Do You Know What I’m Saying?*

VocabularyOne of the ways in which an author makes a novel feel authentic is through the use of vocabulary. I’m not talking here about common dialect words (e.g. lorry/truck or petrol/gasoline); most readers are familiar with those sorts of vocabulary differences and even if there is a word one hasn’t seen before it’s usually easy to work out. There are some kinds of vocabulary though that aren’t so familiar. In those cases the writer is faced with a challenge. Does one stop in the middle of a story and explain a term? That clears the matter up but can interrupt the reader’s engagement. Does one provide a glossary? That’s awfully helpful but it does mean the reader has to look up the word. There are other approaches too that authors use, and any of them can work well, depending on the kind of story it is and the author’s way of writing.

Some authors do provide glossaries and that makes sense if one’s writing a story that includes a lot of words that the average reader might not understand. For instance, Tarquin Hall’s series featuring Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri includes a lot of vocabulary that English-speaking readers might not know. There are expressions, words for different kinds of foods and so on. Those words add to the sense of place in the novels but not all of them are easy to work out from the context. Not having them there would detract from the story; it just wouldn’t seem as real. So Hall includes a glossary with his books so readers who don’t know particular words can find their meanings. It’s really helpful actually.

Rhys Bowen has written several crime fiction series. One of them, her Constable Evan Evans series, takes place in Llanfair, Wales. The setting and context of these novels are distinctly Welsh and so are many of the characters. This means that some of the vocabulary Bowen uses in the novels is Welsh too. For instance, in Evans to Betsy, Llanfair local Betsy Edwards gets drawn into a mystery when an American graduate student Emmy Court convinces her that she may have ‘second sight.’ She encourages Betsy to attend Sacred Grove, a New Age centre led by renowned psychic Randy Wunderlich. Betsy gets involved in Sacred Grove’s activities, which is how she comes to the attention of Constable Evans, who suspects that Sacred Grove is a scam operation. Then, a young girl Rebecca Riesen goes missing and her trail seems to lead to Sacred Grove. Evans is trying to trace Rebecca when Betsy has a dream in which she sees Randy Wunderlich dead in a cave. When her dream turns out to be all too real, Evans knows that this centre is more than just a scam operation. One evening Betsy comes over to visit Evans while he happens to be cooking dinner. Here’s a bit of their conversation:


‘‘You’re welcome to join me. I can’t eat a whole leg [of lamb] on my own.’
Evan stood back to let her in.
‘Lovely! Diolch yn fawr, Evan bach.’ She gave him a beaming smile as she came in. ‘Do you want me to lay the table?’’


At the end of this novel there’s a glossary that explains that Diolich yn fawr is Welsh for ‘thank you very much.’

Some authors prefer to explain vocabulary in the context of the story. For instance, Angela Savage’s series featuring PI Jayne Keeney takes place in Thailand. The series has a strong sense of place and context, which wouldn’t be the case if there were no use of Thai. So when it adds to the story Savage includes Thai words. But their definitions and explanations are woven into the narrative. For instance, in The Half Child, Jim Delbeck hires Keeney to look into the death of his daughter Maryanne, who jumped, was pushed, or fell from the roof of the Pattaya hotel where she was living. Keeney travels to Pattaya and goes undercover at the New Life Children’s Centre where Maryanne was volunteering. She’s hoping that by doing so she’ll find some clues as to how and why Maryanne died. Bit by bit Keeney learns that New Life may very be hiding some dark secrets. It’s very possible that Maryanne found out more than it was safe for her to know. Keeney also learns that Maryanne’s personal life was complicated too, and that could have led to her death. One of the people whose help Keeney seeks in this case is Police Major General Wichit, who owes her a favour. Here is Wichit’s response when Keeney asks him to act as a reference for her before she goes undercover:


‘Mai pen rai,’ Wichit said, the ubiquitous Thai phrase meaning ‘it doesn’t matter’, even when it did.’


In this way, Savage shares the meaning of mai pen rai with the reader without interrupting the flow of the story.

James Lee Burke chooses to use context, rather than definition, to let readers know what unfamiliar words mean. In A Forning for Flamingos for instance, his sleuth Dave Robicheaux and his partner Lester Benoit are assigned to transport Tee Beau Latiolais and Jimmie Lee Boggs to Louisiana’s state penitentiary at Angola. Both men have been convicted of murder, but Tee Beau’s grandmother Tante Lemon claims that he’s innocent and was with her at the time of the murder. She wants Robicheaux to look into the case and clear Tee Beau’s name. Here’s a little of the conversation they have about it:


‘’I  told all them people, Mr. Dave. They ain’t listen to me. What for they gonna listen an old nigger woman worked Miz Hattie’s crib? That’s what they say. Old nigger putain lyin’ for Tee Beau.’
‘His lawyer’s going to appeal. There are a lot of things that can be done yet,’ I said. I kept waiting for the elevator doors to open.
‘They gonna electrocute that boy,’ she said.
‘Tante Lemon, I can’t do anything about it,’ I said. 


