Friday, June 12, 2009


SF writer Mike Flynn recently passed on to me this tidbit about that most basic building block of writing, words:

"The NY Times kept track of how many readers on-line clicked the "look up" feature on different words highlighted in the text. The winner was "sui generis," which was looked up 7645 times by readers."

This, along with another incident, got me ruminating about words: plain, fancy, contemporary, archaic, specific, general. The incident was my proof-reading some fiction for a friend and coming across mention of a "Zune." I said, "What's that? I don't know that word." He looked at me with wonder and said, "It's the equivalent of an iPod." Apparently this is common knowledge. But how common? If you use it in fiction, do you need to attach (for people like me) an explanatory phrase to "Zune"? To "farthingale"? To "auroch"? To "Maypo"? To "fluoxetine Hcl"? To "sui generis"?

There's no easy answer to this. What one reader will recognize, another will decipher from context, a third will be bounced out of the story by in order to find a dictionary, and yet another will take as a reason to abandon the piece completely. Too many generic terms and the story loses immediacy; too many highly specific references and the reader may not follow their import. Was a "farthingale," a kind of hoop worn under a skirt to hold it out to either side like matched shelves, high fashion-forward or old-fashioned in 1660 England? If my heroine wears one, will readers know what I'm implying about her sense of style?

In general, I'd rather err on the side of under-explaining rather than over-explaining. On the other hand, whole sections of Patrick O'Brien's sea novels, set during the Napoleonic wars, are opaque to me because I don't understand the jargon and, thus, what the characters are doing to their sailing ships, or why, or with what consequences.

I know what "sui generis" means. Also, now, 'Zune." And I know that by 1660 a farthingale was considered dowdy. But I still don't know if, in my YA fantasy, I need to explain what a "posset" is. I think I'll take a chance and let my readers derive it from context. Or possibly from Merriam-Webster.


Ken Schneyer said...

I had this precise problem with a story I just sent out. A phrase was used that one of my friends thought would be too obscure for the average reader, although I was certain that those characters, in that context, would have used precisely that phrase. It was a balance between verisimilitude and ease of comprehension. (I chose verisimilitude, but it was a close call.)

And that's always a balance -- because any given character, unless she is identical to the reader, will know things the reader won't know and will employ means of expression with which the reader is not familiar. Especially in SF or fantasy, where you are dealing with different eras, different planets or even different realities, you always face this problem.

In On Writing, Stephen King poses a related problem. He mentions a cage to house a rabbit, and then ponders how much description, in how much detail, he needs to give, since his reader probably has at least a vague notion of what a rabbit's cage looks like. When he consideres providing the cage's exact dimensions in inches, he reacts, "That's not description; that's an instruction manual."

Brendan said...

I saw an example of this in another blog I read Call My Agent! CMA! has been printing enquiry letters with comments by the agent about what was good and bad about them. At one point this is said:

When her parents mysteriously disappear, Emma is catapulted back to her birthplace - an older, steampunk [What is this word? The author is American so I'll let it go, but be careful about using culturally specific words if you're querying overseas.] version of our dimension.

I must say I was surprised that a literary agent(even if she is Australian) wouldn't know the term, but I suppose it just goes to show, take nothing for granted.

Mike Flynn said...

Charles Sheffield once explained at a party that his book The Judas Cross was set in World War One. The person he was talking to responded, "What century was that?"

P.F. said...

Well, I'm pleased it's not just me. I know that praise has been heaped on Accelerando, Charles Stross's story cycle beginning with "Lobsters", but I was knocked out stone cold by the opening story.

I simply don't get how you can appreciate a story if entire paragraphs are ununtelligible for the reasons Nancy mentions. I knew what a farthingale was, though!

qiihoskeh said...

I wouldn't have to look up "sui generis": it obviously means "to the pig of gender". I don't know any of those other words you mention (although I do know what an aurochs is).

When I read the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I didn't look up any of the peculiar words (though I would've liked to have a Sanskrit dictionary handy). Apparently none of them were critical to understanding.

I suppose that if you have to use real jargon and it's important for the reader to understand it, then the market will necessarily be limited.