Friday, June 22, 2018

Cockamamie and gallimaufry

Geraldine McCaughrean, courtesy of Oxford English Dictionary

This week, Geraldine McCaughrean won the Carnegie Medal for her novel, Where the World Ends, a book aimed at middle-grade, early secondary readers. She used her winner's speech to highlight the problems she's had directly (as have other authors) with publishers wanting to dumb down language for children. 

She warned that a new focus on “accessible” prose for younger readers will lead to “an underclass of citizens with a small but functional vocabulary: easy to manipulate and lacking in the means to reason their way out of subjugation”.

A US publisher said, for instance you use the word gallimaufry. No child is going to know what it means’. Of course they’re not. Most people don’t know what gallimaufry means, but you get it from the gist, from the context. That’s how you learn language … and who doesn’t want to come across gallimaufry?”

Classic children's writers and more modern ones, including J K Rowling, Diane Wynne Jones and Susan Creech, all offer words that are out of the experience of the children reading the books. But that's the point: they offer them these words so that the children's minds will grow.

And if they don't understand the word, then they can look it up if they can't guess its meaning from the context. Even better, with Kindle readers, you can do that as you read, something I do myself frequently, even though I'm several decades older than middle grade readers. I do it with thrillers, and classic novels, with theology and philosophy and more. None of us has every word in the language in our heads, which is why dictionaries were invented.

When it comes to writing my own books, I've shied away from soft-soaping the language, both because I agree with what McCaughrean says, and because there are words that are apt for the moment, for the sentence, for the rhythm, for the character, for the humour. Often these won't be words a child will necessarily know, but if an easier, less suitable word, is substituted, then the child will never know them.

It's as if children's publishers want to deny children the treasures of their own language.

And why cockamamie in the title? It doesn't appear in any of my books, but I recently decided to use it in the advertising of Grimhilda! the first of my children's fantasies. It's not an everyday word, but has been around a fair time, and moreover, was used for a period by children in the US as a fun word. I may not use it again, but it has a distinctness about it that makes it stand out. And that's what writing is about: using the best word for the occasion.

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