Monday, November 11, 2013

But I Thought Everyone Knew That Word

My son was doing a little beta reading for me recently and got caught up on this line: 

One of the women sitting in a pew near the front moved into the aisle, genuflecting stiffly before walking toward them.

He didn't recognize the word "genuflecting" and said it pulled him out of the story. His comment surprised me. I thought that was a common word that most people would recognize. (I should mention that we are not Catholic.)

A few years ago I had a story with the line:

They were the Mutt and Jeff of homicide. 

A friend pointed out that the phrase "Mutt and Jeff", which meant one very tall and the other short (based on a once popular comic strip) was out of date and would be lost on most readers. 

This got me thinking about how easy it is for writers to use words or phrases they believe are commonplace but, in fact, would not be familiar to many of their readers. Some possibilities include professional jargon, slang, regional dialects, and "dated" references. Of course, context will provide meaning in some cases, but not all. Do unfamiliar words or phrases serve to expand our readers' vocabulary or create a hindrance to their enjoyment of the story? And where do we draw the line?

What are your thoughts as a reader or as a writer? 

Just wondering... Are you familiar with the word "genuflect"? Would you have recognized "Mutt and Jeff"?




I have to take a moment and wish a Happy Veteran's Day to all the men and women who so selflessly served (or are serving) our country, including including my husband, my dad, and my brother.  I'm very proud of you all. 


Also, I need to go back and do something I'd meant to do last Monday...  Blogging buddy Emilyann Girdner over at Anything Imagined gave me this lovely award.  Thank you, Emilyann.

The Sunshine Award

The award comes with ten questions, so here goes...
Fave number: 3
Fave non-alcoholic drink: Powerade Zero
Fave alcoholic drink: Mocha Kalua.. yum
Facebook or Twitter: Facebook, but only because
Pinterest was not an option ;p
Passions: Relationships (with God, my hubby, family, friends and my cat), creativity (be it writing or visual art), watching good TV Shows and reading books.
Prefer giving or getting presents? I prefer giving, however, that’s typically limited by finances.
Fave city? Orlando
Fave TV Shows: Oh boy, this list is very long. Here goes: The Vampire Diaries (that’s right, I said it), Once Upon a Time, The Walking Dead, Grimm, Modern Family, South Park, and so far The Michael J. Fox show and Reign are pretty good. (Shows not airing still: Friends, Lost, Monk and Merlin (BBC).
- See more at: http://anythingimagined.blogspot.com/#sthash.osDU7fnc.dpuf
Fave color:  Believe it or not, I don't have one. It changes with the seasons and with my mood.
Fave animal:  I'd better pick my dog Sophie.  She gets her feelings hurt very easily.
Fave number:  Four, after my four grandkids. 
Fave non-alcoholic drink:  Hot tea
Fave alcoholic drink:  I have a couple. I'll go with a frozen strawberry margarita.
Facebook or Twitter?  Has to be Facebook. I don't tweet. 
Passions:  My family.
Prefer giving or getting presents:  Definitely giving. I have everything I could want.
Fave city:  It's a tie. Boston because of my beloved Red Sox and New York for the theater.
Fave TV shows:  Castle, both NCIS's, Person of Interest, Elementary, and Blue Bloods. (And I miss Burn Notice.)

But I'm going to violate the award rules and decline to nominate ten new recipients because so many of my blog friends have said they'd rather not be nominated for awards. Instead I'll just say that having you come by and leave a comment brings me enough sunshine so please accept this award with my thanks.

Joke for Today:

Teacher:  If I gave you 2 cats and another 2 cats and another 2, how many will you have?

Johnny: Seven, sir.

Teacher: No, listen carefully . . . If I gave you 2 cats, and another 2 cats and another 2, how many will you have?

Johnny: Seven, sir.

Teacher: Let me put it to you differently . If I gave you 2 apples, and another 2 apples and another 2, how many would you have?

Johnny: Six.

Teacher: Good.  Now if I gave you 2 cats, and another 2 cats and another 2, how many would you have?

Johnny: Seven, sir.

Teacher: Why would you have six apple but seven cats?

Johnny: Because I've already got a cat.

Fave color: yellow (because it reminds me of sunshine)
Fave animal: my cat, Benny J


Fave number: 3
Fave non-alcoholic drink: Powerade Zero
Fave alcoholic drink: Mocha Kalua.. yum
Facebook or Twitter: Facebook, but only because
Pinterest was not an option ;p
Passions: Relationships (with God, my hubby, family, friends and my cat), creativity (be it writing or visual art), watching good TV Shows and reading books.
Prefer giving or getting presents? I prefer giving, however, that’s typically limited by finances.
Fave city? Orlando
Fave TV Shows: Oh boy, this list is very long. Here goes: The Vampire Diaries (that’s right, I said it), Once Upon a Time, The Walking Dead, Grimm, Modern Family, South Park, and so far The Michael J. Fox show and Reign are pretty good. (Shows not airing still: Friends, Lost, Monk and Merlin (BBC).
- See more at: http://anythingimagined.blogspot.com/#sthash.osDU7fnc.dpuf
Fave color: yellow (because it reminds me of sunshine)
Fave animal: my cat, Benny J


