There are words and phrases that become so much a part of us, we don’t realize how special they are when we use them. When I sit down to write, most of the time I don’t have to consciously think about what a character’s voice sounds like. I don’t mean what the timbre of their voice is but more what their cadence and rhythm feels like, where their pauses and accentuations fall. What common phrases they use, nicknames they give people, insults they dole out. For example, some characters have a potty mouth. Others rarely curse–like Owen Campbell. If he swears, you’d best sit up and pay attention because there’s strong emotion behind whatever it is the man is saying.
Those little subtle nuances are part of character building, and as I mentioned above it isn’t something I dwell on. The character, once developed in my head to the point that they’re ready to be put on paper, is already fleshed out insofar as what their language as a whole will be.
It didn’t strike me until fairly recently how subtly I had let some of the language elements of Appalachian culture sneak into my writing, particularly the Firefly Hollow series. That realization didn’t occur until an avid reader who has since become a friend, columnist Ike Adams, made several laughing remarks about how he’d not heard or seen a particular turn of phrase for a long time until he picked up one of my books or the other. Things like “son of a biscuit eater,” “teats on a boar hog,” and the like. Getting all “het up” is another good one that often confuses spell-check and proofreaders alike, especially if they aren’t from somewhere close to Appalachia.
So many of these sayings are part of our daily lives in ways that most of us probably don’t consider when they leave our mouths. A lot of them originate from old, old aspects of culture that aren’t common today. My grandmother Ada would often answer the query of “how are you” with “oh, fair to middlin’.” It wasn’t until I was an adult watching a biographical documentary on Johnny Cash that I learned the origin of that saying. It’s a grade of cotton, fair to middling. I imagine its use was much more common farther south than Kentucky, given that the majority of the states known for growing cotton back in those days were also farther south than Kentucky. That said, my grandmother–who was born in 1905–picked her fair share of cotton through the years. For the record, she also grew flax and processed it, turning it into spinnable fiber that could be turned into linen fabric, and I’m fairly certain there was a fair amount of sheep shearing and wool processing done, as well. I digress…
Getting your characters’ language correct and proper is important, and it can be a very subtle, tricky task even if it does flow naturally from the creative brain. It’s also a nifty way to place them in a time period or locale. I don’t always get it correct, but I do make every effort. Interestingly, even when a word is used correctly for a time period or location, some people will question that usage because it doesn’t feel appropriate to them. I was reading back through a diary written about life around the late 1800s, and I came across a phrase so modern, it jarred me. It was something kids these days use, though I can’t recall exactly what at the moment, and here it was, written down a hundred years ago. That old adage, “everything old is new again,” came to mind, and I had to laugh.
The language we use, the sayings we rattle off without even thinking, the things we call our friends and family and neighbors–good or bad–those are all gifts handed to us from the past. To be sure, they’re subtle gifts most of the time, but they are precious nonetheless.
So what about you? What are some of the phrases and sayings that you were gifted? Have you moved to a different region and been surprised by some of the things the locals say and how they say them? Were they surprised by your words? Do you have a catchphrase or two that you rely on that came from the people before you? Leave a comment, and let’s have a discussion about how awesome and surprising our language can be.