Friday, February 18, 2011

SHE is the Cat's Mother: Idiomatic Talk for Writers and Readers

I have very vague recollections of my great-grandmother saying "She is the cat's mother" and of having absolutely no idea what she was talking about.

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Of course, I would have been very young at the time, and not particularly adept at parsing idiomatic English, so it took an explanation from my grandma to clarify. The axiom "She is the cat's mother" was my great-grandmother's way of saying that it's rude to refer to a person as she. She is the cat's mother; humans ought to be referred to by name, as Jane, or Mrs. Macintosh, or Grandma.

My grandmother on the other side of the family had a favourite saying, too: "Quand le chat est parti, les souris dansent." I was an adult before I ever realized there was an English equivalent to that saying, and that it actually rhymed: "When the cat's away, the mice will play." I suppose it was grand-mère's way of telling us she didn't trust us kids for a second, unsupervised.

I had a grandfather who said, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" each time he tried to give us kids money we wouldn't accept. Apparently, when checking on a horse's health, one looks at its teeth. If you're buying a horse, by all means check out those teeth, but if you're given a horse for free it's rude to analyze the gift.

Keeping with this animal theme, my girlfriend often spouts a saying of her grandmother's: "Hay is for horses." Want to guess what that's in response to? "Hey, guess what?" And I say that a lot...which means I hear that saying, "Hay is for horses," just as often.

Maybe these sayings, proverbs, axioms, whatever you'd like to call them, stand out in my mind because I didn't understand them on first hearing. They're cute, and every one unique, in my mind, to the speaker.

Idiomatic speech might not be so particular as outdated axioms, but we all have turns of phrase we favour and others we rarely use. If there's one mistake many writers make in scripting dialogue, I would say it's overuse of a common lexicon across all characters. It's an incredibly easy trap to fall into: this is the way I talk, so this is the way all my characters will talk.

We may not notice that each of our characters says, "You're barking up the wrong tree," or "She's got an axe to grind," or "Mum's the word," but readers will. This is particularly obvious when characters across various generations or social groups use the same turns of phrase.

My grandmother would never say, "That sucks," but I would, whereas my friend Jamie would say, "Bad news bears!" If I step on somebody's toes, the first word out of my mouth is, "Désolée!" whereas you might say, "I'm sorry," and your character who's having a rotten day might say, "Outta my way, jackass!"

Another important detail for us writers to watch is our use of idiomatic language within the narrative as compared to dialogue. If we're writing in deep third, for instance, and we tend to use our POV character's turns of phrase within the narrative, it's very obvious when those exact same turns of phrase show up the dialogue. We don't want for my great-grandmother Martha to say, "My God! She's beautiful! Who is she?" and Billy Joe Bob at the diner to reply...oh, for example... "SHE is the cat's mother."

Long story short: we all use varied turns of phrase and so should our characters.

As a parting shot (like all my idiomatic language today?) I'll ask questions to both the writers and the readers who have stuck it out through all this "writing" talk:

Writers, do you find there are certain idioms, sayings, or turns of phrase you can't get away from in dialogue? How aware are you of differentiation of lexicon between characters?

Readers, did the stories about my grandparents' favourite sayings bring any lost proverbs to mind? Do you remember your parents or grandparents overusing certain turns of phrase? And do you ever catch yourself saying them now and think, "Ach! I'm becoming my mother!"

Giselle Renarde
Canada just got hotter

1 comment:

  1. One that my grandmother says often is "We'll drink tea and see." I suppose it means we're going to relax and wait, but she's been saying it for years! Another of her favorites is "Ms. America gets what Ms. America wants." Again, I'm still wondering what the hell she means by this. LOL!

    On the other side of my family, my Nana prefaces things with "Children say..." Whatever she ends up saying is usually something children would get spanked for saying! She's got a potty mouth, and at 87 she doesn't care. HAHA!!

    But to your point, I find myself doing this with my characters, where one will start to say something that doesn't fit their age group. Thank goodness for edits!