Memoir Writers – Watch Your Language!

by Matilda Butler on May 10, 2016

Writing Prompt LogoPost #232 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Matilda Butler

Language Changes and Memoirs Need to Reflect Word Usage

The words, the language we use today becomes so natural that we sometimes put it into dialogue that took place decades ago. Did we really remind a spouse to get a new PIN in the late 1960s? What about going to a jazzercise class with your best friend in 1970?

Let me give you an example looking at this from the opposite side. How about using “old” words when the other person in the conversation is likely to expect the “new” word.

memoir writing tipI have such fun being with my two-year old granddaughter. She’s always eager to show what she knows and to learn more. One day we were looking at a phone in a hotel room. I pointed to each number in order and she told me what it was. I showed her the * (star) symbol in the lower left. She knew the concept for star and so easily incorporated it into her recital. Then I mixed it up. I’d say “two” and she’d point to “2″. I’d say “five” and she’d point to the “5″. I said “star” and she’d point to the “*”. That just left one symbol, the #. I told her it was a “pound sign.” That was a little harder for her. We’d go through some more pointing and she would occasionally say, “What’s that?” I’d say, “pound sign” and we’d continue our little game. When her dad came back from a morning run, I went through the game again so that he could see what we’d been doing. Then she once again pointed and said, “What’s that?” I replied “pound sign” and explained to her Dad that I’d been teaching her something new.

His response? “Mom, don’t you know that she’s growing up to think of that as a hashtag.”

Of course. He is basically right and that reminded me of the changes that occur in language over time and that we need to be aware of words that are specific to an era.

Even my use of pound sign wasn’t completely correct, although it is what I have always said. For clarification:

Number sign is a name for the symbol #, which is used for a variety of purposes, including (mainly in Canada and the United States) the designation of a number (for example, “#1″ stands for “number one”). On many social media platforms, it is used to declare a searchable metadata tag called a hashtag.

The term number sign is most commonly used when the symbol is used before a number. In the United States and Canada, it is sometimes known as the pound sign (particularly in the context of its use on telephone keypads), and has been traditionally used in the food industry as an abbreviation for pounds avoirdupois. Outside of North America the symbol is called hash and the corresponding telephone key is called the “hash key”, and the term “pound sign” usually describes the British currency symbol “£”.

Okay. Are you thoroughly confused? Well, this article is about more than whether you should say hashtag, number sign, or pound sign. It is a reminder to make sure your use of words actually enhances the reader’s experience, helps the reader to recall an earlier era, or is just plain accurate.

What about these words and phrases from the 1960s. Lay it on me. Tell me. Teenybopper. Head trip. Passion pit (I don’t remember using that phrase but it did refer to a drive-in movie. Try to find one of those these days. I’m sure my granddaughter would be puzzled by that reference.) Outta sight. Righteous (meaning fantastic). Catch some Zs.

Now fast forward to the mid 1970s with: Bollywood, Boogie Board…and yes, the reference on my first paragraph to jazzercise and PIN (personal identification number).

If you are writing about your experiences in the 1960s, don’t throw in too many of these somewhat dated phrases. But a few, used judiciously, may help bring the reader into your scenes and remind her or him how we used to sound. And be forward thinking. Language changes all the time and there may be occasions when you want to use hashtag instead of pound sign.

Well. That’s it for today. Gotta split.

Memoir Writing Prompt

1. Think back to a period of time (or place) that will be covered in your memoir. Then mentally transport yourself back to that time/place and try to recall the language you used. If you write about 1955 might you and your siblings watch the “$64,000 Question”? We did in my family and we all tried to figure out what the correct answer would be. Or maybe you and your sister watched the “Mickey Mouse Club” on ABC. If your father was a smoker back then (and so many fathers were), you might observe him taking a cigarette out of a flip-top box (new that year).

2. Make a list of words, phrases, and events of that period. You may only use a few of these in your memoir, but they will help you dig deeper into the details of that time period.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Debbie Dean June 6, 2016 at

Such a good reminder!
Whenever I think of my grandmother, I see her in her kitchen kneading dough on a tin top table. She stands 5′ tall, wearing a floral patterned mid-calf housedress under her apron, her rolled hose with her sturdy, black shoes, and her snow white bun at the nape of her neck. She is responding enthusiastically to my teen age story with “Great balls of fire!”
Even today, this picture in my mind brings a smile!
Thanks for this important reminder.

Matilda Butler June 6, 2016 at

Hi Debbie:

What a great example. I love all the details you’ve shown us in your example. And then your grandmother’s words…”Great balls of fire!” Language makes our writing powerful.

Ann June 7, 2016 at

What a wonderful article and I know I’m constantly guilty of saying ridiculous things to my grandchildren such as “Did you pull the chain?” after they go to the toilet – I haven’t seen a chain flush toilet for ‘donkeys years’ (another one).

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