Friday, February 5, 2016

Using my words

 …by Senior Editor Victoria Curran

I love words. I love talking about words. I especially love learning new things about words. So when I had lunch a week ago with one of Harlequin’s former copy editors, now retired, for our annual Toronto Winterlicious outing, it made me smile that she called over the waiter to grill him about the word “sassafras” describing the split-pea soup gumbo. And then she called him back about “celeriac remoulade” describing the chickpea and pea fitters.  (We go to very snobby restaurants for our annual prix fixe outing…and then we order tap water and fight over the exact tip…waiters love us.) But we really got sidetracked over her dessert, the key lime pudding described as a “posset.” For that one, she pulled out a pen and jotted it down in her notebook. That night I got an email from her outlining the etymology of the word, and I only wish I’d kept her email! (For those as unfamiliar as we were, a posset was in essence a popular medieval hot curdled milk drink that has somehow evolved into a pudding.)

From posset last week, my informal research took me to “slacks” this week. That’s a mighty polarizing word among editors and authors, and I turned to my nine older siblings and their spouses to find out if any of them wore “slacks.” The responses cracked me up. Apparently Canadians find “slacks” to be an older term that’s gone by the wayside and, debatably, they were only ever worn by the kids who weren’t cool. As far as my little crew of Canadians are concerned, slacks are something Trixie Belden’s mom would’ve forced her to wear, except she was already dressed in dungarees—a word I just had to look up to make sure I’d got it down right!

My family also includes Brits and Irishwomen, who weighed in against “pants”—the Canadian preferred choice of casual bottoms—as an alternative to “slacks” because pants mean underpants in the UK. Who knew? (One stray Brit thought “pants” meant the stretchy outerwear with stirrups worn for downhill skiing…but clearly she’s not a skier.)

In the middle of all this glorious luxuriating in words, a buddy of mine wrote a get-well note to a couple on Facebook that included the word “youse” and she put it apologetically in quotation marks. I immediately added my own get-well wishes and then told my buddy to man up, remove those quotation marks and proudly embrace her use of the Old English plural form of “you,” similar to the French “vous,” which made its way across to North America via ports of call like Boston back in the day. I love that it still exists, even if only to embarrass those who use it. And it warms my heart that traces of the Old English simple past of verbs like “drag” crop up occasionally in some of my authors’ stories, as for instance, the cowboy drug his heels across the floor. Yay! Old English in action.

The longer I’m an editor, the more I can see that there are no rights or wrongs for grammar and style in English. It’s an incredibly complex evolution over centuries with a ton of twists and turns that make it fascinating to study. And that’s why there are so many different style guides out there. For every rule of English, I challenge you that there’s an opposing rule and a strong argument for both. And proponents for one or the other will fight you to the death. I had been taught by my first magazine editor, for instance, that “comprised of” is a common error. That the correct sentence is “The house comprised ten rooms” rather than “The house was comprised of ten rooms.” I defended that “rule” for years until I recently researched it with a Harlequin copy editor and see that my former boss’s “rule” is the common error. There’s a whole history behind each school of thought. (To all the authors out there whose “comprised” I’ve self-righteously messed with, apologies. I suspect Jen Snow might be one, oops.)

The more I know, clearly the less I know. And I find that exhilarating. I look forward to discovering more about English and storytelling through working with the talented authors at Heartwarming (and let’s not forget Superromance, the other series I work on!), and the editors on our team who bring a wealth of diverse experience and knowledge to the table.

Also, I’d like to wish a belated happy book birthday to the authors of our February Heartwarming stories: Carol Ross (A Family Like Hannah’s), Eleanor Jones (The Little Dale Remedy), our Valentine anthology co-authors Melinda Curtis, Cari Lynn Webb and Anna J. Stewart (Make Me A Match) and debut author Sophia Sasson (First Comes Marriage), who caught our attention in the Heartwarming contest two years ago.

Paddywhacks all around! Aaaand now I’m off to research the etymology of “paddywhacks.” If it turns out I’m maligning any Irish people, apologies ahead of time. English, she is hard.

Victoria

25 comments:

  1. Thank you for the great post, Victoria! Why do I have this sudden urge to go back and re-edit all my manuscripts?

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    1. Oh stop. As I say, there are no rules just interesting words!

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  2. When I worked in a bank in Connecticut, I mentioned something about wearing pants to work. I was told by the male head teller that women wore slacks, men wore pants. Guess it goes back to who wears the pants in the family.

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    1. Well, heads-up, Marion: editors tend to wince when they read "slacks". Maybe it's something to do with the evolution of feminism? Maybe the fact that you're pointing out (pants for men, slacks for women) has made us rebel against "slacks"? I want to research this officially now!

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  3. Terrific post, Victoria! I'm a word lover too. Chowderhead and collywobbles are words I'm dying to use in a manuscript.

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    1. Miranda Indrigo posted a fantastic word about her kids last week on Facebook: chuckleheads! I love it.