Fave number: 3
Fave non-alcoholic drink: Powerade Zero
Fave alcoholic drink: Mocha Kalua.. yum
Facebook or Twitter: Facebook, but only because
Pinterest was not an option ;p
Passions: Relationships (with God, my hubby, family, friends and my cat), creativity (be it writing or visual art), watching good TV Shows and reading books.
Prefer giving or getting presents? I prefer giving, however, that’s typically limited by finances.
Fave city? Orlando
Fave TV Shows: Oh boy, this list is very long. Here goes: The Vampire Diaries (that’s right, I said it), Once Upon a Time, The Walking Dead, Grimm, Modern Family, South Park, and so far The Michael J. Fox show and Reign are pretty good. (Shows not airing still: Friends, Lost, Monk and Merlin (BBC).
- See more at: http://anythingimagined.blogspot.com/#sthash.osDU7fnc.dpuf
Fave color: yellow (because it reminds me of sunshine)
Fave animal: my cat, Benny J


Fave number: 3
Fave non-alcoholic drink: Powerade Zero
Fave alcoholic drink: Mocha Kalua.. yum
Facebook or Twitter: Facebook, but only because
Pinterest was not an option ;p
Passions: Relationships (with God, my hubby, family, friends and my cat), creativity (be it writing or visual art), watching good TV Shows and reading books.
Prefer giving or getting presents? I prefer giving, however, that’s typically limited by finances.
Fave city? Orlando
Fave TV Shows: Oh boy, this list is very long. Here goes: The Vampire Diaries (that’s right, I said it), Once Upon a Time, The Walking Dead, Grimm, Modern Family, South Park, and so far The Michael J. Fox show and Reign are pretty good. (Shows not airing still: Friends, Lost, Monk and Merlin (BBC).
- See more at: http://anythingimagined.blogspot.com/#sthash.osDU7fnc.dpuf

22 comments:

Stacy McKitrick said...

I'm sort of familiar with genuflect, so it wouldn't have stopped me. And I know what Mutt and Jeff mean (even though I've never seen the cartoon).

Unfamiliar words don't always pull me out, especially if the content is clear. I used the phrase "beat feet" in one of my books and my critique partner had never heard of that phrase before (which I found surprising), but she understood it's meaning.

Just remember, you're not going to please EVERYONE! So don't let one complaint stop you from using the words you want to use.

Maria Zannini said...

I'm pretty sure I've used genuflect in something. It fit.

But it is so abundantly clear that words and history evade entire generations.

That was never clearer than when I had a conversation with my 21 year old niece. I threw in a some jargon from my generation and she looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language.

I didn't expect her to understand everything, but I was surprised at her limitations.

Karen Walker said...

I used to get really frustrated as a reader if I didn't understand references. Particularly in classic literature when you had to practically be a scholar to get the references. I do know what genuflect means and I'm Jewish.Not sure what writers should do about this because we can't predict what age group our readers will be.

Karin said...

Testing! Trying to post but my comments keep disappearing!
Karin

Karin said...

Ok I figured it out!

I do know both references but that may date me. I like learning new words and never mind looking up words that I don't know. It is much easier with an e-reader, though.

BTW I just found Elementary through an app on my iPad. I love it--especially the tie-ins with the original stories. Since we still have no TV it feels a bit like cheating--but not much!

Loved the joke!
Karin

Carol Kilgore said...

For me it depends on how obscure a word is and how often the author uses words that send me to the dictionary. If the author is showing off, I stop reading. If there's one character that uses a unique vocabulary, I don't mind. I do know genuflect. And Mutt and Jeff.

Julie Flanders said...

I know both genuflect and Mutt and Jeff so I think it's safe to say I'm old LOL. I hadn't really thought about this but I should since I work with college students every day and realize how much language and communication has changed since I was their age.

Congrats on your award!

Sarah Allen said...

I love that word, genuflecting, but the comic strip would have been lost on me. It's true, this is why we need beta readers!

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, with Joy)

Emilyann Girdner said...

Congrats again on your award. It is well deserved =) I love that your favorite number is four for your grandkids. That's very sweet.

Also, best ever joke at the end. Cat jokes can't go wrong, lol.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Love the joke. Good point about the word. I was at a critique group and one of the writers was reading their YA novel. They used a word that teenagers just don't use anymore. I mentioned that and no one agreed with me. I said okay even though I was the only high school teacher among them. I should have clarified and said none of the 1200 teenagers I know use that word.

Cate Masters said...

I'm Catholic so not only recognized it but had to do it many times, lol
It's inevitable for generations to lose cultural or other references - which makes another added value for books!

Robin said...

