Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Zarf is a Noun; Google is a Verb

Lately, thanks (or curses) to one of my kids, I've taken up playing Words With Friends. People think that because I write books, I must have a massive vocabulary. Not so. I write contemporary commercial fiction, which is what I read. I like characters to sound like the people I hear every day, and I don't want to interrupt them and say, "What does that word mean?" Likewise, I don't like stopping the flow of a story to look up a word.

On a side note to the latter, if I'm reading on my NOOK, it's not as big a problem because if I touch the word, I get a pop-up menu that will display the definition. But if I'm confident I understand the context, I don't bother.

A lot of times, when playing Words With Friends, I'll toss letters on the screen and see if they're accepted. Sometimes they are, which usually surprises me.

If you're reading an historical, the language will be different from a contemporary romantic suspense, or a fantasy novel. How many Americans do you know living today who use the words mayhap, whilst, thee or thou? I was reading a book recently set in the Golden Age in New York, and the vocabulary would never work in a contemporary action-adventure. I looked up a lot of words since I was reading it on my NOOK.

Recently, while looking for a Words With Friends word to take advantage of a triple letter/double word score using my 10 point Z, I (laughing to myself at how ridiculous it seemed) stuck zarf on the board. To my surprise, the word went through, so of course I had to go look it up. Anyone here know what it means? I'll guess most of you have experience with it in some form or another. But no, I'm not going to define it here. If you're reading this on your computer, you have access to a dictionary program.

As language evolves, it's important for characters to use the right vocabulary for the time, and equally important, their age/social status/education level. Once, early on when my writing was more me on the page than my characters, I'd locked a teen-aged boy in a dark basement and had him searching for a method of egress. Not only that, but he was walking transects of the room as he searched. Definitely not a typical teenagers vocabulary, and even though it was in narrative, it needed to be the kid's thoughts, not mine.

Slang is something else to deal with. If your characters use current slang, firstly it has to be accurate, and secondly it's likely to be out of date before your book has been published. Have you heard anyone say groovy lately? And somewhere along the line when my kids were in middle and high school, bad meant good.

Brand names have become part of our generic vocabulary (although as writers, we need to know which ones are trademarked). Did you know Dumpster is a trademark (Dempsey Dumpster), and if you're using it in your writing, it has to be capitalized? Likewise, Kindle is coming to mean any e-book reading device, which I'm sure pleases Amazon to no end, yet must irritate the heck out of Barnes & Noble, Sony, and all the others. If your character has a NOOK, don't call it a Kindle.

Technology has created an almost light-speed shift in vocabulary. If I ask my father what Google means, he'll say "Barney Google with the Goo-Goo-Googly eyes." On the other hand, not long ago, my mother (who's old enough to be my mother, mind you) sent me an email with a reference to something, and said, "You can Google it."

I learned to type on an old manual upright machine. We still call "typing" anything we do on a keyboard, although I did have a temp job once where my supervisor handed me a document and asked me to "key it in." I confess that although I knew how to use a computer and word processor by then, I didn't know what she meant. And we still "dial" phones, even though the rotary phone is virtually obsolete (my brother has one, so I can't say they're extinct).

What new technology words have you included in your vocabulary? When you run across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up? If so, are you likely to use it? What old words are you using even though their meanings have changed?


Terry is the author of the popular Pine Hills Police Series and the Blackthorne, Inc. Series. You can find out more about them, as well as her stand-alone romantic suspense novels HERE.  Her newest release, Nowhere to Hide, can be found here.  You can find her at her Web site. If you've followed her blog (or want to start!), note that it's moved and is now HERE. You can follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

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  1. Thanks for this helpful post, Terry. I did not know that Kindle was becoming almost a generic name for any reading device. It is important that we stay mindful of what are trademarked items. I cringe everytime I read a book and the author has a character reach for a kleenex. That should be Kleenex, or tissue.

    And it is interesting you mentioned Dumpster. I once worked with a new editor who tried to tell me that it did not have to be capitalized in my book.

  2. One of my pet peeves is old farts who write books for young people and are clueless about modern slang. Who says "none of your beeswax" today? Certainly not a cool tween. On the flip side, I've heard very young people use the expression "turn the table" and most adults don't even know what that really means! It's all darn-near interesting. :)

  3. Like Dumpster, Laundromat is also a proper noun. Always seems weird to capitalize these words though!

    This post made me realize why I thought it so odd that a stranger who just connected with me on LinkedIn was offering a "Typing Service." It truly is an aging notion! Thanks to the delete key anyone can type these days.

