parker said, ‘Tell me.’

‘You’ve lowered their value,’ Billy told him, ‘by maybe twenty-five per cent. Coins are more delicate than you might think. They rub together, knock together, the value goes right down. You go from unc to VF just like that.

‘Billy,’ Claire said wearily, ‘they don’t know those terms.’

‘I’ve got the idea,’ Parker said. ‘The point is, we’ve got to pack them up, right?’

(Emphasis added.)

Jargon in non-fiction can be explained directly – in parentheses, a glossary, and so on. But in fiction it must be done less obtrusively to avoid pulling readers out of the story. For instance, a genre novel using an acronym will often use the full term nearby so that readers aren’t left wondering. Or the gloss may be foregrounded, whether in dialogue or narrative; this requires a deft touch lest it seem clunky.

Occasionally a writer does something else altogether. In the passage quoted above, Stark leaves the obscure collectors’ terms unc and VF entirely unexplained – and not only that, but he makes this decision part of the story and the reading experience. Parker has no need for these trivial details, and so neither do we. This strengthens our identification with him.

The author also uses it as an opportunity to concisely reveal or underscore personality traits and dynamics: Parker is direct and focused, unwilling to waste time on anything unnecessary to the job; Claire is impatient with Billy and sensitive to group communication; Billy lacks this communicative sophistication, and is perhaps inclined to be wrapped up in his own world.

All this from three lines that hinge on two jargon items whose meanings we never even find out. With a library or the internet at hand, it takes just a few seconds to discover that in coin grading unc means Uncirculated – almost mint condition – and VF means merely Very Fine. But this information, while satisfying, was peripheral to the author’s aim.

15 Responses to Unexplained jargon in fiction

  1. Vinetta Bell says:

    Stan: For many years, I taught AP English Language and Composition to 11th graders in a large magnet high school in my home state (USA). Though that course stresses nonfiction, your analysis of those lines of dialogue from a novel would have assisted my students and me greatly in understanding how to analyze a text concisely, with strong textual support (think Common Core State Standards). The structure (organization) of your analysis is also informative. I admire how you left your explanation of those two terms until the end of your analysis. Thanks for your wonderful posts and those of your readers. I enjoy reading them.

  2. Thomas Denney says:

    I loved the movie “The Queen,” but I hated how it directed itself to uneducated Americans. The dialog would include tidbits like, “The Prime Minister spoke with the Queen, the hereditary, but titular head-of-state over the British Empire.”

    OK, that’s an exaggeration, but you’ve got my point.

  3. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Agree with @ Vinetta Bell, but how is unc pronounced? I mentally did it to conform to uncle, but that now seems unclear and the Wiki link doesn’t go that far (I assume VF is a spelt out acronym). Not that in a million years I am likely to to have to pronounce unc. Just curious.

  4. Stan Carey says:

    Vinetta: That’s very kind, thank you. Normally when I’m reading something and come across an unfamiliar term, be it jargon or not, I look it up. But in this case I decided to follow Parker’s lead (‘I’ve got the idea’), and by extension the author’s. It wasn’t until I had this post mostly written that I decided to find out what unc and VF meant, and it seemed appropriate to use a similar delay in exposition here to help make the point.

    Thomas: I haven’t seen The Queen, but if I do I’ll bear that in mind.

    Chips: Like you, I assumed it was a hard ‘c’ till I learned what it was short for, then I wondered if maybe it should be something like ‘unce’. ‘Unk’ seems more likely, but I wouldn’t bet much on it. The term appears in several collectors’ glossaries online, but I’ve yet to find one with pronunciation notes.

    • SlideSF says:

      I’m no expert on the subject, but I did collect coins when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure unc is pronounced as uncirculated. The abbreviation is merely a written convention, like Mr or etc.

  5. astraya says:

    When I read the excerpt I had a strong hunch as to the meaning, and it was nice to be confirmed.
    In Jasper Fforde’s ‘Thursday Next’ series, the heroine works for ‘SpecOps’, which is short for ‘Special Operations’, and I am uncomfortably uncertain as to whether that should be ‘spesh’ or ‘speck’.

  6. Debunker says:

    A VF post. Let’s hope it doesn’t remain unc.

  7. Chips Mackinolty says:

    @ astraya
    Curious. In Australia the most common pronunciation of “schedule” begins with the “sh” sound, but in the contraction around “radio schedule” on two way radio it is shortened to “sked”. Obviously “shed” would be ridiculous and confusing!

  8. Mise says:

    I feel for Parker. People so often use jargon, ready to pounce with a meaning if given less than half a chance, and one just sits there nodding with one’s most supremely knowledgeable expression in hope of not having to endure an explanation that might encroach into the brief 10 minute break for tea. My unenquiring heart sang a small song when this extract hastened on without explaining itself.

  9. astraya says:

    @Chips. I am always in two minds about pronouncing ‘schedule’ and usually end up saying ‘timetable’ instead, but there are some contexts where it’s not possible eg ‘ahead of timetable’.

  10. Stan Carey says:

    David, Chips: I would say SpecOps just as it looks, with a hard ‘c’, but would seek confirmation before doing so in an official forum. Spesh ops resolves the dilemma but has nowhere near the same currency, so I’m inclined to think that pronunciation is anomalous. Schedule → sked is an interesting example. Ireland tends to follow BrE, which favours the ‘shed’ syllable, but I normally say ‘skedule’, AmE-style. I don’t know how it breaks down across Ireland, though, so I might do a straw poll on Twitter.

    Debunker: Well played, sir.

    Mise: It’s true, some people betray a certain ignoble smugness (however fleeting or suppressed) at knowing terminology that others in their company do not. One wonders about its unconscious motivation – insecurity? And though I don’t think this attitude applies in Billy’s case, I too found it very satisfying to see Parker brusquely dismiss it, even as events prove him to be the repulsive bastard we were warned about on the cover.

  11. In case you’re not aware, “Richard Stark” is really Donald Westlake. And Parker definitely *isn’t* Dortmunder.

  12. Stan Carey says:

    SlideSF: Thanks. I hadn’t considered that possibility.

    Neal: This is why I link to the Wikipedia page for Donald Westlake in line 1 of the post. But thanks. I’ve yet to meet Dortmunder.

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