Someone asked me a while back if I would ever set a novel in the U.K.
I’ve been tempted. I even have the first few scenes of one on paper. (Yes, paper. You remember paper. It’s that stuff the kitten chases when you crumple it into a ball.) If I’m smart, or at least cautious, a few scenes is as far as that novel will go. Because it doesn’t take long before I/you/whatever writer we’re talking about here comes to one of those spots where British and American English branch off in different directions and chooses the wrong path.
A good copy editor could save our writer, but a good copy editor doesn’t always pop up at those forks in the road, so the writer marches bravely off in the wrong direction and ends up wandering through the wilderness. Days later, she stumbles into town, having missed a few meals and sporting twigs in her hair and mud on her clothes.
Where was the copy editor? Semi-comatose at the computer. Or firmly rooted in the wrong version of our shared language. I’ve been a copy editor. We can’t be specialists in everything. We do a bit of fact checking, but nothing guarantees that we’ll check the right facts. And a word we recognize as right? Unless we’re fully bilingual in English, we won’t stop to question it.
When you’re paid by the word, you don’t have time to ponder deeply.
So I don’t assume a copy editor can save me. Whatever version of the language I write in, I’m responsible for getting it right.
I’m not a careless listener. When I started writing fiction, I trained myself to hear not what I thought people said but what they really said. Because speech isn’t even close to the English that we’re taught is correct, and nothing sounds as phony as characters speaking in perfectly formed sentences. I used to listen to snippets of conversation and then write down as much of them as I could remember, paying attention to word choice, to unpredictable phrases, to pauses, to the ways people waited each other out and cut each other off, to run-on sentences and sentence fragments, to the genuine and glorious insanity of the spoken language.
A high point in my eavesdropping career was a conversation between a Minneapolis cop and a man—white and presumably drunk, although I couldn’t swear to that second part—who was lying on my neighbors’ front lawn. The cop was trying to persuade him to move on, and the man, by the time I started listening, was sitting up and holding a hamburger in the air like Exhibit A.
They said a few words back and forth, then the man was on his feet and heading down the street and the cop yelled after him, “I’m gonna come to your house and sit on your lawn and eat hamburgers. See how you like that.”
It was a mix of things that made this memorable. The “and…and…and” rhythm of the cop’s comment. The “see how you like that,” which made him sound like a twelve-year-old. But mostly it was the sheer craziness of a cop, with his gun and his club and the full weight of the law’s machinery on his side, threatening to sit on someone’s lawn and eat hamburgers.
I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down as much of the exchange as I could, because if I let it wait I wouldn’t believe I was remembering it accurately.
So, there’s my proof—my hamburger; my Exhibit A—that I’m not an untrained listener. Move me from Minnesota to Cornwall, though, and my carefully tuned ear goes off key. I do listen to the Britishness of British speech, and I keep a mental list of phrases I love, because even the clichés sound fresh to me. Someone says, “Oh, she’s away with the fairies,” and I laugh as if she’d invented the phrase. I’ve been hearing it for nine years now, but it still makes me picture fairies.
M. has two stock phrases that sound fresh to me, although I know she didn’t invent them: “He’s all talk and no trousers” and “she’s all frill and no knickers.”
When we bought our house, we asked a different M. to give us some advice about the garden. She showed us a broken pot with blade-like leaves growing out of it, which had been left behind.
“If you have to have these,” she said, “make sure they stay in the pot. Those,” and she pointed to some other plant, although I can’t remember what, “are invasive, but this is a thug.”
I laughed and got one of those blank looks you get when you’ve laughed at the wrong thing. She wasn’t being immensely clever. Thug is a category of plant that any gardener here recognizes—one step worse than invasive.
So yes, I listen and I appreciate and I remember. But I still hesitate to write either Cornish or more standard British dialogue. Sure, I can tuck in a phrase or two, but after that? I’d write something I think is neutral and without knowing it rely on something hopelessly American. Because it’s not the phrases you hear and remember and are delighted with that matter. It’s the ones you don’t hear. It’s the times you don’t stop to question yourself but turn out to be writing your native English instead of that other, related language.
I catch British journalists doing this when they interview Americans: “I just reached into the drinks cabinet,” they’ll have someone say. Into the what??? We don’t have drinks cabinets in the U.S. We have— Wait a minute, what do we have? Liquor cabinets? I never actually had one, so it’s not a phrase that has much life in my mind and I can’t remember what to call the damn things.
Let’s fall back on another example. A while back, I read an interview in which some American actor talked about his mum. His what? Americans have mothers and moms and mamas, but we do not, in any regional or ethnic accent I ever heard of, have mums. But it’s what the writer heard because it’s the word the writer uses. We translate without noticing.
I love running into stuff like that. It makes me feel gloriously smug. Not because I couldn’t do exactly the same thing but because this particular time I didn’t.
For a post about paying the tax on my car, I wrote about being in the post office and trying to conduct a bit of business that we couldn’t finish and couldn’t abandon and if you ever want to bring a small post office to a halt, talk to me because I know how to do now. After what seemed like forever, I was able to step aside and the woman behind the counter called out—
What the hell did she call out? At first I wrote, “Can I help the next person?” I was pretty sure that was wrong, but I left it because it got the job done.
The next day, hesitantly, I changed it to, “Can I help?” and then to “Can I help who’s next?” which is a weird phrase, and grammatically strange enough for me to believe I didn’t invent it, but I checked it with a friend anyway, and she confirmed it: That’s what the woman would have said.
So I got away with it, but I hesitate to write more that a few lines in any of the many versions of British. Because it’s not the stuff you hear that trips you up but the stuff you don’t hear. The stuff you take for granted, that your brain translates automatically. It’s the drinks cabinet. It’s the mum.