I knew what genuflecting was and I am not Catholic. I am not sure how else you could indicate the action without using the word "genuflecting." Sometimes being knocked out of a story to look up a word is a good thing... you have expanded someone's vocabulary. I also got the Mutt and Jeff reference, but that one is trickier. You can't just look it up in dictionary. So, as writers we should probably be cautious about references to current social situations.

As for words... I read somewhere fairly recently that you are better off to use the $5 word instead of the $25 word every time.... unless that bigger word reveals something about the nature of the character.

Tina said...

I know genuflect (not Catholic) and Mutt and Jeff. As to using "obscure" references in writing, I think it depends on what character is using it. If it fits the character to be obscure, fine. And there's nothing wrong with having to do a little googling while enjoying a story. But like Carol said, show-offs are a no-no and I'll stop reading.
Tina @ Life is Good

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Yes, I'm familiar with the word "genuflect", and it would never have occurred to me that anyone else wouldn't be. In fact, I used the word in my book, too... for a scene inside a Catholic church.

I'm familiar with Mutt and Jeff, too, but that's just 'cause I'm an old broad. I wouldn't expect most readers to know who they were.

I think writers have to consider their audience when they make references, use certain terminology and slang. I'd definitely feel less restrained writing for people my own age than I would for those who are younger. If we want to appeal to a wider audience, we have to keep that in mind. After all, a joke will fall flat on its face if our readers have to google its punch line.

Heather Holden said...

I'm not familiar with "genuflect" or "Mutt and Jeff." *shifty eyes* References like that can be so, so tricky. I know I always need to be careful with what I include in my writing, since the things I want to reference are often things no one has heard of!

Linda G. said...

I'm not Catholic and I know the word "genuflect." I'm familiar with the Mutt and Jeff reference, too.

Also, Johnny is a smart kid. ;)

LD Masterson said...

Stacy - I kept genuflect but dropped Mutt and Jeff. I've never used "beat feet" but I would have understood the meaning.

Maria - Not only jargon, throw a name into the conversation that everyone used to know and watch the blank stare.

Karen - I try to leave out words I realize are dated or might be unfamiliar to a lot of people but I'm often surprised by what I think would be generally recognized and isn't.

Karin - Yay. Technology beaten into submission. And I think Elementary is worth cheating for.

Carol - I'm surprised by how many people know Mutt and Jeff. I don't feel so old after all.

Julie F. - I expect not to know the latest slang my grandkids use but somehow I think they should know the old stuff.

Sarah - Ah, I knew someone would admit being too young for Mutt and Jeff.

Emilyann - Thanks. I thought of using two because I have two sons, two daughters-in-law, two grandsons, two granddaughters...
but that got too complicated.

Susan G/K - No language in the universe changes as fast as that of teenagers. That's one of the reasons I'd never attempt YA.

Cate - Hmm. Good point.

Robin - Genuflect is definitely one of those words that could only be replaced by a longer description of the action. But I accepted that Mutt and Jeff was dated and dropped it.

Tina - I definitely avoid show off words but it's a challenge sometimes remembering what's a commonplace word to me might not be to everyone.

Susan F. S. - Yup, that's where my scene was. And you're right about Googling a punch line.

Heather - It's a challenge sometimes, isn't it?

Linda G. - For the record, I'm not Catholic either. I remember being at work a bunch of years back when someone got a promotion and a coworker asked if we had to genuflect when she came into the room now. It was a group of diverse ages and backgrounds and everyone got the joke.

Jacline Carter said...

I always enjoy your posts! I, too, have been "guilty" of using older, out-of-favor cultural references, words, and phrases, including "Mutt and Jeff" references. I have one of those brains that holds onto trivia, and I love words. I'm extremely creative and make connections that others don't see, so I'm used to explaining my meaning to people with puzzled looks on their faces. I've used "genuflect" and been surprised when I received blank stares.

I don't mind, because the teacher in me uses the opportunity to expand someone's vocabulary. I do the same in my writing. I don't "dumb down" my words, but I try to avoid oblique cultural references in my writing.

As a reader, I have the same bias. I don't mind looking up words I don't know, but I dislike cultural references I don't "get."

Donna K. Weaver said...

And those phrases sometimes carry on generationally--or not. I totally get the Mutt and Jeff reference. My kids would not.

LD Masterson said...

Jacline - Last Christmas I purchased a Beatles CD for my grandson (who is into "old" groups). The young lady who checked me out didn't know who they were. I never thought that would happen in my lifetime.

Donna - Nor would mine.

Mike Keyton said...

Mutt and Jeff? I remember Dagwood Bumstead and his wife Blondie, too:)

On a more serious note, Britain is now so secular that any Biblical reference - never mind a word like genuflect - is alien territory for the younger demographic. Huge swathes of literature lost

Julie Luek said...

Perhaps if an author used a lot of words and phrases that were unfamiliar to me it would stop me or slow me down. But as a rule, I actually like when a writer pushes my reading abilities and vocabulary a bit. Genuflect, while maybe unfamiliar with some folks, certainly isn't archaic.