Yesterday, we spent the afternoon shopping at our local Ikea. We bought a samla, a tokig, a nackten and some adorable yrsni. Translation: storage container, salad spinner, bathmat, Christmas ornaments. Earlier in the year, I picked up some items for work and when I submitted the receipt to our finance office, it was returned to me with a note: “What in the world did you purchase? I can’t read this receipt.” I've noticed that Ikea now provides an abbreviated form of English beside the Swedish name on the receipts for easier identification.
It’s a good idea to speak your customer’s language.
It reminds me of some explaining I had to do once on a passage of a manuscript during the editing stage. The scene was a crowded aquarium where the characters were “dodging baby strollers and munchkins.” I was referring to the babies as ‘munchkins,’ but apparently Munchkins are also doughnut holes from Dunkin Donuts (which I did not know) and I sent the wrong message. I can see the visual I created: babies with a messy floor beneath their strollers. It made sense. Dunkin Donuts was relatively unknown on the West Coast at the time, and I was clueless. They allowed me to leave it in anyway.
It is difficult to write from our own experiences and perspectives and remain aware of the universality of the words we choose. Word choices differ between social groups, age groups, regions, cultures and countries. As readers, we generally figure them out. We've seen enough James Bond to know the boot of the car in Britain is the trunk in America, and the bonnet is the hood. The same goes for Australia, as I understand it. Consider carbonated beverages. Depending on where you're from in the United States, you may refer to them as soda, pop or Coke (which is used generically for every brand). Canada calls it pop, also (Bonnie, correct me if I'm wrong). In America, you may have a 'pot luck' whereas in Britain you may call it 'Dutch treat' or in Australia say 'bring a plate.' My sister's new neighbor came over to borrow a round of wool which my sister came to realize meant a spool of thread.
As I said, as readers we generally figure out the meaning or we gloss over the words that aren't crucial to the story. At least, we hope they're not crucial. But it's the writer's job to keep that 'hitch' from happening or at least minimize the downtime before the reader is sailing along again.
The writer of historicals will necessarily use the jargon of the times but sometimes a bit of explanation is helpful. For example, you wouldn't write, "She placed the coins in her reticule which is like a purse" but you might say, "She dropped the coins into her beaded reticule and pulled the drawstring tight." Likewise, if you're writing about a particular locale, you need to include some dialect for authenticity, but not so much that it slows down the pace of the story or muddies the understanding of a critical point.
It is imperative to have trusted readers give us honest feedback before we submit our manuscripts, to ensure that we are speaking the language of our readers wherever possible.
Have you been stumped by a word or phrase that prevented your understanding of a story? Does it enhance or detract when you find a word or phrase that requires that you deduce the meaning from the story?