“I Know Words, the Best Words” (by Harley Mazuk)

Harley Mazuk has contributed four stories in the classical private-eye tradition to EQMM, beginning with his very first professional fiction publication, which appeared in the January 2011 issue of EQMM. Three of the stories, including the first, belong to a series starring P.I. Frank Swiver. Now, the Ohio-born author has completed his first novel, also featuring Swiver. Entitled White with Fish, Red with Murder, it will be released on February 28 by Driven Press, a new imprint based in Brisbane, Australia. In this post, Harley reflects further on a topic we reintroduced on this site a couple of weeks ago.—Janet Hutchings

Janet Hutchings’s post, “What’s in a Word” from January 11, set my thoughts wandering through the vocabulary that mystery writers use.

I’ve been taking classes through a program for retired folks at Johns Hopkins called Osher. I call it “College for Old Farts.” I mean no disrespect there; we are just old. There are more walkers than backpacks. They interrupted one class to bring in a birthday cake for Julius, a fellow student. Julius was 100 that day, and the candles set off the sprinkler system before he blew them out.

Last semester I took “International Detective Fiction.” We started out with Georges Simenon’s Inspector Cadaver. How many of you have read Simenon? Any Maigret fans? Let’s see your hands. Ah, good. Most of you are familiar with the prolific French author. How many of you have read Simenon’s Dirty Snow? Fewer hands now, I see. No matter.

According to Paul Bailey, who wrote the introduction to the 2003 Penguin edition of Inspector Cadaver, “Simenon limited himself to a vocabulary of 2,000 words, acting on the advice of Colette, who warned him against writing ‘beautiful sentences’.” Scholars with digital texts and the right software tell us now Simenon probably never wrote a book with as few as 2,000 words; the Maigret novels fall between 3,000 and 4,000. Patrick Marnham, in The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret, writes Simenon “had employed a vocabulary of 2,000 words, while admitting that he knew more for his personal use.”

I’ve been taking Shakespeare classes too. He may not have written detective stories, but he was a noir fellow (in tights). Some scholars believe William Shakespeare had a remarkably large vocabulary. I found two sites that agree that he used 31,534 different words in his collected works, and estimate “there were approximately 35,000 words that he knew but didn’t use.”

That’s like me. I know many words, some that play every day, and others that ride the bench. You can try an online test at http://testyourvocab.com/ to get an idea of the size of your vocabulary.

My vocabulary, since I started writing private-eye fiction, has leaned heavily on “Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes” compiled by William Denton. This slang glossary defines terms used by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with a little David Goodis and James M. Cain thrown in for good measure. While I trust the authenticity of Hammett’s slang, Chandler’s is a bit suspect. He wrote in a letter in 1949 there were “only two kinds [of slang] that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language and slang that you make up yourself.” Thus, if the word didn’t exist in American slang usage, he coined it, like “loogan,” which Marlowe defined as “a guy with a gun.”

Of course, because I set my stories in the mid-twentieth century, any increases to my vocabulary from the ’40s and ’50s are matched by the subtractions of words that did not exist then, such as bromance, cyberstalking, staycation, or . . . blog.

The last book we read in International Detective Fiction was Michael Dibdin’s Dead Lagoon, in the Aurelio Zen series. I have been trying to read mysteries carefully now that I play at writing them and I sat there with highlighter in hand, determined to keep straight in my mind clues, little details, and the Chandleresque plot. But I soon found myself highlighting words—wonderful unfamiliar words that Dibdin dropped into the Venetian canal of his narrative: caul, thole, plashing, wherry, niffy. I wondered if Shakespeare used those words. Some of them sound right out of Macbeth.

I tried a fancy word in my first novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder. My femme fatale Cicilia Ricci has green eyes that are irresistible to private eye Frank Swiver. I called them “smaragdine” eyes. I cannot recall where I first encountered smaragdine, an adjective form of the noun “smaragd,” a middle English word from the Latin “smaragdus”, from the Greek “smaragdos,” meaning emerald. But “emerald eyes” sounded a bit tired to me, and Cici’s were not tired eyes. They have considerable power over a down-at-the-heels private dick. I needed something a little more potent, so:

A short black dress, low cut, raven-dark hair, smaragdine eyes that almost glowed, over robust cheekbones—it was Cicilia Ricci, girl of my dreams.

This sailed along fine until my “substantive edit,” this summer, in which my editor wrote: “Many readers will not know what ‘smaragdine’ is, so best to use something that people will understand. Also it’s not a nice sounding word.”

I wondered if Dibdin worried that I might not know a thole if it bit me on the butt, or that caul is not a nice-sounding word. But I appreciated the editor’s efforts, and Cici now has emerald eyes.

This brings my meandering thoughts full circle to Janet Hutchings’s post, in which she writes, “ . . . over the past fifty years most Americans have become more sensitive about the use of words that could insult or offend.” During the last ten years of my illustrious government career I was a writer, a content provider for our web sites, and along the way, an editor. People who reviewed my work often called me to their management cubicles, in the early stages of some paroxysm or another, to say, “You can’t write that! Someone will be offended.”

Ah, but having left the yoke of the Treasury Department, I felt liberated, like Hawthorne, perhaps, stepping out of the Salem Custom House to write The Scarlet Letter. I no longer worried about offending words. I would write in a vernacular that would be true to my characters and their times.

My first appearance in EQMM was my first published story. I called it, “The Tall Blonde with the Hot Boiler,” (a title I cobbled together from “Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes.”) No edits arrived by return e-mail, so when the publication arrived I was curious to see to what extent my work had been altered. I found only one word changed. My P.I./narrator goes to pick up his car.

“A black man named George was the porter in the garage,”

the story in EQMM, (Jan. 2011) reads. But I remembered my manuscript clearly:

“A colored man named George was the porter in the garage.”

“Colored man” seemed to me to be an acceptable way of referring to a black man with no ill will in 1948 when the story took place. I, as writer, hadn’t intended to insult—neither had my character, as narrator, intended to. But I have seen how language can have unintended hurtful results, and I for one am happy to accept edits rather than hurt or offend anyone. As Ms. Hutchings wrote, “Words matter.”

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6 Responses to “I Know Words, the Best Words” (by Harley Mazuk)

  1. rkoreto says:

    I love discussions of language, and this one is particularly relevant to me: I’m writing a first-person mystery that takes place in New York City, 1902. It’s narrated by a white man, but a friend of his, a character in the book, is African-American. How would the narrator refer to his friend? How would the friend refer to himself, racially? Struggling to be both sensitive and accurate.

    • fswiver48 says:

      This is an interesting question, and I’m not qualified to answer definitively. My stories thus far are all set from 1948-1951, and I haven’t looked at vernacular from around 1900. I would advise you to check some popular authors writing at the time–could be anyone from Conan Doyle to Jack London and see what they use. Then adjust for social class, and whether your characters are sophisticated or crude. I suspect “Negro” would have been common, non-judgmental usage, but I know it gets much worse.

  2. Excellent post! Bonus, with excellent links!

  3. Art Taylor says:

    Great post, Harley! And love your fiction always. Looking forward to the new book!

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