Tuesday, June 03, 2014

On American characters and British (or South African) usage

If you read the previous Detectives Beyond Borders post, you know I nearly exhausted myself coming up with superlatives for Mike Nicol's novel Black Heart. "If you like your thrillers drum-head tight, sharply observed, with a keen satirical edge, thoroughly entertaining even as they offer serious commentary on the countries of their setting," I wrote, "you want to read Mike Nicol."

I loved the whole book, in fact, except for three words:
"‘We’re not doing a runner, Vee.'"
The trouble with doing a runner is that the speaker is American, and so is the character to whom he is speaking, and doing a runner is simply not American English. The Oxford Dictionaries and Merriam Webster Web sites define it as British, and my experience with the word suggests this is correct (though the expression has spread to Australia and Nicol's South Africa, among others).

If you're American or Canadian, would one American character's use of doing a runner to another bother you? If you're South African or British, would "skipping town" or "taking off" have made you scratch your head? How faithful must an author be to language his characters would use in real life?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

13 Comments:

Blogger RT said...

Authors who attempt jargon and slang of different nationalities need to tread carefully now that books are marketed internationally. Perhaps when an authors concerned themselves only with their homeland markets, they could be less careful. Of course, editors should be even more careful than the authors. So, do not blame the author in this case. The editor(s) dropped the ball.

June 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect that "do a runner" was transparent, so everyday a term to the author that it did not occur to him the term would sound odd on an American's tongue. (Though I suppose there's a chance the desire for a casual tone and a term his readers would recognize immediately trumped considerations of geolinguistic accuracy.)

If America and American characters played a bigger role, I'd say more research on U.S. vernacular would have been called for.

June 03, 2014  
Blogger Rick Ollerman said...

If it happened just that once, I'd say to myself the author goofed and moved on. If he did it throughout the book it would probably bother me, and I might have to play a mind game, like deciding the character used out of country jargon as an affectation.

On the other hand, if multiple characters did it throughout the book--it would bother me. Those become the literary rocks in the shoe.

June 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, it was just the once. That's why I felt a bit of trepidation putting up this post. The use was a tiny, isolated misstep in a superb book.

One odd thing: The author has has a South African character use the term doing a runner when quizzing the two American characters about their intentions. Perhaps he did not want to clog the book with too much slang.

June 03, 2014  
OpenID melhealy said...

Some good points in the post and comments. Re your point in the final paragraph about how a British or South African person might react to "skipping town" and so on, maybe the problem is much more complex and it's not simply a question of one problem phrase mirroring another.

It can sometimes be very much one-way ("I understand your phrase but you don't understand mine"), and maybe that has something to do with the flow of media products such as movies, TV shows and books.

For example, in Ireland we'd be well used to both American and British phrases such as "doing a runner" or "skipping town". But the converse isn't true: Americans and even many British people only a hundred miles away from Dublin would be completely lost when confronted by many common Hiberno-English terms.

June 04, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

Considering how intertwined Anglo and American culture has become, the odd misstep in language seems inevitable, much more so than, say, 30 or 40 years ago. Lee Child's Reacher books always have feature one or two Anglicisms (punters, wrinklies), but the worst I've ever come across is John Connolly, an Irish writer who writes a detective series set in the US. I tried reading Connolly's The White Road, but his errors in slang and culture were so frequent and ridiculous I had to give up on the book. It was as though his experience of the US had come entirely through CNN. The low point was when he described a group of rednecks sitting around a bar in the Deep South watching a "classic" NHL game on the bar's TV. Uh huh. And I guess gaffers in Ireland sit around pubs watching "classic" CFL games.

June 04, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For example, in Ireland we'd be well used to both American and British phrases such as "doing a runner" or "skipping town". But the converse isn't true: Americans and even many British people only a hundred miles away from Dublin would be completely lost when confronted by many common Hiberno-English terms.

Mel: Right you are. Seems tombe an author in such a situation has at least two alternatives: Use an expression that transcends cultural boundaries, as far as such a thing as possible ("flee" might serve in this case), or else use colloquial speech or slang appropriate to the speaker's background, while making damn sure context will make the meaning clear for readers who might be unfamiliar with the words or phrases in question. Nicol did lots of the latter to good effect in this book and also in his new novel Of Cops and Robbers.

June 04, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, though intertwining of cultures might also make readers in one country more familiar with colloquial language from another, no? Or maybe linguistic affiliations merely realign themselves. I mentioned American and Canadian side by side in the post. A few decades ago, when the brand of English spoken in Montreal was more saturated with British English, I might not have done so.

I wonder if the Connolly glitches to which you allude occur in books earlier in his career. I think he spends lots of time in
the U.S. these days, so he may have become more familiar with American speech than he once was.

I can well imagine an author wringing some comedy out of rednecks watching "classic" NHL games. Not so many years ago the Stanley Cup spend successive seasons in Florida and North Carolina.

June 04, 2014  
Blogger Liam Sweeny said...

I think that, if it specifically occurs in one character, it can easily pass an American audience, one not knowing it means something in British English. America isn't just broken up into regional dialects or sayings. Even among groups of friends, or people from the same social network, words that mean absolutely nothing in any language come into play, only defined by context. If you think of words used to describe something illicit, like marijuana, you can see words like "headies" or "moint", which mean something only to a small group of people. "Moint" is only known by five people, but could, in context, be relayed as "sticky".

"Doing a runner" if used by one character, would likely be seen as something the character, or their group, made up themselves. As long as the context can interpret the word.

Of course, a reader who knows the origin of "do a runner" won't be fooled.

June 06, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Liam, yes, context can provide the meaning for words or expressions the reader might not otherwise now. Nicol's writing is full of this, and I enjoy it immensely. (And, who knows? Maybe he invented a term or two just for fun.)

Context in this case would have provided ample definition of "doing a runner" for readers who would not otherwise know the term. And a reader for whom "doing a runner" is so thoroughly part of his or vocabulary as to be devoid of any particular cultural or national associations might not be bothered by it. It's people like me, who know the expression is British for whom it sounds wrong coming from an American.

June 06, 2014  
Blogger Pamela Hermes said...

Not to put too fine a point on it (ahem), but "a runner" actually is common US usage. Perhaps you guys are a little too highbrow to know the phrase , but it means eating or drinking in a place and skipping without paying. It could easily be extrapolated to mean skipping town. It was even used on Bones once when Booth convinced Brennan to leave the bar without paying (of course they show him leaving the money when her back is turned). Meant to show her as more human/fallible, but just reinforced his cliche, I think.

June 21, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. I wonder if runner in the sense in question is a new or a regional U.S. usage. Merriam Webster, for instance, lists sixteen meanings and sub-meanings for runner, none of them that one.

I have just checked, and Oxford and Merriam Webster--one British source, one American--still define "do a runner" as chiefly British, so the contention that it's common U.S. usage is puzzling. Perhaps it's common in certain parts of the U.S., or among Anglophiles and other highbrows.

In any case, Black Heart is a fine novel and very much worth reading.

June 21, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am sitting in a bar as I write this, and I've just asked the bartender if he knew the expression "do a runner." He did not. But another customer at the bar overheard me and said, "That's British." You just may be part of a circle in which the expression is common--a possibility that would be of sociolinguistic interst.

June 21, 2014  

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