There’s a phrase we use in Kenpo periodically: Simultuously. Don’t look it up in a dictionary, you likely won’t find it. It means to do some things at the same time. “Grab his wrist and simultuously break his knee.”
The story goes, and I heard this one from the head of our system, at one point in the distant past he had a guy show up and ask for some training. Nothing formal, you understand, just some new ways of looking at things. It turns out the guy was British SAS. What he was doing in the States, let alone how he wandered into a Kenpo school, I’ll never know. What I do know is this guy was apparently looking for some less than lethal tactics to employ when faced with dangerous people and he and his squad were being filmed.
Now, I don’t know a whole lot about the British SAS save to say they’re some absolute bad asses, the kind of people you really don’t want to mess with. Traditionally, in a bad situation, they’d just shoot the bad guys and call it a day. Problem is they now had press following them and having the press recording SAS troops casually killing bad guys just didn’t translate to good publicity. It really didn’t matter that the bad guys would gleefully blow people up, there was due process and stuff like that involved. As a result of that kind of publicity, this guy was looking for a few ways to really hurt someone without actually killing them. Kenpo is good for that.
So, while he was training this guy, my instructor hears him repeatedly use the word simultuously. Apparently he had picked it up in training from his sergeant and said, “When an SAS sergeant says the word is simultuously, the word is simultuously.”
Language changes over time. It evolves and grows and accepts new words and changes the values of existing words. That’s what makes a language a living language as opposed to a dead language. Take Latin, for instance. In high school we were all required to take a foreign language. At this point I was getting okay with Spanish but rather than doing the logical thing and continuing to learn a language that’s actually pretty common in New Mexico, I chose to study Latin so I could, uh, converse with other people who spoke Latin. Both of them.
One of the things my Latin teacher liked to point out to us was the fact that more people spoke Latin today (this was in 1989) than spoke it during the heyday of the Roman empire. What made Latin a dead language was not the amount of people that spoke it, but the fact that no new words were being added to Latin. It was a language stuck forever in time; unable to describe things like Internets or computers or Wal Marts because those things didn’t exist when Latin bit the dust.
Even biting the dust was a phrase beyond the grasp of Latin. It does however have cool phrases like “tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito.” For the uninitiated, that means “yield not to misfortunes, but advance all the more boldly against them”. It’s a tad more elegant than “When the going gets tough, the tough get rough.”
Thus if we accept that English (both traditional and American English) is a living language, then we have to accept that it will change over time. Words that mean one thing at a particular point in history could means something completely different at a later point in history. Take, for instance, the word awful. Nowadays everyone knows awful isn’t a good thing, awful things are things to avoid because they’re really, really bad. It wasn’t always that way, though. Awful used to mean “worthy of awe.” Literally full of awe.
What does all this mean for writers? We’re supposed to follow the formal, traditional applications of language. That just means our words will be as indecipherable as l33tSp3@k at some point. Remember, Shakespeare wrote in the vernacular of his time, a vernacular that has since slid out of common usage. He wrote for the common people, he just happened to do it in iambic pentameter. His plays were reportedly wild affairs, full of drunkeness and wanton displays. It wasn’t uncommon for the people watching the play to storm the stage when the show was over and steal the furniture. To Shakespeare’s audiences, putting on our fineries and going to see Romeo and Juliet would be the rough equivalent of going to see a Mötley Crüe concert in a tuxedo.
For the record, Mötley Crüe puts on a one hell of a show. There’s fire and half-naked women dancing on ropes and motorcycles on the stage and some stuff gets blowed up reeaal good. It’s a lot of fun.
Which begs an interesting question. Should we write in the vernacular or stick to more formalized styles? Depends on the audience, I guess. Books like Fight Club and Trainspotting were very much written in the vernacular. Trainspotting was so vernacular I found myself reading it in an accent, albeit not a very good one. It worked, though. I’ve never really gotten into the more formal styles of writing like the classics that defined their various genres, so I can’t say whether or not I’d read them in a stiff, upper-class accent. I probably would and I’d probably wear a monocle while I did it.
I tend to write using a fair mixture. Dialogue, in my opinion, should very much be vernacular. Dialogue should be written like people actually talk, although it’s brutally difficult to account for everyone talking over each other. As for the rest of the story? That’s up to the writer. Just remember, what seems fluid and easy to read now may not be that way in the future.
On the plus side, maybe a few hundred years from now a class will be discussing Henchmen and trying to dissect why the author didn’t use any numbers in his words. Obviously, he wasn’t l33t.
Let the language evolve. Embrace the change, and learn how to use it. There was a time when the term Internet was only used in science fiction novels, now it’s a common trope. Autotuned, crowdfunded, freegan, and twerking are all words that are new to the Oxford English Dictionary for 2015. Even if it’s not in the OED, that doesn’t mean it’s not really a word. Ain’t comes to mind. It’s a bizarre word, ain’t it? It’s been floating around for decades and is still considered informal, but it’s recognized as a word. Back in college we had a debate about ain’t in a rhetoric and argumentation class. One of the people in class was adamant that ain’t was not a word. My professor’s response? “Sure it is. People use it, that makes it a word.”
All this is not to say you have to use vernacular (unless that’s your bag, baby), but you can certainly use a mixture of formal style and vernacular style to give your book a bit more pop. And you can do both things simultuously.
Just quit using apostrophes to make words plural, please.