Writing a novel, it seems to me, is much like mouthing off in a near-empty bar as the night staggers to a close: it’s all fun and games up until you realize that you’re about to take a high-grade shit-kicking. That six-foot-five biker cracks his scarred knuckles and smiles, and you realize only at that unfortunate moment the wisdom of keeping your mouth shut.
This thought is prompted by the news that advance review copies of Combat Camera will soon be released into the wild, like downrange gophers at a convention of Arizona machinegun enthusiasts.
I read Mark Sampson’s novel Off Book on the flight out here, which proved to be a grave mistake; all that talk of Quinpool and Spring Garden Road had me geographically confused, and I forgot my destination. Halifax is one of my favorite cities. Instead, I descended into Edmonton. I can say little more on that subject, as I remain traumatized by the discovery of my true location.
One of the functions of fiction, I think, is to record our language as we use it. Off Book includes the phrases “fill your boots” and “the [superlative item] in NATO,” which interested me. I have always thought of these as Canadian military slang, having only encountered them there. But the gap between the language of the Maritimes and the language of Canada’s military is small, given the strong military presence in Halifax and the disproportionate contribution of Cape Breton and Newfoundland to the army’s ranks. Halifax is the only place in the country, other than the military, where I’ve encountered the word “numpty” (or “numptie”), meaning a foolish person, which is originally of Scots origin. It seems likely that this small and colourful word has spread across Canada, via the Army, thanks to Nova Scotia.
Is Cape Breton, indeed, the thought control centre of Canada?
It is certainly overrepresented in our fiction. Calculate the percentage of Cape Bretoners in the Canadian population as a whole. Then count the number of books set there. What’s up, wonders Seinfeld, with that?
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.
Several weeks back, to supplement their Grade Four studies in medieval history, I introduced my daughters to the first English-language work on sport-fishing, The Treatise of Fishing with an Angle, also known as “the treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle.”
“Wow,” said the daughter named out of Walton’s Compleat Angler, “those people sure were crazy spellers!”
“They just made it up as they went along,” I said. “They even spelled the very same words all kinds of different ways.”
And without much effort, we found the inconsistent author of the Treatise arguing that “dowteles thenne folowyth it that [the best of sports] must nedes be the dysporte of fysshynge wyth an angle. For all other manere of fysshyng is also laborous and greuous.”
“Wow,” said daughter. “That is ca-razy.”
“No it isn’t,” said I. “Verily fysshynge is the beste of dysportes.”
“Not that. I mean that he can’t even spell fysshynge!”
Oh, that. Well, spelling hadn’t been invented yet. At the time of the first printed edition of the Treatise (1496), publishing was in crisis. The Bible had been wrested from the grip of the French-speaking aristocracy and translated into English. Sir Thomas Malory, who couldn’t decide if his own name was spelled Malory, Maillorie, Mallory, Mallery, or Maleore, had just self-published a whacking great book called Le Morte d’Arthur – in English. And other people were, for the first time, writing in English on such culturally important subjects as fysshynge for dysporte – that is, anglynge, angelynge, angleyng, or the modern “angling.”
It was as if someone had suddenly invented the Internet.
All this new writing in English demanded all kinds of new words. The language exploded in scope and subtlety. This was the birth of English culture as we know it.
Someone is always ready to declare our culture mortally threatened by our inability to spell. It probably goes back to Thag the caveman, who inspected the new antelope painted on his cave wall and said, “Antlers too long. Culture doomed.” The role of Thag is played today by Geist magazine, resuscitating (on Twitter) a 2003 Stephen Henighan column arguing that the inability of Canadian writers to decide whether to spell in the American or the Canadian idiom – or even to know the difference – is evidence of a culture in decline. Canadian culture, presumably, is being assimilated into American mass culture, and spelling is the canary in our literary coal mine.
Canadian culture has always been the U.S.S. Enterprise to the U.S.A.’s Borg cube: American mass culture pursues us through space at ridiculous speeds, informing us that resistance is futile, and we will be assimilated. This particular Star Trek episode has been airing since about 1812, by my watch, and yet Canadian culture remains stubbornly distinct.
But what is this distinct culture? It most certainly is no longer the same culture of 1812, nor even the culture of the 1960s, when Canada decided that developing its very own literature would make a worthy summer project for nationalist youth. Canadian culture has changed, as any culture does, by encountering aliens and (in the Borg idiom) adding their distinctiveness to our own. Canada is never your father’s Canada.
Nor should it be. Change is the index of cultural vibrance. Art continually challenges boundaries, transforms the culture that produces it. Writing, in a vibrant culture, should expand the language, just as writing did in the late medieval period, both by adding words and ideas and by expanding the proper subjects of English writing, for the first time, to such important (and enduring) topics as fysshynge.
In that light, concerns for the consistent use of Canadian spelling conventions, conventions that are utterly arbitrary, seem a problem for newspaper copyeditors. Whether colour is color, whether licence is license (and when): these are hardly critical tokens of cultural identity. Do we not have greter fysshe to frye?
Actually, I am no longer skiving off. I was skiving off most of yesterday.
Dan Wells gave me a copy of The Idler’s Glossary, by Joshua Glenn & Mark Kingwell. From this, I can only conclude that I’m perceived not just as a crank, but as a lazy crank.
In any case, it contains wonderful words, such as skiver — a skiver being a shirker, one who dodges work, originating from British soldiers who appropriated the French verb esquiver, deliberately mispronounced it, and used it for their own depraved purposes. A lot of looting happens in war, it seems, and one of the things we loot is the dictionary.
Skiver is in common use in the UK (or was when I lived there), but one never skives; one skives off, as I did yesterday.
British English is full of such wonderful words. Yob (lout) and kip (nap) spring to mind. Everyday speech in Canada, on the other hand, suffers from a desperate poverty. It seems we never use a really interesting word when a bland one will do.
We don’t use enough words containing the letter x, for example. Consider flummox, lummox, perplex (and perplexity), and, um, banjax, for example.
The only X words in common use here, it seems, are exit, sex, and — as one would expect from a nation of hewers of wood, etc. — axe.
In Canada, one can gore someone’s ox, but one cannot flummox a lummox. One cannot banjax a banjo — or as the hip banjo player would have it, “banjax my axe.”
(As a writer of fiction, I am allowed to posit the existence of a hip banjo player. Suspend your disbelief.)
All of the best words in the English language employ the letter x, and we ignore them.
Here at Banjaxed, we fly executive class so that you won’t have to.
Well, actually, our clients won’t pay for those kinds of luxuries, so we fly cattle class like the rest of ya. But I flew back from Montreal in executive class today, by the luck of the draw, having drawn a seat up there for reasons I don’t quite comprehend, and I’m here to report on that experience, at least as it relates to language: up in those first few rows, they even speak to you differently, using the rhetoric of aren’t-you-special. And people respond differently. The whole discourse is elevated.
In economy, they say, “Would you like something to drink?”
In executive class, they say, “May I offer you something to drink?”
Yes: they ask permission to ask you if you want something to drink. You’re that special.
In economy, people say, “Could I get a ginger ale, please?”
In executive class, it’s “Orange juice would be lovely,” a turn of phrase that suggests the man sitting behind me takes orange juice far, far too seriously. Or, “A glass of red wine sounds wonderful.”
You think I’m making this up, but this is why I carry a notebook. It must be the leg room, the unrestricted circulation, that makes people speak this way.