The art of playing with weird words

I’ve just finished this book by Beatriz Williams, a New Yorker who is very good at writing New York tales. But The Wicked City tripped me up a little as it contains some pretty strange language, as in the word ‘liketa’. It comes up sometimes in sentences like, ‘That’s liketa make my head hurt”. Apparently it means ‘likely’ or ‘almost’.

Then there’s ‘swan’ as in, “She’s a fine woman, I swan”. It stands for, ‘I do declare’, or ‘I swear’.

Turns out those terms are Appalachian dialect.

It’s just right for some of the characters in Williams’ novel, which tells parallel tales of two bold women in different eras who have links to a strange apartment building, the home of a secret Prohibition-age speakeasy.

In the same week that I read it, I happened to be running a seminar for writers on making their writing more vivid, and we talked about a passage by Irish author Marian Keyes in which she wrote of people being ‘all in their pelt’ – meaning naked – and of how a man tucked something under his ‘oxter’ – meaning his arm.

I’d never encountered those terms before. Keeps you on your toes, that kind of writing, if you’re not from Appalachia or Ireland. But it sure also makes a piece of authoring more vibrant, I swan.

It also goes to show how unafraid an author needs to be to impose their own voice and that of their characters on the page.
It’s all too easy, if a story is set in a niche sort of place with odd local idoms, to leave out obscure local expressions or make them more bland so the rest of the world can understand them more easily.

Big mistake.

Of course, you’ve got to be somewhat even-handed so as not to lose your readers completely, but keeping weird words alive sure can add a dollop of charm to any manuscript.

The world of English is brimming with dialects. How grey the language would be if we all used it in exactly the same way.

Of course you can always add a glossary, but that means a bunch of to-ing and fro-ing for your readers. And the context will usually make your meaning clear. So if you’re a writer, go on, let the language live.

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