Monday, November 22, 2010

I Can't Find The Word

(Sorry about the delay in this post - technical glitch....or computer had jet lag)

Word Choice...finding the exact word to express, say, demonstrate what you need to say is something that can put me at a standstill. When DH is writing a press release we can spend hours on because he is writing for a global market where some of the subtlety of word choice is lost. English is a language of nuances, which change not only from English ‘English’ but to North American ‘English’ to Irish ‘English’ and so on. It was a minefield I had walked through when I moved to the UK in 1989.

Take the word fulfil. What does it mean? What could you use instead? Straightforward, not entirely...
1.       1.Achieve something
2.       2.Carry out order
3.       3.Satisfy something
4.       4.Complete something
5.       5. Supply something
6.       6.Realize ambitions

Above are six subtly different meanings for the same word. At what point do you lose the easily understood accepted meaning and move on to one that a reader might not grasp immediately....
Having lived in the UK on and off since 1989 and been married to an Englishman since 1991 I don’t know where I fall anymore on the use of language anymore, but I still recall one of my sister-in-law’s asking me if I meant ‘quite’ in the English way or the American. I looked blankly at her unaware of the difference...quite.

So my question for you is – where do you fall in the language camp? UK? US? Globish? And finally do think about your reader when you are choosing your words?

Please come back on Thursday to see what Biddy has to say...


  1. You've highlighted a real difficulty when writing for an international market, Liz; it's one which it's well worth thinking about.

    The easy answer is to ensure that wherever a word has different meanings in different countries, the context in which it's put conveys the intended meaning.

    The problem with this is that, unless one is familiar with all of the words where the meaning changes from continent to continent, it's impossible to know which words to go overboard in clarifying in the context.

    I wonder if ambiguity of meaning is something which would be flagged up by a copy editor.

    Liz X

  2. Ahhh the problems of a global traveller. I am British and so should be happily playing in the UK nuances of language. However having spent two years at a US school during my formative years I can end up confused. Is the word 'hooky' used in the UK (since found out it isn't). I recently referred to someone looking at me like I had 'cooties' which also seemed to cause bemusement.

    But even within a country there are the nuances of language which can cause confusion and make you a stranger in your own land.

    When choosing words I first go with the flow that my writing took me in. Then during revisions I look to see if there is anything that jars with what the character might use and change it.

    Oooo you have just reminded me of a word I have been struggling with. What would an English 16 year old use to describe the middle of nowhere? The Sticks? The Boonies? Hicksville? I personally would use something which is not very PG.

    Biddy x

  3. I am a brit with an american accent but still uses the odd brit word so now I get laughed at in both countries.We should all just go global although that could mess up our uniqueness.
    When I write I have people check my english for me

  4. I'm in the same boat as you, Liz and Biddy! With an English father, a Swedish mother and a three-year spell at an American School, I'm totally confused too! I try to write in UK English, but I'm sure the odd American word or usage creeps in occasionally, especially after I've just been talking to American friends. It's inevitable!

  5. I hear you! Growing up in Canada with a mix of English and Americn spelling and words, and then moving here, has really confused me. I often struggle to determine if I'm using the right word!

  6. See? I can't even spell 'American'!

  7. I'm also Canadian, and strangely the most time I've ever spent with Americans was the year I lived in England. Since I lived in Newcastle, a lot of the slang I picked up was distinctively Geordie, but I also got pretty good at a Nashville accent.
    As a Canadian, I like to think we are exposed to way more idiosyncratic national language because no one bothers to change it for us. I'm very happy that Canadians got the British title of the first Harry Potter, and that the publishers didn't change stones to pounds in the Canadian edition of Bridget Jones. For me, part of the setting of a book is the language that is used, and I much prefer to read the language chosen by the author. . . even if it means looking something up.

  8. I'm Canadian too, and I agree that we Canadians are exposed to much more, having to deal with three different types of spelling and our great exposure to American culture through all the tv shows and movies. I have always read a lot of British literature and I enjoy watching British movies and tv programs. My mother is British too, and that might have helped escalate my interest/knowledge in British terms. I have a lot of American friends and I have noticed that they are less flexible when it comes to adjusting to different spellings and usages.

    I agree with Lauren - if the setting is British I would like to have British spelling and British word usage, if a book is set in the states then American spelling and usage works for me. Usage I'm good at contextualising usage I'm unfamiliar with, and I usually find that it makes for a richer reading experience. If I'm reading a book set in England with American spelling and word usage, it doesn't ring true for me.

    When I'm writing I doggedly stick to Canadian spelling, but my own word usage is such a mish mash of the three cultures that I usually opt for what comes the most naturally to me.

  9. Pleased to see I am not alone :-) Your post reminded me of when we were living in Calgary and a colleague of DH's came up from Houston and we all went to the cinema together - Four Weddings and a Funeral. At that time Americans weren't as used to the 'English' and poor Todd didn't understand most of the film...That wouldn't happen now I think as we are all exposed to films and tv going both ways. However the visual sources do have the advantage of a picture to help with the explanation which a book doesn't.

    In my own writing I have rigorously stuck to the native language of the character but in the body of the text tried to opt for the more global choice if it doesn't ruin the atmosphere of the passage etc.

    Of course I still sting with embarrassment with not knowing the alternative British meaning for fanny when I arrived. I announced loudly after a very long film that I had f.... fatigue. I can still see new knew friends rolling down the street with laughter. The joys of living in different cultures :-)


  10. Liz - I had a similar experience. Although I had it drummed into me by my father that I mustn't use the word 'rubber' but 'eraser' at school, one day I slipped. The silence was deafening. I was ten. I didn't really understand why it was such a bad word, I just knew it was :-)

  11. Biddy, I can feel your pain on that one - ouch.