Poultry, domestic fowl, or chicken?

As the poster says, “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

In 1066 William II of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings, effectively conquering England (though it took him several more years to secure his victory). Among the changes William the Conqueror wrought on English society was to place a number of his French and Norman allies into positions of power throughout the kingdom, and Norman French became the language of the elite.

This is one of the reasons English has a number of pairs of nouns—one with an Old French root, the other with a Saxon root—which mean the same thing, but one word in the pair is thought to be more formal or fancy and the other casual. Examples include poultry and chicken, purchase and buy, or scarlet and red.

Not all of the words borrowed from French happened at that time. With only the narrow English Channel separating the isle of Great Britain from France, English had no shortage of opportunities to mug French for some new words or phrases. And that’s just one language. Since speakers of Ænglisc started raising families in the British Isles in the 4th or 5th Century, we’ve stolen from every language we could. Leaving us with an embarrassment of riches in the synonym department.

This wealth of words with similar meanings leads some writers into excess, with the thesaurus aiding and abetting their literary crimes. The most noticed version of this crime is the Dialog Attribution Transgression. It’s dialog where John exclaims, Sue retorts, Jim rejoins, Walter observes, and so forth. When what the author really means is that John said one thing, then Sue said another, then Jim said something, and finally Walter said something.

It’s wonderful that the language has all these verbs that can describe a person speaking, but when every line of dialog uses a different verb, the reader stops following the story and wonders which verb you’re going to resort to, next. The author does this because he or she thinks that the repeated appearance of the word “said” is going to bother the reader. The mistake here is misunderstanding what is important in a fictional depiction of a conversation. The most important thing is what the characters actually say. The next most important thing is to help the reader keep track of who is speaking. Most of the time, tone of voice, facial expressions, and so forth are not even of tertiary importance. If you write the dialog correctly, the reader will infer a lot of those things just from the rhythm of the sentences.

Unfortunately, you only learn to do that by practicing a lot. And that takes time.

It’s perfectly all right to use some of those other verbs sparingly. For example, if there’s a tense conservation happening between a couple of characters, one character threatening the other, the threatened person may very well mutter resentfully, “For now…” or “You’ll be sorry” at the end. The fact that the person is muttering it, adding it as a threat of his own that he mostly doesn’t want to be overheard is probably important to the plot. But they really need to be reserved for situations where how someone says something is important to the story.

Dialog attribution isn’t the only place this sort of literary crime can occur. British author Simon Winchester likes to tell the tale of a student who, when assigned to write an essay describing how to do something, chose to write about how to transplant flowers, and apparently decided that saying one would need to wash their hands afterward, because their fingers would be dirty just didn’t sound academic enough. So he poked around in the thesaurus looking for other words that meant dirty (or earthy, as they would say in England), which eventually led him to refer to the need to wash one’s “chthonic fingers.” Chthonic is usually defined as “of or related to the underworld,” and thus often has demonic and even Lovecraftian connotations. It appears as a synonym for earth-related words because it originally referred to thing of or related to being buried or otherwise under the ground, and in myth the metaphorical afterlife was said to literally be deep underground.

My own tale, as an editor, was a writer who submitted a science fiction story set on a very inhospitable planet. After spending a paragraph describing just how deadly the planet’s atmosphere was, the author then transitioned to talking about some other aspect of the planet with the phrase, “…beneath that empyrean envelope…” Empyrean is a word that comes to English ultimately from Greek by way of Latin. And depending on where you look it up, it is defined as angelic, divine, God’s dwelling place, or the highest heaven in certain ancient cosmologies. In other words, heavenly. Not exactly a word that springs to mind for an atmosphere that will burn your skin off within seconds of contact, which seems more hellish. The writer had gone to a thesaurus, beginning with “sky” and looking up other words listed there until he found this one. Which he didn’t look up in a dictionary, he just typed it in and kept going. That’s a particularly bad idea with an unfamiliar synonym of a synonym of a synonym.

A lot of aspiring writers come at the craft with the notion that great writers know a lot about words, and therefore if you want to be good, you need to use a lot of words. But first, you have to be sure you know what the word means, including uncommon connotations. A word by itself has a lot of different meanings. In context, that meaning narrows. Which is why what writers really need to know a lot about is sentences.

Howsoever, that is a digression to be cogitated during a different diurnal cycle.

Or should I just say, a topic for another day?

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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