Unexplained jargon in fiction

April 22, 2015

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?’

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Use ‘said’ and ‘wrote’, the editor highlighted

February 18, 2015

Fiction writers are rightly advised to use said in dialogue and avoid redundancies or conspicuous synonyms: ‘You must,’ he insisted. ‘The hell I will!’ she shouted loudly. This sort of thing is likely to annoy readers and distract them from the story. It’s one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Yet writers continue to riddle their stories with showy or gratuitous synonyms. It can give the impression that they’re trying too hard to enliven their text, without knowing the right and wrong ways to translate their passion for the material into something readers will appreciate, not wince at. If you’re going to thesaurify said, you’ll need a damn good reason.

Horror writer Ramsey Campbell had one for his short story ‘Next Time You’ll Know Me’ (1988), which plays around with the ownership of ideas and the challenge of being original. Its narrator deliberately overwrites his account, studiously avoiding said in almost every report of speech in favour of overblown alternatives:

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Falconry terms in ‘H is for Hawk’

January 14, 2015

Revisiting T.H. White’s book The Goshawk last year brought back to me the peculiar lexicon of falconry: its austringer, keeper of goshawks; the creance used to leash hawks in training; and most indelibly the birds’ repeated bating, which is when they flap their wings and flutter away from their perch or trainer’s fist in an effort to fly off.

If training goes well, episodes of bating eventually diminish. (Just as well, since it can be hard to read descriptions of it – though nothing, I’m sure, compared to experiencing it as trainer, or as bird.) The word itself is many centuries old, and comes from Old French batre ‘to beat’, from late Latin batĕre. Here it is in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew:

These kites, That baite, and beate, and will not be obedient.

Helen Macdonald - H is for Hawk - book coverBecause of its subject matter and positive reviews, I had been looking forward to Helen Macdonald’s multiple-award-winning H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, 2014). On a spin to the Burren last week, fittingly enough, my friend J gave me a copy, and I immediately put it on top of the pile, to be read once I finished the Olaf Stapledon I was immersed in.

H is for Hawk lived up to its word of mouth: it’s an engrossing memoir-slash-natural-history book, heartfelt, sad, and funny, full of arresting lines, memorable scenes, and vibrant descriptive passages that pull you up short. For Sentence first I’d like to return to the terminology of falconry; here Macdonald, a historian of science, outlines some of it:

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Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.


Transporting the dear departed euphemisms

July 2, 2014

[Trigger warning if you’re grieving, or sensitive about death.]

Death is often called the great leveller; it’s also the great euphemised. I have a book on euphemisms with a full chapter devoted to it, and I’m sure that’s not unusual in the niche. The idea of death also recurs in slang and metaphor, as Jonathon Green shows here, at least some of the time for similar reasons of delicacy and evasiveness.

I was leafing through George Carlin’s book Brain Droppings the other day and found a vivid comparison of direct vs. euphemistic language in the specific area of funerals and burial (bold text in the original):

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Book review: ‘Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?’ by Steven Poole

December 9, 2013

Of all the varieties of English criticised for degrading the language, one is deplored so routinely it’s practically an international pastime. Call it management speak, business jargon, bureaucratese or corporatese, the shifty locutions and absurd metaphors of office lingo receive a constant barrage of disdain.

Such jargon has its uses, of course. It can be efficient, creative, even genuinely evocative. But more often this brand of self-important communication (or in some cases anti-communication) irritates and provokes, warping and clouding ideas in ways that are at once cynical and ridiculous, as Dilbert repeatedly shows. And the takeaway across the piece is that office jargon will keep circling back, going forward.

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Book review: Netymology: From Apps to Zombies, by Tom Chatfield

June 7, 2013

Given the perennial popularity of linguistic declinism, a common contemporary version of which is “the internet/texting is destroying language”, it comes as a relief and a pleasure to read a balanced appraisal of internet language itself. Tom Chatfield’s new book Netymology: From Apps to Zombies is a sensible, fascinating, and enthusiastic exploration of the origins and usage of digital terminology; in its own words, it’s a linguistic celebration of the digital world.

Whether you’re a l33t user or a relative n00b, you’ll find much to enjoy and ponder in Netymology. Its 100 short chapters, each 2–3 pages long, offer informative snippets on such cultural byroads and subcultural thoroughfares as the mechanics of keyboards, the Beasts of Baidu, the origins of Pac-Man’s name, and the Vatican’s patron saint of the internet (really), to take a few examples virtually at random.

Netymology covers a lot of ground but is never heavy going. From a wealth of sources it plucks and condenses choice nuggets of technological history, such as the eccentric story of Apple’s command key, aka pretzel key or splodge (⌘):

Known properly as the St John’s Arms, it’s an ancient, knot-like heraldic symbol, dating back in Scandinavia to at least 1000 BC, where it was used to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.

It’s still found today on Swedish maps, representing places of historical interest, thanks to its (approximate) resemblance to the tower of a castle viewed from above.

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