What did you mean by that?

I’ve been enjoying a lively conversation about how some words have more than one meaning depending upon where you come from. Since words are the writer’s tools, they have to be as clear as possible. But what happens when you make an innocent mistake? Well, we have to go in and make edits to your work. Don’t be insulted that we think you provincial and that we’re trying to destroy your voice. We need to consider that the audience won’t be restricted to just your locale, and we have to make the wording clear so we don’t have any confusion. Confusion makes readers scratch their heads and takes them out of the story.

If, for example, an author wrote about  how his character had a “proper job” most of us would understand exactly what the writer meant – a “real” job rather than, oh, say, a writer. However, if someone in Cornwall, England read that they’d think the character had enjoyed a jolly good shag. If the publisher has foreign rights, edits would be in order, wouldn’t you say?

This reminds me of the movie Free Willy, and how all the South Africans, Brits, and probably the Aussies as well, laughed themselves into a coma because “willy” means a man’s…ah…um…err…I think you get the idea. Had I been the publisher of a book bearing the same title, I would have considered Free Shamu, or Free Bubbles, but leave poor Willy out of it – especially if I have sold the foreign rights.

As editors, we need to be sensitive to how another country, or even another state might read something in narratives. Aloha is one of those words, meaning hello, goodbye, have a nice day in Hawaii. Everyone gets that.  But I get the idea it also has its darker origins as well, and it could be used to infer all sorts of things. I think the Hawaiian working at Hilo Hattie’s on the Big Island meant it to mean “go blow yourself” when a tourist was a complete ass over buying a $25 pair of earrings for his wife, who stood by turning all shades of red. It was all I could do to keep from laughing up a lung. All I could think is that it would make for a great narrative in a book – provided the reader fully understood the word Aloha.

This idea of words that have more than one meaning got me to thinking that I should start making up my own meanings just for kicks and giggles. For instance, I could start saying “surf’s up!” which would mean “I’m rejecting this manuscript.” I would claim all innocence by stating this is how we say “rejection” in Southern California. If an author asks why I rejected them, I could simply say, “Duuude, get a new surfboard, man.”

Hmm…thinking of the infinite possibilities of no one having a clue what I’m talking about.

5 Responses to What did you mean by that?

  1. Tara Maya says:

    Hm, I’d think the term for rejection would be, “Wipe out!”

    But maybe that’s too obvious, even for non-surfers. 🙂

  2. The American use of a word that gets us Brits hot under the collar is–ahem–‘fanny’ (Even I blush when I type it.) How can I put it? It doesn’t mean ass here but something more specific that only women have. It can be offensive, although it can also be more jokey, as in ‘stop fannying about.’ But you have to be sure of your audience before using it.

    I once told an American friend one winter that I was feeling ill but I wasn’t surprised as there were a lot of bugs about. She seemed perplexed because January was too early in England, surely, for flying insects? In Britain a bug means a virus or germ, usually a cold or a cough.

    Translation causes problems too. Poor Gerard Depardieu got into terrible trouble in the US when he said in an interview that when young he had ‘assisted’ in a rape. Only he hadn’t. The French word ‘assister’ means to be there, witness or come across. Someone mistranslated big time. Poor Gerard has been persona non grata in the States ever since.

    To be a writer is to live dangerously as I keep finding out.

  3. lynnpricewrites says:

    Sally, your Yank friend must be from a part of the US that doesn’t know the term “bug.” We say it all the time; as in, “Don’t tell me you caught another bug! Your eyes are all runny and your nose is beet red.”

  4. She lives near Chicago. And is a university librarian. (Lynn: Hmm…she needs get her nose out of the books. Chicagoans knows what “bug” means!)

  5. […] blog is a playground for word-lovers who want to explore such issues. I know I’m not alone… I’ll post from time to time with my own random questions or observations, and I invite […]

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