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  4. This is a wonderful post. Of course, now I'm paranoid about using certain words. I always have a real time using "knickers" because I never mean underwear, but what if someone thinks I do?

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    1. Ooh, now I want to know what other "certain words" you're paranoid about using... I used to cause my New Zealand authors to giggle when I queried their casual use of "thongs". Thongs don't mean flip-flops to me!

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  5. I LOVE all the different words and how they're used differently around the world. I watch a lot of British TV and am always amused at how they phrase things compared to us. Great post, Victoria!

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    1. But did you know "pants" were "underpants"??? That one took me by surprise.

      I used to edit a small handful of New Zealand authors (thinking about youse, Karina Bliss, Abby Gaines and Zana Bell!) and, boy, did I get some English learning there. A family room is a lounge room, a kitchen counter is a kitchen bench...oh, and I got criticized by an American for stetting "trainer" for running shoes. But I object to that one because I used to edit a Canadian footwear magazine and trainers are a specific kind of running shoe, hmph. I repeat: English, she is hard.

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    2. Hey Victoria, I'm with your rellies (do you use that term for relatives?! :) ) on the slacks issue! Slacks are polyester pants worn by old ladies, for me. When I read a romantic hero wearing slacks I have to squint through that word and pretend it wasn't there.

      I think we do mainly say "pants" downunder, but always aware there's a chance someone is using it to mean undies...
      Abby

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  6. This was fun to read. I'm a lover of words, too. My current favorite is 'kerfuffle', which I try to work into conversations, especially with kids.

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    1. I ADORE kerfluffle. Gotta find the etymology of that one.

      Years ago I was randomly curious about the origins of the word "verandah" (I have no idea why) and asked my history-buff brother. He immediately replied, "1700s, British-ruled India. The verandah was where the indigenous population came to meet and do business with the Brits".

      Fascinating.

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  7. Great post. I bought a book once on the evolution of words in the U.S. As people moved about and brought some favorite words from one part of the country to another, sometimes the words became hybrid or changed. I may have passed the book on to Paula. See if she has it. But it only pertains to U.S. I think it's interesting how coined words get added to the dictionary every year. I grew up with "thongs" being what are now "flip flops".

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    1. I'll definitely check, Roz, thanks! However, if you've ever seen Paula's office, it would be a miracle if I could find it. She's about 20 books deep everywhere.

      Meanwhile, I borrowed my brother's "History of English" CDs--it was a Yale course on the evolution from Old to Middle to modern English and it's travels from England through the US and around the world. I must've listened to those CDs three times. (It confirmed the "verandah" etymology, so that must've been where my brother got his info.)

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    2. Oops: "its" travels. What happens on a blog post stays on a blog post, right?

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  8. This is so much fun! It's like looking up a word in the dictionary and getting sidetracked by all the other words you find. To solve the 'slacks/pants' debate, you'll have to move to Oregon where everyone wears jeans. Your best jeans for church or a date. Have a great day. This made mine.

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    1. Yes, Muriel, that's the job I want: looking up words and more words and then other words. I'm a simple girl.

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  9. This is so great!! I've only recently become fascinated with words. I think if came from reading all of those Regency romances. Jane Austen started it. I think English must be one of the most difficult languages to master. Being an editor must be a hard job. And for the record where I come from we say "sneakers" but in the south I hear them say "tennis shoes." . Oy vey.

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    1. For me, it was Shakespeare that started it. At last summer's RWA in NYC I went to see the musical Something's Rotten on Broadway. THAT was a great deal of fun with words, playing with all the phrases Shakespeare coined. Sigh.

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  10. What a fun post! I love learning about how different words evolved in different places. Where I grew up, most people called pants "britches". Slacks were a fancy pair of pants worn mostly with business suits. Of course, we also said "y'all" "fixin' to" and "I reckon." So maybe I'm not such a good person to ask about words. hmm.....

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    1. OMG, LeAnne: britches. I am wearing britches right now, and from now on, that's all I'm going to call my bottoms. New favourite word.

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  11. LeAnne and I must have grown up in the same area! We also grow sassafras trees here. And some of the older people used you'ins for y'all.

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  12. This is one of the best posts, ever! I adored Linguistics in college and remember digging through books in the library on a Saturday night thinking that finding word etymology was more fun than going to a "mixer"...that's a dance in Michigan language. I was brought up by a mother from Mobile, Alabama with a strong Southern dialect and dictionary of words NO ONE in the Midwest knew what she was saying. My father had a photographic memory and quoted any scene from any Shakespeare play at dinner all the time--with perfect enunciation of the phraseology of Shakespeare's time. I always felt like a blithering idiot just trying to understand them! When any of us didn't understand, my father would say, "Go look it up." My dictionary and Thesaurus were always under my bed. Seriously, I looked in my fashion catalog and there are pants, slacks, jeggings, leggings, capris, shorts and jeans. What a world!!!

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    1. Just last night, I was having my twenty-something daughter explain the difference between leggings, yoga pants, and jeggings. Forget slacks -- that's old-school. English is a rich and fluid language.

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