Watch Your Language

I’ve kind of covered this before, but had a few more things to add.

When I was growing up my cousins and I spent two or three weeks each summer at my grandparent’s house. I’m not sure what sin my grandparents committed to get all three of us at the same time, but it happened pretty frequently, so their sin must have been a doozy. Us kids, being kids, ran completely roughshod over their house, ate all the sugary cereals, and generally tore things up as kids are wont to do.

Now, my grandparents came from a different era. They’d lived through the Great Depression, my grandfather fought Nazis in France, my grandmother raised my mom and her sister on her own while my granddad was busy beating hell out of evil.  He came home, became a carpenter and moved on with his life.  He never really wanted to talk about his time in the war, though. After reading up on World War II I can completely understand why. But he did his job and he did it well and I’ve still got the photo wallet he carried with him during the war. It has a picture of my grandmother and my infant mother. It was, I suspect, good to know who he was fighting for.

Paul Sizer drew this. He's awesome. Check him here:

Paul Sizer drew this. He’s awesome. Check him here:

He was the one who taught me what little carpentry skills I have. I can build a bookshelf. He built an addition onto his house. He used to take us (my cousins and I) to his favorite bar when no one else was around and he felt like having a drink. We never thought much of it. As kids, we got Shirley Temples and Cherry Cokes and got to ponder the myriad bar signs that adorned the place.

What does it mean that that guy has a screw through him?

Can we come back tomorrow when everything is free?



It was baffling but fun.

As I recall, my grandmother, mother, and aunt were less than thrilled that he took us to a bar for a few hours, but we loved it. No one got hurt, no kids got drunk, and the only thing anyone had to deal with was some kids hopped up on sugar and wondering about those marvelous signs. It was a little disingenuous for my grandmother to get upset about granddad taking us to a bar because her favorite Mexican restaurant was a cantina in a less than savory part of town.

Here’s a pro-tip for you: the best Mexican food is always found at catinas in less than savory parts of town. You might get in a knife fight in the parking lot, but that’s a small price to pay for really good enchiladas.

It's kind of like this, only less lobstery.

It’s kind of like this, only less lobstery.

But I digress.

Even after that little dust up, we still went to the bar from time to time. Still got Shirley Temples, still got Cherry Cokes and still wondered exactly what was meant by “Liquor in the front, poker in the rear.” We assumed there was a card game going on in the back room somewhere.

So we’d get hopped up on sugar and run roughshod all over the house. My granddad was a patient man, but he’d snap at us occasionally saying things like “You honyocks quit jumping on the davenport.”

It was clear from the context at the time that he wanted us crazy kids to quit jumping on the sofa. If you hadn’t had the experience or been there you might look at “You honyocks quit running on the davenport” and think he was batty.  But he wasn’t, he just came from a different time. In the time and place he’d come from you could call someone a honyock or tell them about your new davenport and they’d get you.

Think about this way. The phrase “I need to Xerox this thing” probably makes sense to most people, but if you examine it closely, it’s kind of baffling. Xerox is a company that makes quite a lot of things (including the very first GUI for computers).  You’re not saying “I need to ‘company that makes a lot of things’ this thing”. You’re saying “I need to copy this.”

Everyone knows this now, but will they fifty years from now? Just like will anyone remember that the Davenport company was so famous for the sofas that the word Davenport came to be synonymous with sofa?

The Davenport was a very popular line of sofas made by A. H. Davenport and Company

The Davenport was a very popular line of sofas made by A. H. Davenport and Company

That’s the rub. Aspirin was actually a trademarked name from Bayer. Xerox is a company. Davenport was a company. It’s kind of amazing how many things become part of the lexicon because they’ve become so ubiquitous.

The problem, though, is ubiquity is a fleeting thing.  Language changes over time and slang language even more so. If I were to say:

“That hard-boiled greaseball’s dizzy with my dame. I’ll you a sawbuck and a snipe that egg’s trying to slip my moll a honey cooler. He’s gonna need to get sized for a Chicago overcoat.”

Would you get it?

That dame got lips just begging for a honey cooler.

That dame’s got lips just begging for a honey cooler.

If you were a mobster in the 30s, you’d probably get it. If not, try this modern Rosetta Stone. Language in general, and slang in particular, is tied to a particular time and place.

 ...pray to J I did the same-ol', same-ol'!

…pray to J I did the same-ol’, same-ol’!

So what does this mean for writers? Well, that’s kind of complicated. It used to be said if you want your writing to be timeless, avoid slang and avoid things that are tied to a particular point in time.  The problem with that is you can wind up with some major boring stories or things that don’t feel right when they’re set in a particular place and time. Imagine a man who’s supposed to be part of a street gang saying, “They will pay dearly for their insolence. They will rue the day they messed with John Cougar Skull Cruncha.”

Doubtful. No one says rue anymore.

Conversely, you can also wind up writing a story that only makes sense during the time it’s written for and people wind up needing a dictionary and a few college credits to get through your work. Shakespeare wrote for his audience using the vernacular of his time. Now some of that vernacular has been lost. He’s widely credited as one of the greatest playwrights of all time, but he’s a bear to read sometimes.

The other problem with vernacular is it changes over time.  Not just that it gets lost – although that happens pretty frequently – rather that the meaning (or even the perceived meaning) changes. My granddad called my cousins and I a bunch of honyocks. In my kid mind, given the context of the statement, it implied kids running on furniture. I later expanded in mentally to mean anyone getting out of control.

It was only recently that I finally looked up the term.

According to wiktionary it doesn’t mean that at all.


The word first appeared in print in the late 19th century, often applied to people who were unwelcome among their family, friends and/or community. A common theory of the origin of this word is the merger of the first syllable of the word Hungarian and the last syllable of the ethnic slur Polack. However, a more likely origin is the Hungarian adjective hanyag, which has a variety of negative meanings including careless, sloppy, slothful, and slow.

The word is derived from the German “Honigjaeger”, which litteraly means “honey chaser”. The name was given to immigrants to Montana looking to take advantage of land offerings, without realizing how difficult farming in Montana was. The word is pejorative, and is used in reference to a clueless farmer.


honyock ‎(plural honyocks)

  1. (US, slang, derogatory) An immigrant to the United States from east-central Europe.

  2. (US, slang, derogatory) A rube or simpleton.

  3. (US, slang) A hardscrabble farm (this usage known in parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alberta and Saskatchewan).

Since my cousins and I were neither immigrants nor farms…

Fortunately, Urban Dictionary has my back.

Youngsters up to mischief. Euro-slang.
 Whew. I was worried.
Does this mean avoid all slang and vernacular? Of course not. Slang and vernacular give stories – especially dialogue – a special kind of oomph.  But make sure it fits the story and place, and be wary of expecting someone to understand it fifty years down the road.
Now you’ve got the low down, you dig?

One thought on “Watch Your Language

  1. That’s funny. My grandmother used a few of those thirties terms like “crumb”. I knew way more on that list that I should. Lol maybe I watch too many black and white movies and looney toons!

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