How nauseatingly politically correct you are, my dear

One of my fans was kind enough to give me a copy of Grace Ingram’s (A pseudonym of Doris Sutcliffe Adams) GILDED SPURS while I was away, loading a container in Melbourne. It is a historical romance set in medieval England at the tail of King Stephen’s reign – 1152 IIRC. It was published 1978, and I found it an excellent read. I would guess, were it and her other books still in print or available as e-books – they’d sell like hot mulled wine on a cold night. She plainly did her research well. It was the sort of novel, which, had I been young and naive I would have said was a great primer for anyone wishing to write high fantasy. It’s better than almost all of it that I have read, and the nasty details have the grim ring of veracity to them.

I’m neither young nor quite as naive as I used to be, even if I still tilt at windmills. It’s a book that probably would help the writer aiming for going Indie a lot. I’d guess its chances of being published by most of the traditional establishment publishers would be zero, and it would probably have all the little camp-followers from this fail and that fail, failfail, all leaping on the bandwagon, and baying for the author’s blood.

You see the Christian Knight is the hero, and his foes are the local coven. And they aren’t the misunderstood victims either. They’re a set of nasty women driving nasty men, who enjoy power they have over life and death, and the privilege they take from this. And no, there are no other good pagans even. Oh and besides being a realistic portrayal of the life and value of the peasantry (ie. none) and what a Lord’s justice actually meant, none of which is too well done in High Fantasy, the author gets marriage and the position of women in that marriage right for the time. She also – as the two lead characters are both born out of wedlock deals with bastardry in Medieval times. It’s not what it is now.

It’s not inaccurate, I suspect, but it would be a tough row to hoe for any modern author… because we, even me, to some extent have become nauseatingly mealy-mouthed. Oh yes, we can say f*ck, and male genital parts, and we can write about bondage (so long as it is with consent of course) polyandry and orgasms. But the censorship lines of content are very very much harder now. The curious part is that the audience too have I think have become narrower too (not nearly as much as traditional publishing, but still something to remember when you target them). It’s odd to think that when this book came out, there were books by Le Guin, MZB, and John Norman on the shelf at the same time. The world did not explode. Contrary to popular perception, things have become less tolerant. One has to wonder if PC really has achieved anything much, or whether this is another pendulum swing, and people different ways to say the same nasty things…

Anyway, this blog is about writing… and I’ve been deliberately playing a deep game here with words… because words, phrases and metaphors also draw their context from things we know. This came to me while I was attempting to write a description of a wild sea. Now this is something I have a personal, intimate and you might say deep knowledge of – probably much more than 95% of my audience. It’s a bit like a grandmother teaching a 7 year old to cook. The grandmother leaves bits out because they’re so obvious, everyone knows you crush garlic on the salt, and grand-daughter doesn’t pwn it because instructions aren’t texted to her. I sometimes feel that desk-jockey computer geek authors writing for desk jockey computer geek readers are getting it right and I am making a mull of it. I was writing about gobbets of spume, tossed from the churn of the water… And it struck me. Many of my readers would have no idea what a gobbet was, but might guess by context. If they looked it up they might think I meant the modern literary fragment. Spume – well, the reasonably read would know, but many would never have seen it, or felt it. And I think most people would know what a ‘churn’ was – but how many of them have used one, know what it implies and how it does what it does? And how many have hoed a tough row? Or even seen a bandwagon, let alone a pack baying for blood?

Pardon the wandering nature of this post. I find myself trying to fix my computer, and don’t understand the language in the manual. Hoist by my own petar’, I guess. And what other powerful words and metaphors can you folk think of that have lost their impact because the world has moved on?


  1. Raises hand, I’ve never seen a bandwagon. The rest I’ve seen or done, including not understanding the language in the computer manual.

    As for other metaphors, how about, “her look could have curdled milk” how many people know what curdled is these days? Well some of the more intuitive probably will notice that cottage cheese comes in small curd or large curd.

    1. I’ve never seen a bandwagon either :-), but I have seen a volkswagon that should have been banned…
      I suppose in time more metaphors will arise out of urban/suburban life. Like finding a seat on the subway train… will take over from a hard row?

  2. “Taking coals to Newcastle,” “rapier wit,” “as many [things] as Carter has liver pills,” “hoeing the short rows” (meaning you are almost done with weeding the cotton field) , “keep your nose to the grindstone,” “as worthless as a tinker’s dam,” (the mix of sand and clay used to hold the solder or other material when someone is mending a pot or other utensil). Railroad related: “whistle-stop town” or “jerk-water town,” “you be the caboose” (said to the last kid in a line). “Her boiler’s about to burst” (meaning someone is losing her temper), “he’s three sheets into the wind,” “got beat like a rented mule,” and “kicked off the traces.”

    I’ve had to explain other terms to my students, but those are the ones that come easily to mind. Agriculture, animal-handling, railroads, sailing, and doing chores by hand seem to be the most common “lost phrases,” although some of the Biblical sayings are also fading. I have seen a bandwagon, but it was in a museum.

    1. The question is where to find good replacement terms that they will know – especially as Agriculture, animal handling, sailing, even railroads had a long tenure in our experience. Phrases that were good for Homer still made sense to us until relatively recently.

      1. “Don’t feed the Troll” is the first modern slang that leapt to mind. I just hope we don’t devolve into LOL and OMG in published work, other than as a novelty, soon abandoned. I used to think the sheer backlog of written work would tend to freeze a language, and prevent change. 😉

        1. One of the local TV shows has a very short English lesson every morning. This morning they challenged people with the English phrase “LTNS.” It turned out that the panel recognized it before I did — Long time no see. They have had several texting phrases recently introduced as if they were normal English.

          Incidentally, when I did my thesis in the 70s, we were required to have a certain percentage of “seminal citations.” Papers that were recognized as the beginning or foundation of a stream of thought. However, I have been told that the current requirement is to have a certain percentage of papers that are less than five years old. I think the shift in emphasis is interesting — are the beginnings of a thought important or just the latest thing? This is in academic work, where you might think the backlog was the important part.

          1. Mike, I can’t speak for other than history, but we still have to have certain seminal papers and books in our dissertations, plus enough of the more recent work to show that we’re keeping up with the field. It is not by percentage, but if you don’t have Y’s initial work, or at least nod towards X’s book, and mention A’s article from the previous year, you’d better have very good reasons. My $.02.

            1. Good. That student was assuring me that I was out of date, although their experience apparently was from the University of Phoenix. Not necessarily the best reference, and I found it somewhat worrisome. I’m glad to hear that other institutions are maintaining a recognition of the history 🙂

  3. Just had a discussions THIS morning with my Dad about how small town America (and our NJ suburb) has a connection with the tradition of the local water tank – and young men proving their mettle by climbing it and p*ssing off the top (usually while drunk, and sometimes to their detriment).

    He – who grew up in Lincoln Park, MI – had forgotten about water tanks! He is 90 – and still working.

    The context: I’m visiting my folks in Mexico, and we haven’t had water in two days for some reason. I’ll be washing my hair in a small quantity of water heated on the stove – like camping. Houses here have a water storage tank on the roof to even out the water delivery problems – always.

    Sorry – somewhat off topic – but a bunch of these things do come up when we get together – I’ll save the more apropos ones.

    1. Forgot to add: He is a big Horatio Hornblower fan, and would have no trouble with gobbet or spume or…

    2. We run all the houses on the Island off rainwater for drinking and washing, groundwater for flushing and watering… it seems so… natural now. And good on your Dad. If I reach 90, I’d like to still be working.

Comments are closed.