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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Friday Focus

Belinda Mellor continues her insight on words used in writing. Thanks Belinda

As an editor I sometimes see words or phrases used that simply don’t fit – whether with the historical context, or situation, or experience of the characters. I think the problem comes when we take words for granted. Every word, phrase and saying has a history. If that history is too obvious then the words can sometimes stick out like a sore thumb.
But it’s possible to go too far. Where do you draw the line?
Take colours, for instance. ‘Burnt Siena’ is a rich reddish-brown colour. It is named after the Italian city-state of Sienna, which in turn was named after Senius (son of Romulus - as in one of the wolf-reared twins who were the supposed founders of Rome). On the other hand, Burnt Umber (a dark yellow-brown colour), which also shares its name with an Italian city (Umbria) actually translates as ‘shadow’; the region it is named after was known as the ‘land of shadows’. Perhaps because it doesn’t have a mythical Roman behind it makes it more acceptable. I’d let that one go, just as I’d let ‘Turquoise’ for, even though it takes its name from Turkey (the country, not the bird). However, for me there is no question at all about colours such as ‘Navy Blue’ – that one is a definite no-no if the context doesn’t warrant it.

On the subject of place name, Damask roses are named after the city of Damascus and I admit that I thought long and hard about that one in my own writing, but decided there was no good alternative. After all, Damask roses are a very specific type of rose with a texture and a scent like no other and that’s what I wanted to convey. On the other hand, I would not use the flower ‘Rose of Sharon’ in a book set in a time or setting that was unaware of the existence of that particular place. When I thought about it, I decided that my criteria was: exact word – no; derived word – yes. (But that’s not an actual rule, it’s simply my rule!)

Sometimes you just have to decide what works for you and not over-analyse it. So I would advise anyone against using Wellington boots, but woudn’t ever worry about the word ‘sandwich’. In this case, I think the capital letter is the issue: it announces that it is something named after someone, even though sandwiches, like the aforementioned boots, are so named (after an earl rather than a duke but that hardly matters!)

An author’s own experience can make a word or phrase problematic, while another author might not even notice it. For instance while ‘beyond the pale’ might to some sound slightly cliched, it probably wouldn’t worry anyone without a working knowlege of Irish history. But once you know that ‘the Pale’ referred to an area under English jurisdiction just outside of Dublin (in the 15th century) and ‘beyond the Pale’ was a 17th century British term referring to ‘unlawfulness’ or ‘uncivilised’ you might find it jarring to see it in a historical novel set for instance in Ancient Egypt or in a science fiction story where the characters hadn’t started off from Earth. And even if it doesn’t bother you, your readers might find it jarring, so if in doubt about a word or saying – check!

Curses, oaths and expletives are another issue. But that might be a subject for another day.

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