On pop, soda, and rabies
A few days ago, I took aim at an old piece by Stephen Henighan, which proposed that the disappearance of Canadian spelling was evidence of a culture in decline. Is spelling an important token of our culture, asked I? Does it matter? Do we not have more important fish to fry?
We do, as shown by Russell Smith in the Globe, who asks if Canadian writers should de-Canuckify their settings to make their books palatable to an American (and international) audience. And this leads quickly to a related question: should we de-Canuckify our language? And by doing so, are we treating our readers like infants?
This question has to be close to Smith’s heart, given that he’s a novelist of our urban present in a (supposed) nation of novelists of a sepia-toned past. If you take our time and place for your setting, then one of the things that you do, whether you intend to or not, is to record our culture as it stands. Mordecai Richler once said that a novelist is obligated to be an honest witness to his time and place. At some level, if you address the present, you address the way we live and the way we talk.
I confess, therefore, to a certain amount of irritation when I read a Canadian writer who, for example, uses “soda” for what we in Canada generally call pop — if by “a certain amount of irritation” you mean, as I do, an irrational, slavering rage in which I rend pages from the book’s very heart with my savage teeth as strong men quail before me and rabid dogs flee in terror.
Are we really to believe that American readers will be confused by the word “pop?” We shouldn’t be, as the best data available on the subject suggest that “soda” is not, in fact, the “American” idiom, but is instead the New York and California idiom.
(Yes, this is the kind of thing I spend my spare time worrying about. Why do you ask?)
Which leads us to a question of how culture is defined. Given that most of the “cultural” output of the United States — most of the books, most of the movies, most of the television, and all of the issues of The New Yorker — originate from New York and California, this serves to illustrate the point. Our popular notion of American usage is more often and not shaped by those movies, TV shows, and books.
Which suggests, in turn, the importance of cleaving to Richler’s dictum, of being honest witness to your time and place.
If you don’t, there’s the risk that I’ll bite you in the leg.