The perils of idiom

If I may, I will start with a story.

When I was at university, my friends and I, as most young women do, took a keen interest in clothes.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say at this point that this in not translate, in my case to a reliably glamorous, or even particularly presentable, look.  I was more your experimental dresser.  You might see me in elbow-length gloves one day and a tatty old jumper the next (and I was almost always barefoot, but that is a story for another day).

Among this group, the highest compliment one could pay to something someone was wearing was to ask if you could have said garment when the person died.  Like this:

“I LOVE your shoes! Can I have them when you die?”

It was a light-hearted, over-the-top way of expressing extreme admiration.  The answer was usually yes, which was the acceptance of the compliment.  Occasionally the complimented wearer would have to decline, because somebody else had asked first, in which case, the accepted course was to ask THAT person if you could have it when THEY died.

It was all a bit of fun.

Some time after university, I was at a workshop or some such event where I was with people I hardly knew, and I complimented another woman there on her handbag with this phrase.  It went something like, “that is the most fabulous handbag; can I have it when you die?”

It did not go down well.  The woman in question looked insulted and shocked, as though I had suggested I would like to eat her firstborn.  I think she even said something along the lines of ‘that’s not a very nice thing to say’, but I was so horrified by her face that my hearing had frozen and I didn’t really hear her.  Obviously, to her ears, it sounded as though I was wishing for her death.  Or something equally appalling and inappropriate.  I made stumbling apologies and fled and haven’t used the expression since.

But I thought about this the other day when I was writing a scene where a character uses an expression which makes perfect sense to her (and, of course, me), but which might be either incomprehensible to, or misconstrued by, others.

Now, if this is an element of the scene and the expression is, consequently, explained, it isn’t really an issue.

But what about when you want to use an expression – either in a character’s mouth, or in your own description – but you aren’t sure of whether it is commonly understood?  Should you go ahead and use it and hope that the context is sufficient to make it understood?  Or should you scrupulously avoid anything that might be unclear?  And will you always  know?

This has come up in discussion recently among Australian writer friends who write for American editors.  They are often asked to remove Australian word usages and change spellings so as not to offend or confuse the American readers.  Many of them accept that, if they write for an American market, this is inevitable, but some are angered by the perceived need for this, thinking that the editors are underestimating the intelligence and willingness to adapt of their readers.

In my personal experience, I remember that in a competition entry once, I had one judge who wanted to give me extra points for the use of a particular slang-ish word, because it amused and delighted her and another who rather sanctimoniously warned me against using words that the reader might not know.  (Which, incidentally, is an excellent example of why contest feedback should be taken with a grain – or occasionally a bag – of salt.)

If you are being published in the traditional way, you might not have a choice about such things.  They might be mandated by the house style of the publisher.  But if you have the option of going to bat for your word choice, or if you are self-publishing, these can be big decisions.

So, what do you think?  Should you just let your idiomatic idiosyncrasies hang out and hang the consequences?  Or should you edit out everything that might be open to misunderstanding?  Or should you strive for a middle ground and hope that context carries the ones you can’t bear to part with?

What do you do?


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22 thoughts on “The perils of idiom

  1. I am very much in the use the slang camp. I read Georgette Heyer after all and where would that be without the slang?

    • I love it too, Laura. I understand that you don’t want to jolt the reader out of the story, but I think one should try to contextualise, then give the reader some credit for being able to follow. Thanks for commenting!

  2. That’s a hard one, Im. If you’re writing in an Australian setting and the characters are expressing themselves in ways unique to them, their background/upbringing blah blah blah then it seems rather blasphemous to mess with it. Because you’re messing with the writers voice, aren’t you? But ultimately, so much of it comes down to the publisher. With Aussie rural lit making waves I find it of interest that people would want to meddle with something that can be such a part of setting the scene and such like.

    • I imagine they don’t, much, for the Oz market, Kylie, but from what we hear from the girls pubbing in America, the publishers there don’t think much of the average American reader’s ability or willingness to handle local colour that isn’t their own. Whether they’re right or not is hard to say when they aren’t give the chance!

  3. I used to use that saying too Imelda! You’re right, with some people it went down like a lead balloon. I’m never sure with idiom. I think I’d take my editor’s advice unless it so dramatically changed the meaning of the words.

    • Chance would be a fine thing, Keziah, my old! (Another idiom that can get you into trouble with some people). At least now I know I can covet your ankle boots (or whatever) in gaffe-free safety. ;>

  4. I understand the need to consider the market for which we write, but we do need to try to keep our voice true as well, and consider our characters’ voices. I removed several Aussie phrases such as describing a dud car as “a lemon” because of my editor’s concerns readers wouldn’t “get” it, but left in “carked it” (heroine is Aussie after all) and had the hero (Hawaiian) guess its meaning from the context, asking her if that meant … you get the idea. I could live with most of the changes. With the take up of Aussie rural romances, I’m hoping that some of our colourful language will reappear. It is such a humorous language after all. Hugh Lunn wrote a wonderful book about it. Can’t think of the title atm, but enjoyed reading it some time ago.
    Anyone up for a barbie this arvo? Open a few tinnies or some vino and put on the telly after?

