two questions of word choice

I have two questions to put to you, my faithful readers, regarding Midnight Never Come. Both are issues of word choice, but on a broad scale.

0 Responses to “two questions of word choice”

  1. tybalt_quin

    I much prefer to see some ‘proper’ French words dropped into the conversation rather than “ze”, “iz” and “leetle” being used to symbolise the French accent – probably because my officemate was French and she used to drop French words into conversation. But saying that, please don’t do what Kate Mosse did in Labyrinth when she used a French word and then had the next person translate it for the reader, e.g.

    “I would like a chou-fleur.”

    “A cauliflower? Bien sur!”

    “Of course, merci beaucoup.”

    “No – thank you.”

    I’m exaggerating only slightly.

    And I have no problem with elves, but beware pointy ear prejudice!

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t even think these characters have pointy ears. “Elf” just means “faerie,” in Elizabethan times, but I’d be co-opting it as a way of distinguishing a particular type of faerie that I don’t otherwise have a name for.

      I think the phonetic approach to the accent works semi-okay when (as in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) the overall tone is humorous. But in a serious context, it’s just distracting.

  2. mrissa

    The thing that drives me crazy about dropping foreign words in is when it just so happens that the foreign person in question can’t remember any of the words of high school French (or other language) but can remember vocabulary above and beyond. If I’m speaking French, I’m far more likely to grope for the word for “cupidity” or “alias” or “brindled” or “veldt” than for “yes” or “thank you” or “hello” or “desk,” and I don’t think I’m alone — I can say “yes” and “thank you” and “hello,” at least, in languages I don’t speak at all.

    • Marie Brennan

      I was pondering this last night as I went to bed. You’re right; if I’m speaking Japanese (or Spanish, or whatever), I can remember “hai” and “iie” a lot more readily than other words, so if I’m sticking English in, it won’t be the simple words. But, a reader is less likely to be confused by Madame Mari’s dialogue if the French words she’s dropping in are “oui,” “non,” and “certainement,” instead of “trahison” or anything more complicated. Now, it’s made easier by the close relationship between French and English, especially on the level of higher vocabulary words, but I think using terms from the first semester of high school French is a way to avoid confusing the reader.

      • mrissa

        Hmm. And is annoyed by translating thereafter — does everybody in this book speak good French? If there’s the very very occasional bit where French Character has to get a word from Francophone Character in order for Exclusively Anglophone Character to get what’s going on, that might not be as annoying to him/her — but it might.

        Or if the English-speaker had to suggest a word, but again, that could get annoying fast.

        The obvious thing is swearing — a lot of people swear in their native tongue. But having French people running around going “Mon Dieu!” and “Merde!” all the time is annoying, too, so if you do that, please switch up the swearing a little bit.

        I’m not always this obsessed with swearing. Just this week, apparently.

        • Marie Brennan

          It’s a chilly little political scene, so no swearing.

          There’s only two characters in the conversation: the Frenchwoman (speaking English) and Lune, who like any self-respecting Tudor courtier speaks French. I want the reminders of Frenchness to come often enough to stick in the reader’s head, so suggesting English words when Madame Mari falters would be too obtrusive.

          • mrissa

            Hmm, and using words that are not very translatable into English might be both confusing and obtrusive.


          • Marie Brennan

            I’ve only had three people in the poll say they don’t like it, so as long as I keep it sporadic (and I think I’m using four French words in a two-thousand-word scene, not counting Lune addressing Mari as “madame ambassadrice”), it will hopefully be okay.

  3. buymeaclue




  4. kitsunealyc

    I kinda think on both counts you should go with the old “WWSD” (what would Shakespeare do). Especially for the accent issue, which I know he had an interesting solution for people with Welsh accents, which related to word choice and some accent choices. I don’t recall what he did for french. Same with the elves thing.

    • Marie Brennan

      I suppose I could look at Henry V to see what he did with French. As for “elf,” he definitely did use the term — though he’s a part of the literary tradition that reduced them down to wee little things. But I’ve got an explanation in the story for why that is.