  4. Maryann - I learned a lot when my first publisher insisted we verify every single brand name (and even the ones we made up, because sometimes we made up trademarked names without knowing it).

  5. Oh, and vocabulary specific to an industry - that really changes fast! I'm always amused when one company I work for talks about "working in silos" even as I gaze out my window and see real farm silos. Two completely different meanings! :D

  6. Dani - I generally check with my kids for things like music or expressions. Not having any close contacts between the ages of 4 and 35 means I have to make a conscious effort to do my homework.

  7. Kathryn - didn't know about Laundromat (but I don't think I've been near one in years, and now you're going to make me go check in Nowhere to Hide where Kelli stops to do laundry while they're on the road. And that one went through two publishers, each with its own editorial process, so you've got me curious.

    I will always be typing when I sit at my keyboard--but yes, the vocabulary will change, and someday someone will take a job and be told to type something and won't know what her boss is talking about!

  8. Yes, even 15 years ago my kids took "keyboarding" in elementary school, not typing.

  9. I do stop to look up words, especially if I'm on the computer. It's so easy and it's nice to learn new words.

    Does anyone ever get sued for typing dumpster instead of Dumpster? I sort of doubt it, although not making a fuss over the mistake tends to hurt their trademark.

  10. Helen - yes, having the lookup function on my Nook is great. I don't read on my computer, but I can see how that feature is helpful there. I doubt the Dempsey Dumpster people would create a furor over a lower case use of their product, but it's still "wrong" to use the term generically.

  11. Somewhere (probably still packed) I have a book that lists registered and trademarked names, and I've found proper noun dictionaries available online. Both are good resources when we write because so many names have become common usage (Kleenex® rather than tissue, for example). Regarding Laundromat, Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, states that laundromat (not capitalized) was a former service mark for automatic washers. Apparently, the common usage has won out…or the service mark expired.

    This is an interesting post, Terry. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Linda, there's an on line website for researching trademarks, and once you get the hang of where to search (and if your publisher demands it, they'll tell you!), it's relatively easy to make sure you've got things right. If I find the site, I can come back and post it later.

  13. OK -- just in case anyone here is or thinks they might be interested someday, here's the link to TESS, which is the trademark database site.


  14. Even if the context gives me an idea of the meaning of an unfamiliar word, I still look it up. We have three dictionaries in the front room, not counting the various foreign language versions. ;)

  15. Silfert - good for you. I'm amazingly lazy about things like that. And it seems, the older I get, the fewer new words stick with me. However, I doubt I'll forget Zarf.

  16. Around here, we use the dictionary so much, we named it Dick. LOL. Here's an interesting link to defunct trademarks, too. http://www.rinkworks.com/words/eponyms.shtml

  17. Wow, this is a great discussion. Thanks for those links, Terry and Dani. It really is important for us to use trademarked product names properly. We may not get sued, but every time we do it wrong, we perpetuate the mistake. A new writer might say, Oh, she didn't capitalize Dumpster, so I don't have to. Which is probably what happened with that editor I worked with. She was relying on general usage.

  18. Dani - thanks for that link. I love it when people share cool stuff.

    Maryann - definitely a good discussion. I think we owe it to our readers to be as accurate as possible, even down to knowing what's a trademark and what's generic.

  19. I keep learning more and more including the word "generification" which spell check doesn't like. This wiki about generic trademarks is really fascinating. I kept trying to remember what I'd read about a Kleenex court ruling and this hits on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generic_trademark So, based on this, I'm thinking lower case kleenex would be correct in a novel. Let the conversation continue - we might have to do a follow-up post! Terry, you get dibs, if you want to continue on the front page.

  20. If I can't get it in context, I look a word up. I did look up zarf. And, while we have most of the latest and greatest technology in our house...I do still have one rotary phone. My nineteen year old daughter though, doesn't know how to use it.

  21. Dani - I'd love to have fun with some follow up.

    Liza - my brother still has one rotary phone, too. A neighborhood child wanted to know if she could play on their swing set and he told her she'd have to call her mom for permission. She came back out and said, "I don't know how to do it."

    Meanwhile, my grandson has been iPad savvy since before he turned 3.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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