in which I repeat myself and bore you: on dialect and dialog

The Smart Bitches have a post up about language anachronisms in historical romance. I admit to some irritation about the fact that by the time I caught the post there were 41 comments. Explaining my irritation is a little trickier.

First: The Smart Bitches are usually right on target when they talk about this stuff, okay? This is not me dissing them. I love the Smart Bitches with all my bitchy little heart. This is about the comments, and I’ve already admitted I didn’t read them so really, I should just shut up but no, I’m not going to. Because this will gnaw at me otherwise.

Any MDs out there? If you’re at a party and people start talking about gallbladders or Uncle Mikey’s valve replacement or something else similarly technical, do you get irritated because (1) you don’t want to look like a wise ass know-it-all (2) it’s really hard not to speak up anyway when you hear somebody claim that his brother’s best friend’s second cousin is an expert and he says… (3) if you walk away and join the crowd talking about baseball, the medical talk crowd will conclude that you are a snob.

Which maybe you are. Or at least impatient.

That’s how I get about language discussions. Once before class started I heard one student tell another that in Switzerland they speak a language which is half French and half German. As this was a linguistics class I felt obligated, so I said (very gently) I can see how you’d come to that conclusion, but what you were hearing is Swiss German which is… and I saw her mouth set in a prim little line. I know that line, it means: don’t tell me about language, I speak language myself!

And in her evaluation at the end of the course she wrote: this professor may know a lot about linguistics but it’s not nice to tell people they didn’t hear what they really did hear.

PLEASE NOTE: everybody is free to talk about language and linguistics as much as they like, whenever they like. I am not, and do not want to be linguistics hall monitor of the universe. Right this moment hundreds, maybe tens of thousands of conversations are going on that have to do with language across the nation. Joe tells Sally that she sounds stupid when she uses the word ain’t; Mr. Wilson tells his grandson about the etymology of the word asparagus, his own personal version made out of whole cloth; somewhere in Chicago at this very minute somebody is trying to do an English accent and failing miserably.

All fine and good. Chatter on. The problem is when I’m within hearing range. Then I get all itchy, and I have to just walk away.

So now that I’ve ranted a little (okay, a lot), and for my own peace of mind, I’m going to direct you  to my posts about language/linguistics/dialect/dialog in  fiction both contemporary and historical. You are free to ignore every word, to disagree with every thought; to curse me for a condescending know-it-all… if that’s what it takes to make us both comfortable, so be it. You’ll get all those posts by clicking on “dialog” in the tag cloud in the sidebar.

not just any detail will do

I realize that I may be overanalyzing this, but I write for a living so I read closely.

Yesterday I picked up a novel. Right at this moment I’m not going to name the author or the title, but I will say: highly regarded, writes high-end thriller/espionage, best seller. And it’s not Patterson.

So. On the first page I stumble on the phrase the bristling rumor mill. I find myself stuck on that sentence. I call up mental pictures of mills. I have done some research on mills for various novels, and I have been in a few mills in various places, some of them still working. A mill has a grindstone and a waterwheel, or it’s powered by wind. Things go around and around. Corn goes in, grits or cormeal come out. Wheat goes in, flour comes out. The raw material is crushed and ground between heavy stones or plates. There’s the coinage “grist for the mill” which is largely figurative.

From The Phrase Finder:

GRIST FOR THE MILL — Something I can use. ‘Grist’ has almost lost its once-familiar meaning of grain taken to a mill to be ground. It lingers only in the figurative meaning, which was around by 1655, when it appeared in Thomas Fuller’s ‘The Church-History of Britain’: ‘And here foreign casuists bring in a bundle of mortal sins, all grist for their own mill.'” From “The Dictionary of Cliches” by James Rogers (Wings Books, Originally New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).

Another reference says “grist” is Old English, action of grinding, grain to be ground (before 1000); related to grindan, to grind. From “The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology” by Robert K. Barnhart (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1995).

Wikipedia has a nice little summary:

The proverb ‘all is grist for the mill’ means ‘everything can be made useful, or be a source of profit.’ There are some minor variations, such as “all’s grist that comes to my/his/her mill”, meaning that the person in question can make something positive out of anything that comes along.

A miller ground whatever grain was brought to him, and charged a portion of the final product for the service. Therefore, all grain arriving at the mill represented income, regardless of its quality. The first recorded usage was in the sixteenth century, but the term is probably much older. The term ‘grist mill’ was once common in the United States and Britain to describe a small mill open to all comers.

Where was I?

Oh yes. I was reading a novel, in which I found a bristling rumor mill. To me, something bristles when it is crowded full, as the bristles on a brush. There’s a sense of jostling in the word bristling, while the primary movement associated with a mill is grinding in nature.

My point (and I do have one) is that this author was sloppy in a way that stopped at least one reader on the first page. My guess is that he had the phrase ‘grist for the mill’ in his memory, but gave it a twist by making the jump from grist to bristle. I suppose it could have been worse, he could have settled on gristle for the mill. That image is a little too grizzly for me.

Eventually I got over this odd phrase and went on. A few pages later a Czechoslovakian tells a Russian to walk two miles down the road.

Imagine this. A border guard who has never been out of the eastern bloc. The border guard speaks Czech and probably some German. It’s the middle of the night, he’s tired, he wants coffee but there isn’t any. He’s got a little mustard at the corner of his mouth, he’s worried about the transmission on his car and now here comes a Russian to give him grief. The Russian wants directions. By all means, tell him what he needs to know, send him on to his destination. For all of his life, and his father’s life, and his grandfather’s life the world he knows has been metric. He thinks in kilometers, but he tells the Russian to walk two miles down the road.

Something here is off. Who thinks in miles? The author, obviously. The author’s own perspective pushes its way into the story with an audible pop.

I am still reading this novel. I’m interested in the way the plot is structured, I’m interested in the main character. Maybe by the end I’ll be ready to forget about bristles and miles, but it will have to be one helluva story to pull that off.

And the moral of this little rant: watch the details. They matter.