I Go Virally (to the tune of “Aura Lee”

Whether there is such a thing as a written dialect in the strict sense of the term has to interest writers of fiction, because language differences set people apart more than anything–politics or religion or geographic distance.  Language as a tool of characterization weighs even heavier in novels and short stories than it does in drama.

I suppose headline-talk may be taken as a variety of written dialect, its own very peculiar language.  It connects to the general topic of fiction writing only because headline cliches seep into speech and using them in fiction is a good way to establish the era in which the story takes place.  When I was trolling Yahoo news headline the other day, looking for newspeak, I discovered that we are in the “adorable” era, at least in the world of Yahoo.  Babies and small animals are always adorable as are female celebrities sporting “baby bumps,” an expression that makes me grateful to be past the age of bumping babies out.  “Iconic” and “going viral” could be erased from the language with no loss, but they too are signals of the times.

Wars are now conducted by means of stale cliches (as opposed to fresh ones like going viral).  I noticed, for instance, that someone or something was “on the front lines” of the war against ISIS.  It used to be that each war generated its own jargon, but Yahoo seems stuck in World War I.  The great German novel of that war had a title that could have been translated as “Nothing New in the West,” but that would have lacked the punch of “All Quiet on the Western Front.”  The idea of front lines made sense in the western theater of WWI, but was already nonsense by 1940 and is certainly so today.  A military term that has been cut loose and wanders pitifully in newspeech is “to take by storm.”  A successful ad campaign can take a whole country by storm these days.

Not all newspeak cliches derive from military usage.  My favorite is “event.”  Our neighborhood grocery store had not just a sale of wine but a “wine event” last week.  And President Obama and the Dalai Lama are apparently scheduled for a “prayer event,” meaning a prayer breakfast, which is an odd enough idea in itself.  I was raised to think in terms of prayer and fasting, but we now have prayer and sausage.

However obnoxious, these examples of news dialect will serve to set a story firmly in our time, as authors writing historical novels collect terms that first popped up in the middle ages or Shakespeare’s day or the Regency for their works.

Re-reading Patrick O’Brian over the past month has led me to marvel at his use of dialects and especially the peculiar dialect called a jargon–in his case nautical speech.  Belay the mizzen there, lubber.  I’m bound to say I think he overdoes it, especially in Master and Commander, but he has the huge task of transporting readers from their recliners to the deck of a three-masted vessel full of English sailors in mid-ocean, as like as not in a storm.  I feel a bit seasick at the beginning of each lump of nautical jargon but nothing less would take me there so virally.

Newspeak ransacks jargons in its search for headline lingo.  The obvious one is medicalese with business/economics a close second.  Film-making contributes a surprising number of technical terms like “segue,” but let us “cut to the chase.”  Most fiction writers consider regional speech usage when drawing characters.  Mystery writers like Margaret Maron are masters of regional dialect, suggesting it without sinking into it too far for the general reader to follow.  Most mystery writers also master the basic jargon of policework.  Jargons and timely phrases can help set character as well as place and time–excuse enough to collect them.




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