Sunday, November 27, 2011

Plain Talk

My guest this week is Michele Drier, author of SNAP and Edited to Death.
Language changes.  It’s a flexible tool, adding, dropping and adapting words to reflect new ideas, new ways of doing things, naming new products.
   Take “google”, or “Google” or “googol”.  “Googol” is a math term, a one followed by 100 zeros; “Google” is a proper noun, the name of an internet company, and “google” is now a verb, meaning to look something up in the search engine “Google”.
  And all of this has happened in slightly more than ten years.
There are benefits to having this flexibility to add or change words, but I fear that I’m becoming a language curmudgeon. 
   It’s not that I object to new words, although I’m not always au courant—I had to ask my daughter how to spell “ginormous” when I used it in “SNAP: The World Unfolds”.  I was writing about a hip, young magazine editor who would use that word liberally.
   I am concerned about the creeping verbalization of our language—turning nouns into verbs—taking over much of our communications.  This trend comes from jargon.
   One of the earliest examples I heard was copspeak when I was on a drunk-driving jury more than.....years ago.  I was a staff writer for the San Jose Mercury-News, and worked with editors who were TRUE language curmudgeons.  I was stunned when I heard one cop testify that “the subject exited his vehicle”.  Hair on the nape of neck rose at that use of a noun meaning “the way out.”  In fact, the English don’t use “exit”, the arrows point to “Way out”.
   Fast-forwarding , as an editor at a mid-sized daily newspaper, one of my reporters wrote “the car exited the freeway”.  We had a chat.  I suggested that he could better say, “the car took the off-ramp,” or “the car left the freeway” and, for as long as I was his editor, he found other verbs to describe the act of driving a car off the freeway onto a surface street.
   My second pet peeve was “task”.  Task is a noun describing something to be accomplished; a chore, a piece of work.  When I heard a co-worker saying that he had been “tasked” to do something, my teeth hurt.  He’d been “asked” or “assigned” or even “told”, but “tasked”? Please!
   I realized that I was fighting a losing battle when the Taliban started their first actions in Afghanistan.  People in the news biz started talking about the “Afghans”  fleeing.  The only thing I could visualize was large brown-and-yellow knit couch throws suddenly sprouting stick legs and arms, pulling up their hems and running across a barren landscape.
   PBS, NPR and I seemed to be the only people who used the term “Afghanis” to describe the residents of Afghanistan.  I wrote a note complaining about that use to the Columbia Journalism Review and officially became a language curmudgeon.
   Our language is so flexible—we have more words than almost any other language because we have two rootstocks, the Germanic of the Angles and Saxons and the French of the Norman conquest—that we absorb and adapt to influences.  Khaki, pajamas and polo came to us from the British rule (Raj) in India, for example.
   We have so many words at our disposal, let’s use those solid ones we kept from the beginning.  Our writing doesn’t necessitate the utilization of jargon to develop a matrix for a story.  Let’s use just the words we need to tell a story!  
   And don’t get me started on “that” and "who”!

About Michele
Michele Drier was born in Santa Cruz to a pioneer family and is a fifth generation Californian.  She’s lived and worked all over the state and has called both Southern and Northern California home.  During her career in journalism she won awards for producing investigative series.  She lives in the Central Valley with cats, skunks, opossums and wild turkeys. Visit her website at   

SNAP, a multinational celeb TV show and magazine, is the holy grail for Maxie Gwenoch. When she snags the job as managing editor, she's looking for fame, fortune and Jimmy Choos. What she finds is a media empire owned by Baron Kandesky and his family. A family of vampires. They're European, urbane, wealthy and mesmerizing. And when she meets Jean-Louis, vampire and co-worker, she's a goner.

EDITED FOR DEATH: Amy Hobbes never expected to solve anything tougher than a crossword puzzle. When she left her job as a journalist in Southern California, she planned to give the adrenaline a rest, but her next job, managing editor of a local newspaper, delivers some surprises. After a respected Senator and World War II hero dies and two more people turn up dead, the news heats up.

9 comments: said...

Lovely blog, I had a good laugh about the 'Afghans'. I suppose language is always evolving but I also have my 'pet hates' when it comes to the altering of the English language. But, alas, change is inevitable. We are going to lovingly accept some words and instantly reject the word 'phat'. I still can't get used to that adjective being positive! LOL (or should I say 'laugh out loud') :)

Ellis Vidler said...

When I see or hear "Afghans," I see the elegant dogs, Afghan hounds. It made me laugh too. I read "sick" the other day and first thought it was a typo for "slick," but no--it's another one that means the opposite of what you think.

Donnell said...

Michele, great, educational post. Good luck with Snap! Sounds intriguing.

Polly said...

Interesting post, Michele. Language is ever-changing, so I guess we can either fight it or embrace it. Personally, any new way of saying something old is okay with me. Sure wish there were other ways to say "look" instead of "gaze" or something equally obvious. Writers will always search. Playing with words is what we do. Another great Muse Tuesday, Ellis.

Una Tiers said...

Great post and fabulous cover.

Una Tiers

Michele Drier said...

Thanks, Ellis for letting me rant a little! And I love that Afghans mean the hounds to you...I think they're wonderful and beautiful dogs.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

English is a wonderfully flexible language--I agree. As writers though we do have to be careful about using jargon. What's "in" one day is passe the next. If we don't want our writing to appear dated, it's something to consider--unless we're doing historical fiction and want the dialogue to sound authentic.

Ellis Vidler said...

Jacqueline, aside from rapidly being dated, too much jargon turns me off. It sounds artificial to me.
I like plain English that anyone can understand--I hope. As for historical fiction, I'll have to stick to reading it. I do enjoy it sometimes though.

Anonymous said...

Great post. My pet peeves are writers who use "entitled" (verb) instead of "title" (noun) as in "the book was entitled..." and misusing "focus" as in "the program focused on social issues." Ouch! Why can't Americans learn to speak?
Sally Carpenter