But Robicheaux is drawn into the case when Tee Beau and Boggs escape while en route to Angola, killing Lester Benoit and leaving Robicheaux for dead. If you’ll notice in this dialogue, Burke doesn’t stop to explain what putain means. It’s not hard given the context for the reader to work that out.

Sometimes, vocabulary is highly technical. For instance, both Aaron Elkins’  Gideon Oliver and Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway are scientists. They use very technical terms in their work which makes sense. Those are specific terms that have particular meanings. However, not everyone understands what they mean. Both Elkins and Griffiths have chosen to explain those vocabulary words in the context of conversations that Oliver and Galloway have with others. For instance, in Griffiths’ The Janus Stone, Galloway is called in when a child’s skeleton is found beneath the remains of an old children’s home. Here is a bit of the conversation when Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson attend the autopsy conducted by pathologist Chris Stevenson:


‘‘Cause of death – decapitation?’ suggests Stevenson.
‘Poena post mortem,’ says Ruth shortly, turning to Nelson. ‘Mutilation after death. The head was cut off later.’’


Here, Griffith shares the meaning of the technical term within the context of the story.

There are other ways too in which authors define and explain vocabulary. It can be a challenge to do so without interrupting the flow of a story, but when the author does it well, the reader can get a deeper sense of a word or phrase and drawn further into a story.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you like having terminology explained? If you do, do you prefer glossaries, explanations, dialogue or something else? If you’re a writer how do you integrate vocabulary?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song written by Elvis Costello for singer/songwriter Wendy James.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Angela Savage, Elly Griffiths, James Lee Burke, Rhys Bowen, Tarquin Hall

28 responses to “Do You Know What I’m Saying?*

  1. I like this blog. Well done. I’ve found a lot of writers do very well in how they expand my education for their story. I’ve enjoyed stories set in various places in the world. Normally, I get derailed if it’s science fiction, and every little detail has to be explained. I prefer explanations in the narrative and/or dialogue. Glossaries tend to put me off, but I do like learning new words, so one or two, no problem. In my work, fiction and NF, I tend to explain through dialogue and narrative.

    • Jessica – Thanks for the kind words. You make a well-taken point about getting derailed if there are too many explanations. It’s easier I think to get involved in a story and stay involved if technical terms for instance are made clear in context or through the dialogue/narrative. That’s what I do when I write, too. I think it’s more natural a way of communicating.

  2. I definitely don’t think things should be explained. I loved reading when I was young and I always read above my age group which meant I often came across unknown phrases that I just didn’t understand. I remember reading an Enid Blyton Mallory Towers book with a phrase about the girls ‘getting a rocket’ because they had been naughty. I had no idea what they meant, but I worked it out for myself. I also remember reading the phrase ‘not better than she should be’ and puzzling over that one. It’s part of the fun of reading.

    • Sarah – It does get (and keep) the reader engaged to work out the meanings of words and expressions rather than have to have every detail laid out. I’ve learned a lot of expressions, words and so on that way. The only time I find it useful to have something explained is if it’s a word/phrase in another language, especially if it’s a very culturally-loaded one. Then I don’t mind the detail. But otherwise I see your point about having a minimum of explanation.

  3. Off on a slight tangent here but…when I read an American book I expect the language to be American English and enjoy the differences from British English, even though I quite often don’t ‘get’ the meaning exactly. BUT when I read a translation of, say, a Japanese book and it’s full of American slang, I hate it. It destroys any sense of place for me. A real tooth-grinder. I wonder if it’s the same when Americans read a book translated into British English?

    • FictionFan – Not so much of a tangent, and an interesting question. I think it’s one thing to read a novel that takes place in the U.S. and see American English; that’s one’s expectation. It makes sense that the characters would use American English and that the author would use American terms for things. The same with a novel set in Canada (there, of course, Canadian English), Australia (with Australian English) or New Zealand (New Zealand English). It fits with the story. But American English isn’t a ‘fit’ with a novel set in Japan if one’s not American. Little wonder you find it annoying.

  4. I’ve certainly seen books with glossaries – recently read an old Q. Patrick title, set at Cambridge University, which includes a glossary of Cambridge terms for those of us who were not Cambridge students! But, like other commenters here, I far prefer to have the necessary information incorporated within the story itself, through dialogue or through clever integraqtion in descriptions. I recently read Clyde B. Clason’s “Blind Drifts,” which is set in a gold mine and uses a lot of mining jargon – but Clason skillfully explained as he went along (by having his principal character be a non-miner who needed to know the meanings of the words) and it worked perfectly well for me.

