The English Language

I thought I’d talk a little on words and colloquialisms today. This was brought on by a piece of homework we got asked to do in a writer’s group I go to every fortnight.

The homework is to imagine you’re an alien (or you could be a time traveller from, say the early Victorian era) and you go to a grocery shop. Now, you have never been to a grocery shop before and you are immediately swamped with unusual items.

This exercise is very good for making a writer realise that not everyone understands words or phrases that they might think are common.

Take, for example, sophomore or freshman. Being in Australia, we don’t have sophomores (have to research freshmen as I think we have those here). It’s an American thing. Also, we only have 3 tiers of school – Primary, Secondary and Tertiary.

From what I understand (and I’m happy to be corrected), America has Junior, Senior, College and University.

In Australia, College and University are generally one and the same, except for TAFE with is traditionally a skills college, although you can begin a course at TAFE and transfer it to a University. Also, our Universities now have short courses (usually 13 weeks) which used to be TAFE-only.

Another example is how you refer to foods. In America you have sodas. In Australia, you have soft drinks. In America you have biscuits and gravy. Those biscuits are scones in both Australia and the UK and, perhaps, in other countries.

The other thing is technology colloquialisms. How many people say “I’m going to Google that” without even thinking about what they’re saying?

Or, “get out your iPhone or Android”. What are people really talking about here? What if you don’t know what an iPhone or Android is?

Remember sailboards? You probably remember them as Windsurfers. The thing is – Windsurfer is a brand name. The generic name is sail board.

Then you have iPads. A different kettle of fish.

Yes, I know most of us out there know what the generic names of these items are, but what about in 20 or 30 years? Will we still know those generic terms?

What about if someone picks up your book in 50 years and has to work out what is meant by nest or ring technology?

For those of us writers, this is a great opportunity to sit and think about generic terms rather than paying royalties to Apple/Mac or Samsung for using their brand names. All I can say is – perhaps it’s time we write with an international and timetravelling audience in mind.

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