Colloquialisms as a Way to Set Up Setting
There are a million ways to establish a setting. The easiest and most straightforward is to describe the setting in narration — just lay out how things look. But there’s more to a setting than physical surroundings and sometimes plain old description just doesn’t cut it.
Every place has its own rhythm, its own people. Its own dialect. And colloquialisms — the turns of phrase unique to a place — are a great way to establish a sense of place. In a lot of ways, authors (good authors) do this automatically. Stephen King’s “ayuhs” and northeastern slang never lets the reader forget that his stories happen, with the rare exception, in rural Maine.
Tana French lives and writes in Dublin, focusing on Dublin cops, so some really cool Dublin terminology pops up.
Now, most of the cops try to appear professional – the result is that quite a few of the policemen speak like American and British professionals because English grammar is English grammar, right? However, there are several turns of phrase that pop up – especially any time Frank Mackey shows up. Mackey in particular provides colorful language because he grew up and deals with “the streets” — so you get a really good sense of place and character through the language he uses.
Some phrases that stuck out or otherwise interested me:
1. “Fair play to you.” – Means ‘well-done.’ But it seems to me that there’s an element of “way to kick my ass, smarty pants…” Or “Well done, you got me this time.” There seems to be a warning embedded in it, which I think is fascinating. I could be making up the undercurrents I sense in the phrase, or it could just be the nature of the mystery-reading beast that the characters always seem to be trying to one-up each other.
2. “Butter wouldn’t melt.” – Means prim and proper, having a cold demeanor. I’d heard this first in a British play, Rattlesnakes by Graham Farrow. And I noticed it again in Faithful Place.
3. “Ghost homes” – This one pops up in Broken Harbor and refers to the thousands of homes throughout Ireland that were built in anticipation of selling, but then the global housing collapse happened. So now there are a ton of empty houses making up empty neighborhoods. (Really, I’m quite surprised this term hasn’t been applied to more houses in the U.S.) The concept of entire neighborhoods of these ghost homes dominates the imagery of Broken Harbor.
4. “Bloody” – Okay, I’ve always known this is a curse word, but to my very American ears, it always catches my attention, so I thought I’d check out some origins. Of course, I did it via Urban Dictionary, which is the best place to go if you want to be offended or learn to be offensive. So, “bloody” comes from old English references of “By God’s blood.” Basically, it doesn’t mean “fucking” because “fucking” means “fucking.” A better translation would be “Goddamn.”
I’m sure that, as an American writer, I have plenty of turns of phrase and terms that I use without thinking about them. And reading Tana French has made me more aware that, whatever words we use, you can pretty much create a strong sense of setting both via your characters’ dialogue and in the local language elements you use in your narration.
What author has used ‘local flavor’ successfully to establish a setting? Do you have any examples of not-so-good colloquialism use?