A question that comes up repeatedly in my workshops about rural writing and in my editing of rural stories is what to do with regional and rural words. Knowing that their readers may not be familiar with local colloquialisms or agricultural terminology such as heifer, quarter section, coulee, or seed drill, writers often attempt to prevent misunderstanding by providing definitions of the words in their stories. Therefore, I see a lot of sentences like these:
- We saddled up our horses and headed out to round up the eighty steers (young castrated male cattle).
- We separated the pullets (young hens that would later lay eggs) from the roosters.
- I watched the fire through the isinglass window, which is a type of glass made from thin sheets of mica.
- We sat in the dooryard—the small yard near the front door of the house—waiting for my father.
My approach is to (nearly always!) remove the definition, for two main reasons.
The first reason is both practical and aesthetic: Sentences like the ones above are simply stylistically clunky and awkward, and they jar the reader out of the story, which is, in my mind, the number one thing we do not want to do.
The second reason is more philosophical, maybe even political: If we constantly insert parenthetical definitions in our writing, we are somehow acknowledging our language (the language of rural Canada) is somehow “less,” somehow inferior to the “mainstream” language of urban Canada. We are almost apologizing for the cute, quaint, silly, old-fashioned words that we country bumpkins use. We are, perhaps, apologizing for the very things that make us unique.
Instead, I think, we should use our rural languages boldly, as if they were valid and useful and good languages of their own (which they are!). If that means that some readers will be faced with an unfamiliar word, even turn to a dictionary, that’s okay.
Having said that, I don’t aim to deliberately confuse readers, so the question I always ask, of myself and the writer, is whether the meaning of the word is essential to the reader’s comprehension and enjoyment of the story. If the answer is no, I leave the word unexplained. A good reader is not going to be deterred by the odd unfamiliar word. For example, in the following two sentences, I would remove the definitions and let the words stand on their own:
- I watched the fire through the isinglass window.
- We sat in the dooryard waiting for my father.
The reader might not know exactly what isinglass and dooryard mean, but overall comprehension would not be affected.
If, however, the meaning of the word is essential, I look for a subtle way to define the word in context. For example, if a reader doesn’t know that pullets and steers are, respectively, chickens and cattle, he may struggle to follow the story. I might subtly define the words like this:
- We separated the pullets from the fryers. The pullets would be allowed to roam the yard until they were old enough to begin laying eggs, while the fryers would be confined to the chicken house until they were big enough to be shipped out.
- We saddled up our horses and headed out to round up the eighty steers. The young cattle would be skittish, we knew, but we needed to get them into the pens north of the barn where they could spend the winter fattening for slaughter.
While we should never aim to confuse readers or be unnecessary obscure (after all, we are writing to communicate!), let’s celebrate the colloquialisms and dialects that make each region of Canada unique. Let’s use our language proudly, knowing too that in writing, beauty is in specificity, and words like heifer, steer, pullet, layer, mare, gelding, lasso, lope, dooryard, chinook, coulee, and slough bring richness and beauty to our stories.
Which words from your neck of the woods have you used in your writing, and what tricks have you used to help readers figure out what they mean?