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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