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Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Language is a peculiar and yet magical way that we communicate ideas, tell stories, persuade others, and learn vast amounts of both trivial and essential knowledge. Since the first grade when I mispronounced “Nancy” in my reader—I said Nancky—I’ve been on a mission to conquer this world of words. I love finding a new word or phrase that dances off the page in perfect resonance to what’s happening in a story. I even have a few pet phrases I use from time to time in my own writing.

Recently my critique partner commented on a couple of them that were unfamiliar to her. Both were things I’ve heard all my life and wrote them without thinking, but it got me thinking about whether I had used them in the precise manner I intended. So I did a quick Google search for their origin and meanings.

She didn’t know up from sic ‘em.


She doesn’t know sic ‘em

She doesn’t know sic ‘em twice

. . .here from sic ‘em

. . . sic ‘em from come here

. . . sic ‘em from go get ‘em.

The term is more common in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, thus falling in to the colloquial category. The meanings vary slightly—some derogatory, some just a casual description of a person who knows nothing, has diminished capacity, is a dunderhead or ignorant, sometimes used to describe an unresponsive or shiftless person. The term probably originated from people who owned dogs that wouldn’t follow commands, hence the ignorant connotation. Similar to saying a person doesn’t know beans or is dumber than a box of hammers.

Since the person I referred to in my manuscript is mentally incapacitated due to Alzheimer’s and I don’t want to assign a derogatory quality to her, I will probably choose another term that evokes a more sympathetic tone.

Vim and Vinegar—another phrase I used that gave my critique buddy pause. This is a common malapropism which is the combination of two different phrases that result in unintentional humor or the wrong context. The term comes from mixing the phrases vim and vigor and pi$$ and vinegar. Vim was a cleaning powder created in Liverpool, England; vigor, of course, means vitality or energy. The pi$$ and vinegar denotes some sort of extra kick. Combined into vim and vinegar, it means spirited, vigorous, maybe a bit of contrast. Which is the meaning I was going for in my recent manuscript as I describe two characters who are quite different, but are married and give off an adventurous energy. They are spunky and endearing, so I will probably keep the description.

Fine as frog hair. A term my dad is fond of saying when asked how he is. I like the irony of this phrase which means “I’m in good health and all is well.” It just has a more colorful ring than the usual Just fine, don’t you think?

I swan. During the edit phase of my upcoming novel, Chasing Lilacs, my editor asked what this term meant. Some people use it as a euphemism for I swear and is commonly heard in the South, where perhaps a genteel person wouldn’t swear, so they use a more accepted word. It also is used to denote surprise as is goodness gracious! or oh my Gosh! Another variation is I swanee or Swanee River, again seeming to be a euphemism.

These phrases flit about in my head, and I want to use them to give color and verisimilitude to my prose. I owe it to my characters to be true to them, and I owe it to my readers to transport them into the fictitious world I’ve created. But with that, I have a responsibility as an author to use colloquialisms, etc. correctly. I don’t take it lightly.

Oh! I just thought of another one. When I was a teenager and someone asked a question to which the obvious answer was yes, we would say Does a chicken have lips? We thought this was hilarious. Nowadays, the equivalent is the annoying, unoriginal Duh??

So that’s my language lesson for today. Have you heard any of these phrases before? Or used them? What colloquialisms, euphemisms, or malapropisms have you encountered or used to spice up your writing?


Myra Johnson said...

LOL, Carla, great post!!! I remember a lady I knew when I was growing up who often said, "Well, I swan to John!" I do think these kinds of colloquialisms add warmth and realism to dialogue, and it's kind of fun to learn new ones--or even make up a few of my own!

Erica Vetsch said...

lol! I use "Didn't know sic 'em from c'mere."

And in the place of "I swan." I'd say Oh, my sainted Aunt Jemimah.

A lot of my colloquialisms were pointed out to me when I moved to another part of the country from where I was brought up.

Minnesotans don't call a heavy rain a 'toad strangler.' :)