Writing Right with Dmitri: Gee, We Love That Kind of Talk
Back in my childhood, there was a TV programme called 'McHale's Navy'. This show took a humorous look at World War II in the Pacific Theatre, not an easy task. It was a grim conflict. However, McHale and his gang of misfits – including an intelligent Japanese deserter – made their home on an island paradise, used their PT boat for waterskiing, and avoided conflict whenever possible. It was an interesting exercise in early anti-war humour and the project of teaching tolerance, and I enjoyed it.
Which brings me to one of the catchphrases of the series. Lt Cmdr McHale's nemesis, Capt Binghamton, was a fussy little man with no sense of humour. (Played, of course, by an actor with precise comic timing.) Binghamton longed to be a true warrior, but lacked the general John Wayne makeup necessary for the task. Whenever anyone launched into a litany of naval jargon, Binghamton listened raptly, then exclaimed, 'Gee! I love that kind of talk!'
We do that a lot in our writing, don't we? Ladle our prose with 'that kind of talk'. There's a way to get away with it, and a way to annoy the reader with it, and we should know the difference. Seriously.
How to Stuff an Owl
Bright's Old English Grammar & Reader is a staple textbook for those wishing to learn Anglo-Saxon. At one time in my life, this was a desideratum of mine, so I studied it. The authors of the edition I was using explained about the kenning, a literary device much in favour with the old Norse poets. A kenning is way to avoid calling a spade a spade. Instead, you call it a 'treasure-finder'. 'Whale-road' is a kenning. It means 'ocean'. You get the idea.
According to the authors of Bright's1, in later Scandinavian literature, the kenning got overused. Sloppy poets piled on their tacky metaphors, list-fashion, until it became a joke. The authors referred to this sort of carry-on as 'stuffed owlery'. Our professor explained to us about the marvelous poetry collection known as The Stuffed Owl. With all this information, we were armed to appreciate Beowulf's superior kennings. 'Nuff said.
Do modern writers commit this kind of error? Do they, in fact, stuff owls? You bet they do. One of the two main reasons I cannot abide Harry Potter2 is the interminable list-making for the sake of list-making. Endless names for supernatural candy, for example. On the other hand, the books are frighteningly popular, even with adults3. Apparently, the Right Reader looks at this stuff and exclaims, 'Gee! I love that kind of talk!'
Terry Prachett makes up a lot of this talk, but at least, he gives you a joke or a 'pune' to go with it. In his less exciting works, Mr Stephen King has been known to rely heavily on catalogs of popular consumer items. Recommendation: keep this sort of thing to a minimum. Failing that, give it meaning. Or at least, make it funny.
I Must Go Down to the Dictionary Again
'Splice the mainbrace! Belay that order!' Capt Binghamton may have loved that kind of talk, but frankly, I hated it as a kid. No, I had nothing against sailing ships. They were fascinating things. However, I spent my formative years in the landlocked interior of the US of A. Our idea of nautical activity was fishing from a rowboat. I desperately wanted to understand the Bounty Trilogy, but I had no idea what a mainbrace was, or how you spliced it. And there was no internet.
Fortunately, a good writer gives you context. A yardarm? Well, if you could hang a sailor from it, maybe it was that crosspiece in the picture. A crow's nest? Hm. Crows fly, and those guys appear to be able to see pretty far…you get the idea.
I later realised that authors like Nordhoff and Hall, or their brethren Masefield, Melville, Henry Dana et al, didn't gloss nautical terminology because they expected the reader to be familiar with sailing ships. After all, you never bother to explain mobile phones, these days. In a hundred years, who knows how many readers you will confuse? They'll muse, 'What, they didn't communicate with electronically-induced telepathy?' See what I mean?
However, you might find yourself needing to use nautical terminology in your historical novel. Or explain a steam locomotive, or hot-air balloon. In that case, it's good to remember to gloss. Glossing need not be excessively obvious. A bit of sleight-of-hand will do. Just clue the reader in that the bilge is not a healthy place to be, and that the hold…well, holds something other than passengers. In the latter case, calling it a 'cargo hold' would probably suffice.
It's a bit like educational writing, really. You need to inform. Introduce concepts, then reinforce them. Just don't write like a schoolteacher, and they'll never catch on.
In fact, if you do it right, they'll love you. They'll want to know more about the fascinating world of sailors, pilots, policemen, Library of Congress archivists, or snobby wizards. And when you launch into a particularly purple patch of technical gobbledygook, real or imagined, they'll sigh happily and say, 'Gee! I love that kind of talk!'