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Turns of phrase

As a child growing up in the  early 60’s I was fascinated by the phrase ‘turning round to say things’. I noted that it only seemed to be adults that did the ‘turning’, usually women, the statements they were making once turned around always seemed to have some emotional dimension (no one ever turned around to say what a nice weather we were having) and more intriguingly for me as a child were always doing it in the recent past. I looked long and hard to see someone, anyone, actually turning around before they said anything. I even remember someone saying something like ‘so she turned around and said…, so I turned around and said…’ I wondered, did they start off back to back in a dual like stance or whirl like dervishes before delivering their pithy comments. Sadly by the time I grew up no one seemed to turn round to say things any more; ah well, I suppose some things you are just not meant to know…

Then there was the business of ‘chums’. My hero at the time, William Brown had chums, but all I had were mates which were sometimes referred to as ‘muckers’ by adult men that had been in the armed forces. Oh how I longed for a chum, but they were long gone. Perhaps my dad had chums, but I’m guessing that coming from such a poor background he too was excluded – it seems chums were the preserve of the middle and ruling classes…

Now I note that younger people ‘like’ things a lot. I’ve listened hard and it isn’t that they are actually expressing a preference for anything in particular, rather it is using the word in its meaning as an approximation – ‘so I said, like, where do you want to go’ Does this mean they didn’t use those actual words but said something else and are describing the general meaning? Hmm, not sure. I also notice the overuse of the word gives a distancing effect from the phrase it is associated with, almost as if it wasn’t them they were talking about; precautions in these more litigious times perhaps…

Anyway, my point here is that the use of some phrases define the temporal setting and they do not last forever. In fact a lot of them seem to have quite a short shelf life. Setting a novel in the past then, means that we have to become aware of the verbal phrasing in use at the time although if we go back very far the only source material might be the dialogue in novels written at that time.

You might argue, why bother. Why not use contemporary phrasing that people now will relate to. My problem with that is that words aren’t neutral. They define (or at the very least describe) attitudes and worldviews – contrast the very understated language of the 1920’s to describe even the most horrific events as opposed to the (in my view) near hysterical language used now for the most mundane of things. I think the subtle use of such phrases would help give a real feel of the past in, for example, flashback events. It is at least worthy of consideration.

But as ever, what do you think? Are there any phrases you particularly remember from childhood that are no longer used? Do tell…




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5 thoughts on “Turns of phrase

  1. “Chum” is a great word. Reminds me of the Hardy Boys. Batman used to call Robin “old chum” on the TV show, but that was deliberately old fashioned even in the 1960s. In Pynchon’s Against the Day there’s a team of boy adventurers called the Chums of Chance.

    My stuff is not contemporary (and it’s not too specific about when it does take place), so the main thing I have to do is avoid contemporary slang. I have one teenage character who would say “whatEVer” every five minutes if I let her. 🙂

    My detective character is deliberately old fashioned and mannered in her speech, so I can throw in the occasional word or phrase that she would have learned from her early studies (Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Philo Vance).

  2. Well, a word of warning. Against the Day is over a thousand pages long, and I’ve tried to get through it several times, always unsuccessfully. It’s the only Pynchon novel that I’ve never read even once.

    The stuff with the Chums of Chance is near the beginning (or at least some of it is) and I would happily have stayed with that thread, but Pynchon was obviously after something else. I was never able to figure out what. 🙂

  3. Many of my parent’s generation still use that ‘Turned round and said” thing(but then, i do live in Hull). It always makes me laugh, because it reminds me of the opening credits to 80s American soaps where the characters “turn around” and smile cheesily at the camera. I think it originally had to do with someone changing track, changing their mind about something, but has generally become used as anything someone says (in Hull, anyway). But then i would turn round and say that.

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