    • Les – That is a very effective approach to explaining the meanings of words – having a lay character need to know their meanings. That’s what Aaron Elkins does and he’s not the only other one who does that. There are certainly uses for glossaries, especially for certain kinds of words. But it is always nice (and I think it keeps the reader engaged) to have words explained in the context of the story.

  5. I love your examples Margot. I find it hard to define what I like and what I don’t – though I do have strong opinions. It’s just one of those classic cases that I can either be irritated by too much explanation or too little…. Foreign phrases annoy me, because of that assumption that you will understand. And a good writer finds a way to fill people in on technical terms without the dialogue sounding unreal. A great topic!

    • Moira – Thanks for the kind words. I think part of the issue is that each of us is perhaps a little different as to how much explanation we want? As you say, a a talented writer works that information into the narrative or dialogue without it sounding stilted. It’s not easy to define exactly how much of that working-in is necessary and how much is ‘overkill,’ but I think it’s something all authors need to think about if they’re using vocabulary that readers may or may not know.

  6. kathy d.

    Well, one way to do this is with a good glossary that’s as well-done as the main book. Stephen Sarterelli translates Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano’s series, and his end notes, which explain Italian words, idioms, foods, and historical events are great.
    I don’t like reading words in other languages when there is no explanation at all, either of a food item, other word or idiom. it’s too frustrating to be reading and not know what everything means. Most of the time it’s clear, but not always. I think authors — and translators — should always make sure readers can understand every word or make it easy to do so.

    • Kathy – I agree with you about those useful glossaries that Sartarelli provides. And I like it that there are footnote numbers so that the interested reader can go right to the reference. I find that information really interesting, and because they’re notes, my reading isn’t interrupted.

  7. I don’t mind an author using obscure words. In fact I love the challenge. However, it’s much better if they do put a glossary in the book.

  8. Margot: If an author like Stan Jones is writing the conversation of Inuit people, as he is in the Nathan Active series, I find the occasional use of an Inuit word adds credibility. In such circumstances, I prefer a glossary rather than an explanation. I do not always remember a foreign word used 100 pages apart in a book and would rather go back to a glossary than have only an explanation early in the book with no index to take me back to the meaning.

    • Bill – I know what you mean about books such as Jones’. They are more authentic with certain Inuit words and phrases in the story. I don’t always remember what they mean after only one use it is nice to check a glossary when one needs to. It’s one of those times when I find that a glossary doesn’t pull me out of a story. With technical words and phrases I prefer a simple word or two of explanation in the narrative/dialogue.

  9. Like most of the others here I’m flexible on this issue and it depends on the book. I recently read Lyndsay Faye’s THE GODS OF GOTHAM which is set in 1845 in the US and there is a local slang used by many of the characters (indeed one of them gets a job because he can speak the slang). Faye includes a short glossary but it does not explain all the terms she uses in the course of the book (of which there are many). I think this hybrid worked well – she generally did not define the words with a meaning that could easily be worked out from the context of their use but the glossary did define those words where the meaning would not be clear and/or for which there is no modern derivation. I did find myself flicking to it a few times and was grateful the glossary.

    I can appreciate the need for a glossary of words when a work is translated from one language to another but I find the American habit of often requiring glossaries for books written in a different version of English (e.g. Australian) to be preposterous. I’ve heard several local authors talk about it and one famously refused to have his book published in the US if it had to have a glossary. To me that just smacks of laziness and it treats readers as if they are morons. I’ve read plenty of American books (especially some from the South) with words and phrases that are unfamiliar to me and if I can’t work out the meaning from the context I go investigating. IN PG (pre-google) times I used to keep a little notebook of things to lookup and if my personal reference books didn’t help me I’d go to our library which had a fabulous collection of dictionaries and etymology reference books. It was also helpful when my brother married an American back in the 80’s – my sister-in-law became a reference-book-at-the-end-of-a-phone-call.

    • Bernadette – I agree completely about including a glossary simply because a book is written in one form of English and sold in in another English-speaking country. I’ve read a fair bit of Australian crime fiction without glossaries and never had any trouble working out what a word or phrase means, even if it’s not one I use. There’s no need for that and I’m glad you brought up the implied insult to readers when there is a glossary in those circumstances. On the other hand there are times when a glossary is useful. I find it so when I read historical novels where the language is really quite different to modern language and it’s not always easy to work out the meaning of a word or phrase.
      You’re lucky you had your own personal living reference book once your brother got married. Who needs Google under those circumstances? Now that we do have some very good Internet resources for things, I find them helpful too. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase I don’t understand; sometimes it’s a geography question or something else. But as you say, it’s nice to have those resources.

