The Proper Word in a Prickly Time

The Proper Word in a Prickly Time

I am in rewrite on Cyberstorm, the fifth in my Mayfield – Napolitani series. Rewrite is the process of going over a draft manuscript with a fine tooth comb looking for anything that might improve the story other than throwing the whole thing in the trash bin.

These days, people are sensitive about word choice, and there are so many ways to offend any of the many subsets of potential readers. What’s a writer to do?

From the writer’s point of view, the important question is: When should the sensitivity of today’s readers dictate a change in what would be the natural language of a character or situation? The drift seems to be in favor of sensitivity at the expense of literary voice.

The crucial issue is that context—time; place; person’s social class, education, family background; race; physical location; social setting of the scene—may well dictate language that current day would find either odd or offensive. But what if changing the offensive word(s) would weaken the writing?

I run into the problem fairly often. Here are two examples:

In my Cyberstorm, Sheriff’s deputies looking for a car ask an older woman in a somewhat run down neighborhood in south Nashville where her car is. She says, “My nephew took it off to the shop. He said somethin’ about the tranny being all … uh … messed up.”  The offending word is ‘tranny’ which the OED flags as an offensive reference to a transvestite or transgender person. Not just offensive … very offensive. But … very much in context here. Clearly, the woman’s referring to the car’s transmission, and the dialectical use is appropriate for her age and region. In this case, not much is lost by altering or removing the offending element. It’s an incidental exchange with an incidental character. I made the change to “He said somethin’ about the motor being all … uh … messed up.” A little weaker, but not a big loss.

The second one was a little more difficult. In a novel I’m writing with others, my character Louise Napolitani shows up for a job. Weezy presents her ID at a guard station and “(s)hortly, a woman dressed in an upscale business casual blouse, slacks, and low-heeled pumps emerged from the elevator in back of the guard station. Her dark brown hair was shot through with gray, and she had the figure of a person who, as Weezy’s mom would say approvingly, took care of herself.” The offensive word here was “figure.” A critique partner flagged it as demeaning and suggested ‘physique.’ Weezy’s mom would be in her early sixties, brought up in North Boston, aspiring to be socially correct. The suggested substitute sounded odd to put in the mouth of this character, so I kept ‘figure.’

There’s rarely a clear right and wrong with these word issues. Publishers are now often providing sensitivity readers to smooth the potential micro or macro offenses. I hope our current cultural focus on how things are said will moderate to an appreciation of literary voice.

2 thoughts on “The Proper Word in a Prickly Time

  1. Great discussion, John. I remember the word tranny in our MWG. I had never heard the term before, either in reference to a transmission or a transgender person. But appparently it is a derogatory term. Instead of “motor,” consider “transmission.” It’s a little more specific than motor and might give the reader a better picture. I too would have left the word “figure” in.
    While I’ve got you attention, how did you manage to do the authentication of your domain for you newsletter emails? I’ve been working on this and I’m so frustrated I’m pulling my hair out. Any wors of advice you can impart?
    John Harrigan

  2. I couldn’t agree more, John. We as a culture are rapidly losing our sense of humor along with our perspective. They’re only words in a made-up story that’s meant to entertain. Not some diatribe, rant, or subversive campaign to denigrate and belittle a particular minority.

    I’m all for any sort of minority or group that’s discriminated against standing up for itself and demanding respect. But the truth is, the world is full of prejudicial people, haters, people who feel threatened by change, and those who live in small, homogenous communities who never deal with people different from themselves in a meaningful way. They use words without thinking they’re offending anyone because no one is around to be offended. Does that make them bad, hateful people? I don’t think so. At least not because of what they say. Actions are far more important than words.

    Writers shouldn’t be penalized or censured for portraying “real people” in the sense that there are bigots, racists, sexists, etc. in the world. There will always be those people, and to change our stories to pretend they don’t exist is to deny reality.

    Chris Norbury

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