Monday, April 30, 2012

Zills and Zebu

Whiles words like zill, zebu, bo, panabas—they're all perfectly acceptable words and have perfectly useful meanings, but how many people actually know what they are? Not a whole lot, would be the answer. They're actually very specific things (For those dying of curiosity: zills are finger cymbals used during belly dancing, zebu are a small species of yak, a bo is a six-foot long staff used in combat, and a panabas is a variety of long-handled sword from the Phillipines.) and it's great to know them, but that doesn't mean that your reader will know what they are, and most dictionaries won't have them all.

There's a bit of a tendency, when you put research into something, to pick up specific words—and you should. However, among less experienced writers, there's also a tendency to use those terms, and that can be far more dangerous than you might think. When a reader sees a whole lot of terms that they don't know, two things happen. A: they feel stupid and B: they feel like the author is showing off. Neither of those things is desirable, I'd like to add.

If you use the term and explain it, that's better, but you could most likely still avoid the word all together. You can call a bo a staff or call zills finger cymbals and even the people that know the proper term probably aren't going to care, and if they do then don't you think they're just a wee bit stuck up?

I've done it too—my very first manuscript (which was never completed, as I was only in seventh grade) was full of those kinds of things, because I was very proud of my intellect and...I try not to remember that story too often.

Of course, this applies to writing fiction. In non-fiction, the idea is to instruct, so go ahead and use those technical terms in non-fiction—I'll gladly read it. But, for once, mixing the chocolate and the peanut butter of fiction and non-fiction isn't so good (But if you want to talk creative non-fiction with me, I'll pour you a cup of coffee and we can dish.).

Goodbye all,
I'd like to say, also, that I've had a blast on this blog challenge. I've met some awesome people, written my way over one-hundred posts, and generally just had a good freaking time. Hopefully it wasn't too boring for y'all, either.

1 comment :

Erin M. Hartshorn said...

I don't completely agree. You don't want to lose your reader, certainly, but English has so very many words. They're all tools, and if you limit yourself only to those that are most common, it's like saying that as long as you have one pair of pliers, a hammer, and a pair of screwdrivers, you can do everything you need around the house. Sometimes you need a mallet instead of a hammer, or a sledgehammer instead of either. Or you can use a knife or a screwdriver blade, but a chisel would actually be best.

(For the record, I knew three of the four words you mentioned as examples.)