Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dated Language

I've been reading The Maltese Falcon, and I've come across a couple of words I had to look up. I like it when this happens. It often means one of two things. Sometimes it means the writer is stretching the language, using a more obscure word, which I like because it pushes me as a reader. Lisa is the Slushbuster most likely to use a word I don't know, and I love that. Other times, it means that the writer used a word that was common at the time the book was written, but isn't common anymore.

One of the words I had to look up from The Maltese Falcon was Levantine. Now, I had pretty much figured out what it meant from context, but I looked it up anyway. And a little bit sadly, I looked it up online, even though my dictionary is on the shelf right above my desk. I can look up now and see it as I type this. (Hi, Webster's New World Dictionary. Nice to see you. You're dated too, but I love you, so you get to stay there.)

I figured that if the story was written today, Hammett would have used the term "Middle Eastern" or more specifically "Syrian" or "Lebanese." Whichever. The use of the word Levantine helps define the time period in which the book was written.

Some words disappear because of technology. Anyone dialed a phone and gotten an answering service lately? Saved your work to a floppy disc? No? Some words change because of popular culture. When was the last time you listened to records after you got home from having a malted at the drugstore? Has anyone our age ever done that? Has anyone under the age of 30 ever gone to a video arcade with a pocketful of quarters to play Pac-Man or Zaxxon?

Political correctness changes a lot of what we write. The use of Levantine made me think of that other dated word that's been in the news a lot lately. Now I don't want to get into a whole "should they or shouldn't they" discussion about whether or not it's appropriate to substitute the word "slave" for "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn. I'm just observing that what is common usage in one time and place becomes inappropriate in another. In our age of political correctness, it happens a lot. For hundreds of years it was appropriate to use the word "cripple." But in the last 50 years, not so much.

I repeat that I'm not trying to start a heated discussion. But sometimes, when I write, I wonder what words will disappear in a generation or two. Or change. Desktop now means what you see when you turn your computer on, not the computer itself. A blackberry is no longer assumed to be something you eat. On the flip side, these evolving words are useful for writing with historical context. So when I tell you one of my books has a main character who was really happy to get an Atari, you know it is set in the 80's.


Tess said...

it's an interesting concept, I think. I recently went back through my ms and was surprised at some of the words I chose. some are tough for MG readers but I hope the timelessness of them hangs on.

Michelle said...

I don't think the words necessarily have to be timeless. As long as the story is timeless, it evolves from being a contemporary story to historical.

When the tween book club at the library read From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, we talked about stuff that was commonplace when the book was written, but had become historical over time. The girls were interested to learn about the Automat, for example, and that you could buy a hot fudge sundae for something like 35 cents.

Look at how well Little Women holds up. Or The Secret Garden. When I checked the library circulation on that a couple of weeks ago, I found it still circulates well at every branch, even though it was written a hundred years ago.