    • I think that’s my approach too, Sue. When I’m aware of something being potentially confusing, I try to hedge it in with sufficient context or dialogue to make it work-out-able, but I like to keep them in. It’s part of voice and character and should be protected, as long as it doesn’t make the read too hard, I think.

      And yes, I’d love to come to the barbie? Do I need to bring a plate? 😉

      • Indeed, please bring a plate and a mate. I’ll offer snags and spuds with the vino. (Wonder what Americans would make of this?)

  5. From my perspective as a reader, when reading a book set in a country other than my own, I like to learn a little something about the way people talk there. I don’t mind figuring it out from the context, and if they include a little list in the front or back with “phrases used in this book” that’s even better. I guess I see those lists with foreign phrases rather than English idioms, but either way, picking up those little words is part of the enjoyment of a book set in another place.

    • Oh Kasi, I so agree. I love to learn even a little of the language or the culture of a new setting/time. I like your idea of “phrases used in this book” too. Wonder if a publisher would consider that for Aussieisms?

      • That’s a great idea, Kasi! An author I know who writes historicals habitually does this for words or practices that are no longer familiar and it’s a lovely way to share her research, too. I think most readers would like that – after all, what do we read for but to be carried away from our everyday lives? Thanks for coming by and commenting! (And you too, Sue, of course! Always lovely to ‘see’ you!)

  6. Haha, excellent Imelda. That’s exactly the way I converse with people anyway so I wouldn’t have been surprised. I have a fair few idioms I fling about with wild abandon, often getting branded as “eccentric”, “dangerous”, or “not fit for society” in the process. I only tend to use them when I’m comfortable around people, though, so as not to appear outright weird straight off. One example is to use “faire du ski” (I go skiing) as a replacement for “fair enough” or “okay”. I also use random names to refer to friends (mainly “John” or “Bruce” for some reason), and engage in insults with close friends – “you idiot brain, you!” etc. It’s fun when you can jest with folk.

    With regard to writing, I tend to fling idioms in but my characters are usually pretty quirky so I hope my equally insane readers can go with the flow. Not that I have any readers yet as I don’t be published.

    • In my family, we are infamous for odd expressions, that are perfectly understood by us and frequently bizarre to others. I had been going out with my now husband for 6 months before I realised that, half the time, he had no idea what I was talking about. I think the fact that he hung around anyway was indicative of his ‘keeper’ properties. 😉

      Personally, I love an idiosyncratic character and will put up with quite a lot of nonsense from such a one. I think more readers will than some editors give them credit for.

      Oh, and if it makes you feel any better, my nearest and dearest are wont to say that you can’t take me anywhere, so you are in good – or at least my! – company!

  7. Loving the reminder. I haven’t used that phrase in years. Several favourite expressions of mine had lighthearted reference to death- which turns out to be vastly less funny when someone has died, especially if one didn’t know… Yes, that happened. I was so burned by that I’ve dropped them. BUT- I think if the context is provided with sufficient clarity, then I think slang should surely be used in writing.

    • I hadn’t thought of that! I suppose, when we coined that phrase, we were young and heedless and unacquainted with death – at least in our contemporaries. From a writerly point of view, for character creation, that’s a very useful reflection.

      I’m glad you think slang has a place. I think it’s a mistake to whitewash things out, but it’s always good to ask the question, as you never know what it will bring up!

  8. I’m with Kasi, I enjoy the experience of learning how things are said in another country. A habit I started when I was reading Georgette Heyer as a teen. So that’s why I kept most of my Australianisms in the book I published. My feeling is go for it, Imelda.

  9. I loved your story. I do understand that you don’t want to offend, but why didn’t the person just ask what you meant by what you said. I’m not much of an author, but I do read and I think it should be the same thing for the reader. If I can’t figure it out in context (this is very rare), there are plenty of ways for me to research the meaning of a phrase. Lately I have been reading some stories by William Faulkner. He is one of the masters of local color. Perhaps he had trouble getting published, I don’t know, but if he would have been forced to remove the color we would have missed out on some great writing.

    • Thanks for the support! I tend to think that way too. I think readers, by definition, like to be taken to different places. To be fair, the editors I referred to specifically in the post were category romance editors and category romance as a genre is quite rules-oriented. I still think they underestimate their readers, but they work in a multi-million dollar biz and I guess they understand their market better than I do.

      As for the lady I offended, I don’t know. Maybe she had recently had a death in the family? I took it as a lesson in choosing your audience, which is not such a bad one for a writer to learn! 😉

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

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