Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Crimefest 2013: Youth serves, plus a question

As I prepare to his the road for Crimefest 2013, here's the last in a series of posts about past Crimefests or authors I met there. Today's featured author is the still-yourthful Chris Ewan.
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Before I get back to Len Tyler's The Herring-Seller's Apprentice, one last remark about Chris Ewan's The Good Thief's Guide to Paris, specifically, this bit of description toward the novel's end:
"The sky looked bleached, as though the colour had been drained from it. Shreds of cloud were being reflected over and over again in the windows of the arch; like a desktop image that had been endlessly repeated on a stack of computer monitors." (Emphasis mine.)

Elsewhere, Ewan uses impact as a verb a time or two without driving me nuts.

Why mention this? And what connection do the image and the impact have? Just this: I don't think an author much older than Ewan would have come up with the first or pulled off the second. Ewan is in his early thirties, according to his Web site, which means he's probably been around computers most of his life. They likely are a greater part of that stock of images, memories and concepts that form his world view, the familiar for which he reaches when he wants to describe something unfamiliar, than they would be for someone only a few years older.

Similarly, impact as a verb in the hands of younger writers like Ewan may be evolving from the horrible tool of obfuscation and self-importance that businessmen and politicians make of it into a more neutral synonym for affect. It may not be my favorite verb in English's rich lexicon, but it feels pretty natural in this book.
What quirks of style or vocabulary mark a writer as a member of a given age group or generation?
© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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24 Comments:

Blogger seanag said...

Well, I'll answer your question with another question:

Why do these new uses of a word bug us so much? Why do we care if a word shifts from being a noun to a verb? I mean, it's not like we don't understand the meaning of the sentence. (I'm with you on 'impact' as a verb, by the way--I just don't know why.)

I think part of it is just thinking that the word in question is being used incorrectly, but I also think that the way that it spreads, sometimes 'virally', is also part of it.

And I think another thing that's odd about all this is that many people who take great enjoyment in words as such, and new inventions of words, are the very ones who deride variant, possibly aberrant, uses of old words. So go figure.

June 18, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

For one thing, these are not natural and gradual changes of usage. And every time the semi-educated -- those with enough schooling to have heard a word but not enough schooling or enough wit to understand its proper meaning -- foists one of these on us, and it only takes the utterance of one half-baked television reporter to have these things spreading like wildfire through the internet -- remember 'if you will'? 'per se'? -- we lose one, usually two words. 'Impact' in this case kicks out 'affect', and we also lose the proper meaning of 'impact' as a transitive verb, meaning to press or fix firmly. Misuse of 'alternate' for 'alternately' lost us the latter nigh on altogether and also the true meaning of the former. I do not mind the creation of new words if, of course, they are sensible coinages that meet a need, but I do object to having the vocabulary of our language diminished and the confusion of ambiguity inherent in this sort of abuse spread wide by dimwits who likely consider themselves veritable wordsmiths.

June 18, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Philip, I hope you understand that I'm playing devil's advocate here, but what's 'natural', and why does 'gradual' make any difference?

June 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'll answer this one gradually. Notice that my comment mentioned politicians' and businessmen's use of "impact" as a verb. Behind this lies my resentment of tendentious, deceptive language. I always suspected anyone who used "impact" as a verb of puffery, self-importance, and of concealing a small matter behind a big word. My point is that Ewan does not use the word that way at all. (I once heard a top editor at my newspaper use "impact" as a verb. That marked an epoch in my loss of respect for management. The man was -- or probably thought he was -- a journalist, the last person who should be using such language.)

Philip criticized odd inventions as "not natural." I agree, in part for the reasons I've just cited. But notice that I said Ewan's use of the word felt "pretty natural." Such neutral, non-tendentious use of the word may mark a stage in its passage from grating vogue word to unexceptionable synonym for "affect." It may take its place alongside "affect" without replacing it. I'll probably never use it as a verb myself, but uses like Ewan's will bother me a lot less than uses I'd seen previously.

June 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, my current bete noire is "roll out." Why do companies "roll out" products these days rather than just introducing them?

Why not? Because marketing managers think "roll out" sounds exciting. It depresses me to no end to see business journalists get caught up in the excitement and use the term themselves, just as it depresses me to see political reporters slip into Washington jargon and call the Justice Departmen "Justice." ("In another sign of the turmoil at Justice, Alberto Gonazalez's former top assistent called him a weenie.") or to see education reporters call charter schools "charters."

