Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cultural Currency for Writers

One of my professors in university kept a coterie of devoted students around him, who sucked up to him for approval and grades. If you were one of "Jerry's Kids", you could count on him for support.

The rest of us scorned the whole business. The term "Jerry's Kids" was a cruel reference to the actor and humanitarian Jerry Lewis and the children afflicted by muscular dystrophy and similar diseases whom he'd been helping for decades. The implication was that the professor's favorite students couldn't make it on their own, but needed the equally needy professor to coddle them along.

When I mentioned something about "Jerry's Kids" to another professor, she looked at me blankly. English was not her first language, she hadn't grown up watching the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, thus she had no idea what I was talking about. I shamefacedly explained it, and she got it, but the moment was not jovial.

Authors often use common cultural references to get a point across, and it seems more and more, as our culture changes, expands and diversifies, the odds of somebody "not getting it" keeps going up. As authors, I guess we should bear this in mind, but slang and idioms can add juice to our narratives. (From the Latin idioma, meaning peculiarity in language or phrasing.) I like old ones, like "getting ridden out of town on a rail," "deadpan," and "shoo-in".

[Irrelevant photo of old-time train by ES]

It's funny how these get misinterpreted. I once read something by an inexperienced writer that went, "He got ridden out of town on a rail, but he'd helped lay the track." Having read Mark Twain's of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I knew what it meant to get ridden out of town on a rail, and it has nothing to do with trains. (It was a horrifying punishment from colonial times, where the victim, with bound hands, was forced to straddle a fence rail (painful at the least, most fences being made of narrow wooden rails or poles) and be carried in humiliation through town and dumped on its outskirts, often after being doused with tar and feathers for good measure.) The expression currently means something like "cast out in shame".

"Deadpan" is another one whose origins lie far back. In 1920s America, pan was slang for face. Remember Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Battler"? The old fighter notices Nick looking at him and asks, "Don't you like my pan?" If you looked at somebody with a dead pan, you were giving nothing away by your expression. I also like "shoo-in", which I've seen misspelled as "shoe-in". The phrase originally meant a horse that's set to win a rigged race. When you shoo something, you sort of wave it on. These days you might use it when talking about a political candidate who's running unopposed or against token opposition.

A good copy editor—that is, one with a vast personal storehouse of linguistic experience, is worth his or her weight in gold to an author. They catch stuff that would embarrass you if it got through into print. How to train yourself to be a copy editor? When you come across an expression that makes you go, "How did that come about?", look it up.

Ever noticed slang or an idiom being misinterpreted? Do you find yourself thinking about this kind of stuff too? Click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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  1. This post was tremendously useful. Fabulous, in fact. Thank you.

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