  10. I’m reading Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy and he uses several Gaelic names and words with a guide to their pronunciation before the start of the novel, which I think is excellent. It’s a real help to me to know how words sound as well as their meaning. He also explains the meaning of other words and phrases in the text, which works well.

    On a different note as this is not crime fiction, I’ve just started reading Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. This was first published in 1969 and I’m reading the 40th anniversary edition. In her introduction she writes about using French in her books and the criticism she received from some people. In particular there was a letter from one person asking her if she had ever considered the problems of an ex-Polish miner from the Ukraine, then living in Chicago and telling her she really ought to translate her French phrases. She replied that she hadn’t but if she had known that her book would be published in 18 different countries she certainly would have done. I have yet to find out if there are translations in this edition.

    • Margaret – I’m glad you mentioned pronunciation guides; sometimes they can be very helpful. For instance, I don’t speak Welsh or Irish, so when I read crime fiction from those countries I like to have some help with pronunciation. And it can be really useful to have guides in the beginning of the book as May does so that one’s reading isn’t interrupted later.
      That’s an interesting story about Fraser’s use of French too. It makes perfect sense given the book, but I can also see how a readers in that miner’s situation might struggle with the French. That’s when guides and glossaries and the like can be really helpful. I’ll be interested to know if you do find translations in your edition.

  11. Interesting point that Sarah made about liking to figure things out for herself. And that is definitely true for children reading above their age… part of the educational process. I had not thought about that.

    I guess a glossary is fine if you don’t have to go flipping over to it every time you run into a term. There is a glossary in The Smoke and I used it occasionally but really you could figure out the meaning from the context. Or close enough.

    On the other hand, I could have used a glossary with The Yiddish Policemens Union and I read that some editions had one, but mine did not. I still enjoyed it, just was puzzled about meanings some of the time.

    • Tracy – It’s interesting that you’ve had different experiences with different books when it comes to needing/wanting a glossary or not. Of course each person’s experience is a little different any as to whether there’s any confusion about words or phrases. In general I like a policy of respecting and trusting readers enough to let them work out meanings. That’s not always possible of course and in those cases it’s helpful to have some sort of explanation. I think that’s especially true of the words and phrases are in a different language or an archaic form of one’s own language.

  12. Hi Margot
    I have just started reading a book, Dog Star Rising by Parker Bilal – which to me speaks to your article and to so many of the comments here. This is a crime /mystery set against the backdrop of a tumultuous chaotic foreign landscape – Cairo. I must admit I have not read any crime novels set in this region before – the landscape and the language are a mystery to me, maybe that is why I am struggling with this one a little. I am a fan of books other than Anglo/European in origin, I love the “difference” in Scandinavian writing for example but maybe it is because the TV has paved the way for my foray into these landscapes; I have watched such excellent programs such as The Killing, Unit One and The Eagle. I have not seen anything set in Cairo (aside from maybe an old Agatha Christie film) The author of this particular novel does a great job of bringing the landscape alive for me, the markets, the run down buildings, the decay and is able to create a sense of tension- but I am finding it hard work. Some of the terms/language he uses are completely alien, some he explains as he goes, some I am able to grasp meaning by context and some I just skip over. Perhaps I need to look at another of his books to see if it is indeed the language that is really the barrier.

    • Carol – There are of course so many cultural and linguistic differences in different parts of the world. And sometimes those differences can make a book more difficult to get through for the reader. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the words and phrases are part of what is making this novel slower going for you. Even when the author does make the meaning of a word clear, there is still a set of cultural nuances that one can miss. I’ve had that experience myself even for books in which I feel a terrific sense of atmosphere and strong characters. It’ll be interesting to see if you have the same barrier with other work by Bilal, or if it’s just this novel.

  13. col

    I think if something can be explained skilfully by an author as they go along, I prefer that. I can live with a glossary. I dislike authors who over explain everything, I feel my intelligence is being insulted, but this is something that isn’t just confined to words or phrases, but sometimes plots or individual motivations. The less-skilled an author maybe the more they feel the need to join up the dots for the readers, not trusting them enough to figure things out. Which in itself might hark back to the point that, maybe it wasn’t written as skilfully as it could have been……does that make sense?

    • Col – It certainly does. When the author does too much telling and not enough showing, there are a few consequences. One as you say is that it gives the reader the message, ‘I don’t trust you to work it out for yourself; I’ll tell you everything so you don’t have to.’ It also slows down the story. And that happens whether the ‘too much telling’ is in terms of the plot or the vocabulary.

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