Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Deeper Shade of Flavor

Zestful Blog Post #261

I love learning something more profoundly than I originally learned it. A reader helped me recently, and I want to share the learning with you.

If you keep track of Writer’s Digest magazine, you noticed a piece on dialogue by me in the May-June 2018 edition. It’s actually an excerpt from You’ve Got a Book in You, where I discuss how to sharpen your dialogue skills by tuning in to the natural speech around us. I mention reading plays, and included this little story:
[excerpt begins] Not long ago when I read a play by the extremely talented Martin McDonagh, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, I kept noticing the word so at the end of characters’ lines, and I was like, I guess that’s an Irish-ism. And it sort of is, but sometime later I heard myself say so at the end of sentences sometimes, like, “I already ate, so.” Which is a trailing off with a precise meaning: “So I won’t go along to lunch with you guys.”
I heard myself say that and a bell rang in my head, and I remembered those plays where sentences ended in so, and I realized, “I do that, it’s a modernism, it isn’t totally just an Irish-ism.” And I understood another little thing about realistic dialogue there. [excerpt ends]
And then I got this email from a writer and reader in a far-off land!:
[email begins] My name is Bronwen, I’m a Toronto-based writer. I read your article on dialogue in this month’s Writer’s Digest and really enjoyed it.
I’m writing to you with a little tidbit which you may or may not find interesting. I grew up in Ireland but moved away, first to the UK and then Canada, about 12 years ago and as a writer and word nerd have often thought about how the Irish speak English, including the use of the word “so”.
Irish people don’t use it at the end of a sentence as an American / Canadian might, letting the sentence trail off (as in, “I already ate, so... [I won’t join you for dinner]”) but rather as another way of saying “in that case”. For example:
“We’re going to be late if we walk.”
“Let’s get the bus so.”
“We should eat that chicken tonight.”
“I’ll take it out of the freezer so.”
Anyway, I just thought I would share -- you seem like a fellow word nerd who would find such an idiomatic way of speaking interesting.
[email ends] [Bronwen, thank you for giving me permission to share that!] 
And I went back and looked through that play to try to prove it, and Bronwen is right! Here are a few lines:
[excerpt from The Beauty Queen of Leenane begins]
Maureen: You don’t give it a good enough stir is what you don’t do.
Mag: I gave it a good enough stir and there was still lumps.
Maureen: You probably pour the water in too fast so. What it says on the box, you’re supposed to ease it in. [excerpt ends]

 [Photo of the book cover by ES. Original photo by Amelia Stein.
The actress is Anna Manahan as Mag. I wouldn't want to cross her, either.] 

If you replace Maureen’s “so” with “in that case” you have the exact meaning Bronwen was talking about. I hadn’t understood it fully before.

And there, ya see? This is why it’s so great to connect with writers and readers all over the place, who take language seriously and continually strive to grasp and master it! Happy times. Word nerds, unite! Talk to me about this stuff.

Before signing off, here are a couple more items from friends:

Rick Bettencourt’s latest novel:

Summerwind Magick: Making Witches of Salem by [Bettencourt, Rick]

And: Here is information, forwarded by novelist Cheryl Head, about a new GCLS Bridge Builder scholarship for women of color.

What do you think? Do you have a story to share about the finer points of vernacular word meanings? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever.
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  1. Elizabeth, I enjoyed the story of "so" and your love of precise language. I'm also delighted to see my formidable Irish cousin Anna Manahan on the cover of Martin McDonagh's book. My parents saw Anna in a play in Dublin and met her in person. I'd like to meet Anna too. I should go to Dublin so. Nancy Manahan

    1. WOW!! You and Anna are cousins? That is so incredibly cool! She's a terrific actress (I say that though I've never seen her in person) and you're a terrific writer (I say that having read your stuff)!

    2. Thank you for the compliment! I just finished Easy Street. What a terrific character Lillian Byrd is. The pacing practically took my breath away at times.

      I can hardly wait to start Left Field next week in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Becky will be doing research for her novel.

  2. One more reason I always read your blogs. Where else would I get stuff like this? Fascinating!

    1. xo, Beej. I appreciate knowing you're out there reading.

  3. As someone who grew up in the UK and has now lived in the US for many years, what I find confusing is that I have no idea whether something is vernacular until someone else points it out. So my beta readers comment on certain terms and I think, but this sounds so normal to me. Example: I racked my brains. Beta reader says, that's just plain wrong. I say, nah, that's the correct term. Turns out this is UK-speak. There are so many of these very similar but slightly different usages.

    1. Well, in my book it's "I wracked my brains." That's the correct common usage, and it's definitely an American (at least) idiom. But nowadays I'm seeing 'racked' instead of 'wracked' a lot. Like it used to be 'nerve-wracking,' but now people use 'nerve-racking,' which to me makes no sense. And the beat goes on...

    2. And actually her issue was brain vz brains. She said, but you only have one brain, how can it be brains?

    3. Oh, now I get it. Well, the plural is a frequently used expression; it's just a matter of usage. This is from Quora. Feel free to forward to stodgy friend.: [If you are referring to the organ inside the skull, that is singular: "the brain." "Brains" is an idiom that refers to intelligence, smartness. "She has brains" means she is a smart person. The word "smarts" is sometimes used the same way.]


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