June 18, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Yes, I think the grating effect of certain words comes from sensitivity to context, and then secondarily from witnessing the unreflecting adoption of them. But I do think mimicry is second nature to all of us. Sometimes I find myself 'picking up' some word or phrase I dislike, and it is so annoying.

I think, as with your qualified acceptance of 'impact', the effect wears off over time, but often never entirely goes away.

'Impact' seems to be one of the more harmless ones. Business-speak, and even worse, military-speak seem to me to be incredibly pernicious often, because there is actual power and intent behind the words.

'Impact' is a given. The one I cringe at is 'impactful'.

June 18, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

This is not ideal by any means, but there are perhaps two root causes of language change. One is imperfect acquisition, often in the process of 'education', that amounts simply to words or forms not being properly understan. In short, error. As I mentioned above, this sort of thing may be now disseminated with astonishing speed if out of the mouths of reporters, various poseurs seeking to impress, professional obfuscators stretching their vocabularies in the effort to confuse, and so on. The other is change via cognitive and social processes among adults, only later, at least ideally, reflected in what is actually taught, and this is what is natural and gradual. For example, from its first recorded usage, the past tense of 'to sneak' was 'sneaked', but a change began to appear in American usage in the late 1800s when the dialectical, demotic form 'snuck' appeared. By the 1930s this was a common jocular usage, by the 1950s increasingly common in standard speech and writing, and over the years since, largely because of its wide usage by writers of skill and sophistication, it has become standard, a gradual and natural process. Change of that sort is inevitable. One may not always like it, of course, but it does not arise from sheer error, it does not, I think, diminish, and it does confuse.

June 18, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Nice clarifications, Philip. Error seems to be the operative word here. But given that speed is, well, a given, aren't we just stuck with new jargon being 'rolled out'?

Sorry, Peter.

June 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, "impactful" is the absolute worst. "Impact" a given? I don't know. Some grating coinages never stop grating. The manager of the Pen & Pencil Club sometimes says "At this point in time" in a jocosely affected manner. I an not amused.

June 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or, Philip, that barbarous back formation, pea. Anyone who remembers the old nursery rhyme
"Pease porridge hot / Pease porridge cold / Pease porridge in a pot / Nine days old" knows that the good, old singular form is.

June 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's it, Seana. Many of the coinages and new uses seem rolled out, introduced with as much calculation as a consumer product. That does not sit wel lwith me.

June 18, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

If the author's vocabulary/style are seamless and appear to suit the context, I don't notice it as much as I do when they don't suit the context. That's good, I'm not supposed to. Historical (detective) fiction that contains contemporary (21st c.) lingo, social practices, etc. jars me out of the time period.
And as for current language that enters the mainstream... The use of IT lingo, in a non-IT context, drives me nuts. "Are we good to go?" "Data buckets" Our db used to be produced in a print version as well as online; the book was sneeringly referred to as "the brick" by our IT group.
As for current language-use pet peeves, mine is seeing everything from a donut to the Eiffel Tower with the adjective "iconic" in front of it; my husband's is the overuse (leading to trivialization) of the word "outrage."

June 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A nice irony in the overuse of "outrage" is that it's all a mistake. "Outrage" in its original meaning has nothing to do with "rage." comes from the French "oultrage," which means, roughtly, something outside of, something that crosses boundaries. That correct meaning lives in uses of "outrage" for "excess": "The gunning down of civilians is just one of the outrages committed so often during the war." For that matter, it lives on on many uses of "outrageous," as long as it's used to mean "excessive" and not merely as a meaningless intensifier.

I did not know the origin of "good to go," but that's one of my pet peeves.

As for your sneering IT group, they might well in previous lives have been auto mechanics at the dawn of the automotive age, lording over the rest of the population and thinking thet were going to rule the world.

June 18, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I think "good to go" is a military expression but I recall hearing it in NASA pre-shuttle launch jabber; maybe then it was co-opted by IT'ers (another male-dominated field). And military expressions, as well as those from sports ("raising the bar," etc.) are *good* sources of a lot of our overused and improperly used words. Some politicians sound like coaches, they use so many sports terms in their speech.

Back to style/vocab generational differences... I read a lot of 1920s-1950s crime fiction and something I've noticed is the frequent use of two nouns (ex., "bar room") for what we are more likely to see as a single noun in contemporary writing. Other time-setters are colloquialisms and slang. "Gee, that's swell!" Beginning a sentence with, "Say, ...". I know the latter seems pretty obvious but the reader cringes when period expressions are replaced with modern ones by authors who think they're writing period dialogue.

Maybe it seemed *cool* and up-to-the-minute at the time but when I read detective fiction that makes references to TV shows that aired during the time the book was written ("Who do you think you are, Jim Rockford?!") that really dates the book, but fast.