  5. mastergode

    I have a hard time escaping the whole Tolkien/D&D/every-other-fantasy-novel-in-existence paradigm of elves. If you make it very clear that these are not those sort of elves from the beginning, I think I’d be fine with it.

    If their place in the world is indeterminate, why not go with ‘Fay’, ‘Fey’, ‘Fae’, or something of that sort? Or am I out of line, and that means something entirely different? I don’t read much that deals with faeries, so I’m not up to date on the lingo. <grins>

    • Marie Brennan

      The reason I’m having to consider using “elf” is that I need “fae” to refer to the entire faerie race in general, including brownies, pucks, hobgoblins, dracae, and so on. But there’s a class of faeries who in analytical terms are referred to as heroic or romantic; in Ireland they’d be the sidhe, but I’m trying very hard to avoid conflating all of British Isles folklore into one mass. The only English term I can find for them is “the trooping faeries,” but a) that covers more than just the type I’m thinking of and b) it wouldn’t really work as a referent in this context. I’ve been gimping along without having a word to use for them, but I’m increasingly feeling like I need to change that.

      . . . okay, I lied. I do have one other option. There’s an Elizabethan variant of the word “elf,” which is “ouph.” But that sounds like somebody getting the wind knocked out of them.

      • mastergode

        All excellent reasons!

        Like I said, so long as you go out of your way to explain their role in the world, it should be fine if you use ‘elf’. That is, I don’t think you need to beat anyone about the head with forthright descriptions, but if you give their context and then apply the word elf to it, rather than the other way around, I think it will likely work out the way you’d like it to.

        I suppose that for people like me, it’s just a question of establishing a new paradigm.

  6. deadboxoffice

    I think using elves as a broad term for faeries is less distracting than using it for a specific type of fae. When used in the specific sense, I get more of a Monster Manual feel than when it is used to refer to all faeries.
    Perhaps something like “The Long Fae”, “The Fair Folk”, or “Barrow Walkers”. Using your own euphemism might be more appropriately evocative than making people think about Orlando Bloom.

    Good luck,


    • Marie Brennan

      Mrph. “Fair Folk” is again a generalized term, and it doesn’t singularize well — “fair fae”? And they have nothing to do with barrows, alas.

      I’m not sure there’s a truly good way out of this one. Maybe I should hunt around in Elizabethan texts that haven’t had their spelling modernized and see if they were saying “aelf” instead of “elf.” Then again, that might make it look like my novel has wandered off to Scandinavia.

  7. astres

    As a language-inept reader, if you are dropping more complex words into dialogue, include a dictionary in the back or make it very obvious from interpretation what the word means.

    I know, I’m a nightmare reader XD

    • Marie Brennan

      On a vocabulary level, French is highly recognizable. If I were tossing in Japanese I’d be much more careful, but most things are pretty obvious cognates; even “trahison” makes sense when you realize it’s “treason” as well as “betrayal.” And most of them are easier than that.

      For historical reasons, French looks the most different from English on the simplest words, rather than the most complex. Our fifty-cent words, and even a lot of our cheaper ones, come from Latin by way of Norman French. The differences show up down at basic things like “cow” and “bread.”

  8. squishymeister

    I just read A Wrinkle In Time, in which there is a whole lot of all kinds of foreign language, though it is all translated. For me, I can see it being thrown in to remind us the character is foreign, but reading words in a language I don’t know is a waste of eye movement, and if it occurs to often or for too many words in a row it takes me out of the book, as I’m just looking at nonsense and not really processing any information.

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s why I’m trying to keep it to one word here, another word a page or so later, and only a few words in the entire scene. I’m no more a fan than you are of entire sentences in a foreign language, even when I speak it. (Tolkien can keep his “A Elbereth gilthoniel” or whatever it is, frankly.)

