Archive for July, 2016


July 26, 2016

I seem to have appointed myself as a linguistic critic of English-language novels, an activity that I have decided to call ling-crit.

It started with a discussion of what I called yanking, the Americanization of the vocabulary of British mystery novelists. It went on to pointing out inadvertent Americanisms in the set-in-Britain novels of Elizabeth George (which in general are meant to use British vocabulary and spelling). From there it went to examining the peculiar difficulties that English-language writers have with rendering Hispanic culture (the Spanish language itself, naming customs, and so on) realistically, starting (once again) with Elizabeth George and going on to others.

I have just read James Lee Burke’s latest novel, The House of the Rising Sun. Its main character is named Hackberry Holland, but, though Wikipedia lists the book in the Hackberry Holland series, he doesn’t seem to be the same character as in the other books in the series, but perhaps his grandfather or great-grandfather. This book’s action takes place between 1891 and around 1920, and Hackberry is not a young man even then.

There is a fair amount of Spanish dialogue, the action taking place mostly in Texas and Mexico, and all in all the Spanish is not bad; either Burke knows Spanish or a competent editor’s hand was involved.

What did strike me is the surprising number of linguistic anachronisms in English, surprising for a writer who is almost my age and who has taught creative writing. Here is a sampling:

  • A house in Mexico, observed in 1916, is called Victorian. Even an American observing such a house wouldn’t call it that at the time. According to Google Ngrams, “Victorian house” doesn’t show any use before 1927.
  • In 1916 there is a reference to Gauguin. The chances of a lifelong Texan being acquainted with the artist at the time are infinitesimal.
  • In 1891 we find normalcy. As is well known, the word was not used in American English until Warren Harding did so in 1920.
  • There is a reference to flak in 1915, a word that was coined (in German) in the 1930s.
  • Sometime around 1920 we find Malaysian, which of course should have been Malayan; Malaysia did not exist before 1963.

What has happened to the art — if it ever was there — of copy-editing?


No more yankin’ Rankin!

July 16, 2016

I have just read Ian Rankin’s latest novel featuring John Rebus and Malcolm Fox, Even the Wild Dogs, in its American edition (by Little Brown), and as far as I could tell it was indistinguishable from the British original. Not only was there no Americanization of the vocabulary — Briticisms like ‘pavement’ (for ‘sidewalk’) and ‘tannoyed’ (‘announced on the PA system’) and Scoticisms like ‘haar’ and  ‘bothy’ were left intact — but even the spelling and punctuation were not tampered with. It’s high time!

Now I wonder if William Morrow will treat the new Alan Banks novel by Peter Robinson, When the Music’s Over, with similar respect. Or will it turn out that Morrow yanks Banks?

No cure for… oops!

July 9, 2016

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am an enthusiastic follower of the Harry Bosch novels of Michael Connelly and the Banks novels of Peter Robinson. Both writers have new entries in the series coming out later this year, and I am awaiting them eagerly.

While waiting, I came across a recently republished non-Banks novel by Robinson, originally published (in Canada) in 1995 and titled No Cure for Love. The new edition features a foreword by Connelly, largely devoted to praise of the authenticity of Robinson’s writing. Coming from Connelly in reference to Los Angeles (where the novel’s action largely takes place) this is high praise indeed. (At this point I will charitably abstain from commenting on Connelly’s forays into Spanish.)

As I  began reading the book, I quickly came to a passage referring to an “article in TV Guide that mentioned she  [the novel’s non-detective protagonist, a Yorkshire lass turned Hollywood television star] lived in Malibu. Which wasn’t quite true. Strictly speaking, the house was in Pacific Palisades, close to the Los Angeles city limits…”

Wait a minute, I said to myself. Malibu is a good fifteen miles from Pacific Palisades, with Topanga Beach in between, and I can’t imagine that a journalist who is probably based in Los Angeles would ever confuse the two. And what does “close to the Los Angeles city limits” mean? Pacific Palisades is within the LA city limits. Of course,  the house could be within LA and near the city limits, but that would put in the Getty Villa area, where there are no private houses with beach access.

As I got into the book, the plot took over my attention and I stopped paying mind to geography. I focused on dialogue instead. Connelly, after all, attributed to Robinson “a snare-trap ear for dialogue.”

I have written before about Ian Rankin’s Briticisms creeping into the dialogue of Americans in one of his novels. But I expected Peter Robinson, who by 1995 had been living in Toronto for some twenty years, to have no trouble with North American English. And yet:

“Now she was…,” “Now she had…” (for ‘now that’).

“A rasher of bacon” (for ‘slice’).

“Carry on!” (for ‘go ahead’)

“Have done!” (for ‘I have‘)

All of these are spoken or thought by Americans.

Oh, well…

Ham or um?

July 6, 2016

Yesterday I was in downtown Berkeley. As I walked past the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I saw that one of the plays to be produced in the upcoming season was “in association with… Birmingham Repertory Theatre.” As I was reading the information to myself, I got stuck: is it Birming-ham, as in Alabama, or Birming-um, as in England?

A quick check with Google revealed that the only known Birmingham Rep is in England. Birmingham (Alabama) does have some theaters, but not a rep.

But how would someone know without recourse to Google?