June 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Raising the bar." "Pushing the envelope." "Thinking outside the box." Just for once, I want to push the box and think outside the envelope -- precisely what people who are impressed by expressions like those don't want.

Elisabeth, here are two more examples of stylistic evolution: P.G. Wodehouse (and, I presume, other writers of his time) would often use an apostrophe in pro' (for "golf professional) or 'phone. That's perfectly understandable. These abbreviated forms were probably just working their way into common use when he wrote his earlier work. I wonder whether, if I had lived early in the last century, I'd have sniffed with disgust when bus started appearing in print for omnibus.

Thank heavens not many writers make popular-culture references as bad as your hypothetical example. Such references are sure evidence of a weak imagination and sure tickets to oblivion for a book.

June 18, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Your reference to P.G. Wodehouse made me think of American writers who try to write Brit-speak. Charles Todd (the American mother-son team who write the post-WWI Inspector Ian Rutledge novels) makes a number of language-use errors + period-inappropriate statements (one UK reader took Todd to task over the enormous amount Rutledge tipped a boy, far too much for 1920). One style element of Todd's that I find annoying is his placement of working class vocabulary in the mouths of middle class characters. Like, the use of "bloke" where "chap" would be more suitable.
Wodehouse trivia... Did you know that he and Raymond Chandler both attended Dulwich College? Chandler entered the year Woodhouse left, 1900. They both loved their time there.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

So outrage is actually related to 'ultra' not to rage, right? If so, that's quite interesting. Is it also related to outre, or not?

I think I am going to take a contrarian tack, even with my own earlier position. It seems to me that what our discussion really illustrates is what impressionable little beasts we really are, and how lively and versatile and moving--in the sense of going somewhere--language really is. It seems a good indicator of what really has a hold on the imagination of the culture, whether its IT, sports or the military, and so we all do our best to appropriate to ourselves that which will give us most prestige. It's silly, but on the other hand, I don't know that we really have any other way to proceed, do we?

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I have nothing much to add to this conversation except my heartfelt gratitude that the US Army General Officer Corps did not succeed in getting the term "attrit" into common parlance.

If you recall the early TV days of the Gulf War (the 1991 one, not the current fiasco), one of Schwarzkopf's generals did some briefings in which he shortened the noun attrition (as in, "war of") to the awful verb "attrit," meaning "wear down the opponent."

Blech. I can't tell you how pleased I am that word has not survived that war.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elizabeth, I did not know the years of their attendance, but I did know that both Wodehouse and Chandler attended Dulwich and that libraries there are named after both. Simon Brett went to Dulwich as well, as did Norman Price, who keeps the Crime Scraps blog and is understandably proud of his illustrious Dulwich predecessors (or coeval, in Simon Brett's case).

The gripe about tipping is a wonderful. I do know that Americans tip more than diners from other nations, and I'm delighted to see a writer get caught in such an apparent slip-up.

I see another connection between Chandler and Wodehouse. Chandler wrote in "The Simple Art of Murder" that there had been no classics in detective fiction, no stories better than which it is impossible to imagine anything being written. By his definition, Wodehouse is a classic. It is impossible to imagine anyone doing what he did better than Wodehouse did it.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, if I have my etymology right, "outre" and "ultra" are indeed the same word, with meanings of "outside" or "beyond."

Oh, we are impressionable little beasts, all right, with no alternative but to proceed as we do, and hope only not to behave too badly as we do so.

With respect to language, I once made up a little saying for copy editors. We copy editors, I said, should be liberal in our understanding of language, conservative in our application of its rules. With many of us, the reverse is unfortunately true.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, another former newsroom manager at my paper used "attrit" as verb frequently. He was derided in private for this by some of the members of the staff who cared about such things.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

That's a nice saying, Peter.



my v word is 'letal', which is shorthand for not lethal.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There's a scene in the movie "My Cousin Vinny" where Joe Pesci draws great laughs from the audience with his pronunciation yout' for youth. A really dangerous yout' is letal.

Yes, I am impressed by my own sententious wisdom sometimes. I've said more often, out of frustration, that I'd rather have a copy editor with no brains than who has just enough brains to know the rules but too little to understand them.

June 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"As for current language-use pet peeves, mine is seeing everything from a donut to the Eiffel Tower with the adjective "iconic" in front of it;"

Elisabeth, a memo today from a top manager mentioned the newspaper's "profile series on iconic Philadelphians." And there's something else that annoys me: When did "on" replace "of" for the preposition paired with "profile"?

June 19, 2009  

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