  9. diatryma

    I read a book years ago in which every character but one had a phonetic meant-to-be-Irish accent. They thought in these accents. It was just barely comprehensible, but then I’d be hit with logic and be thrown completely out of the book.
    Besides saying ‘Bob had an accent’, I only denote them when I think it’s funny– a character named Venned in a land where B and V are very similar, so everyone calls him Benned (works better because Benned is so nice-sounding, and Venned is sort of cruel-sounding) and even though that might not stay, it’s making me happy now.
    Elves do slant Tolkien for me, though elfs is more shoemaker-style. I have no synonyms for you.

    • Marie Brennan

      I actually need the singular more than the plural, so the usage would be an occasional fae identified as “elfin” or “an elf.”

      • diatryma

        Stupid words, having meaning and connotations. Weirdly, ‘elf’ or ‘Elf’ doesn’t ping the Tolkien in me– apparently, Tolkien wrote Elves, not elf-plurals. I’m still getting shoemaker from it, but now I’m also overthinking and the words are quickly drained of their meaning.
        Words are *weird*.

  10. markdf

    In terms of the elf terminology, I think it depends on your motivation: do you want to be absolutely true to history/folklore (and probably only please a few knowlegeable folks) or do you want to use a word that conjures the right image for your general reader?

    For my work, I used Celtic mythology as a base. But, my sidhe have sort of wings (not strictly “true”), and I am more likely to refer to them as “Dananns” and “fairies.” I also have elves–which I do call elves because of their Teutonic connections–which do not have wings and are human-size (they are more “true” in that the Norse Vanir were similar to Tolkien’s “elves”).

    Alf? It’s more Germanic for what I think you’re going, but a possibility? Ultimately, I think you should go with your gut with respect to what you feel works and the reader will get (you’re not likely to have many upset Elizabetheans if you go a different route!).

    • Marie Brennan

      The issue is the lack of alternatives. I wouldn’t use “ouph,” even though it’s period, because who would recognize it? But the midlands of England are a dead zone for surviving information on faerie folklore, so I have to put way more thought into my word choice than I would if the novel were set along the Scottish border. “Elf” is recognizable and period, and judging by the poll results, it doesn’t upset too many people.

  11. strangerian

    On the French, I’d suggest using some of those ten-dollar words that look a lot like the English near-equivalents, which even a nearly-complete English-speaker wouldn’t have learned well in English for exactly that reason. Another alternative is to use English vocabulary with a French mindset — making it clear that that speaker *thinks* in French by habit.

    • Marie Brennan

      If I spoke French, I would go that latter course. But with my linguistic skill-set, the best I could hope for is Madame Mari sounding Spanish.

  12. Anonymous

    This seriously sucks, and I hope you at the very least get the bike back so the scum who has it now won’t benefit. But I also want to thank you for the excellent advice, and add a bit of my own to it.

    1) If you have important documents that you don’t use very often (titles, deeds, insurance, passports, foreign currency for the next time you go to Canada…), get a safety deposit box. I’m paying $35/year for one, and I’m highly unlikely to ever fill it up.

    If you have a safety deposit box, get the crucial files from your computer backed up, and put the backup in the box. Ideally, get into a habit of doing this weekly.

    If you don’t have said box or don’t want the trouble of trekking to the bank once a week, get an online backup solution like CrashPlan. If you don’t have high speed internet, back the files up to a CD or DVD or even a USB stick. Point is, *back them up*. Those electronic receipts you’ve been carefully keeping of all your purchases? Not much help to you if one of the stolen items is the computer the receipts were stored on.

  13. Anonymous

    Oh yes, absolutely. Thanks for putting it into words.

    I tend to experience music as architecture, especially music in parts, and it helps me remember it for singing because I know the shape it makes. Too bad I can’t use that as a mnemonic device, like people who have a memory building; obviously that’s not the way my memory works, just the way my perception works.

    I do think of it as mild synaesthesia, as I also perceive individual sounds (especially notes I sing) as something not entirely unlike colour and/or flavour.

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  15. Anonymous

    Re: Georgette Heyer

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