6. Two cultures

Winston Churchill said that the UK and the US were two cultures divided by a common language. As a Brit working with an American editor on the serialisation of A Prize of Sovereigns, I’m experiencing that first hand. Yesterday I received the edit of Chapter 8, and we ended up having a dialogue about the phrase “heavy horse”. My editor had made this plural, changing it to “heavy horses”.

In Medieval times, armoured knights on horseback were the shock combat weapons of war. A charge by hundreds of them could smash through an enemy’s lines. Collectively, they were known as “heavy horse”. The singular was used in the same as we might use “armour” today to collectively describe a brigade of tanks. “Heavy horses”, on the other hand, would mean a group of plough horses, not the fearsome threat of a mass mounted charge.

Of course, phalanxes of armoured knights on their terrible horses never thundered over the prairies of the United States. Not unreasonably, my editor said “heavy horse” meant nothing to her, and suggested we change it to “cavalry”. The problem is the word cavalry only began to come into use in the mid-sixteenth century, and A Prize of Sovereigns is set in the fifteenth century. Cavalry, for me, has the resonance of men armed with sabres, not broadswords.

In fact, to be fair to my editor, this isn’t just an issue of Brit and Yankee usage of the language. It’s also about vocabulary past and present. The same issue came up in Chapter 2, where Reuven, one of the main characters, wonders whether the leader of a peasant revolt has “treated” with the King. Reuven does not know at that point that the King has, rather ignobly, had the peasant leader shortened by a head while they met under a flag of truce. The verb “to treat” originally meant to negotiate. My editor persuaded me that nobody knew this anymore and to change it to “treatied”, which isn’t really a word at all, but hey ho! Reuven is only a peasant, and doesn’t speak proper.

It’s a new and pleasant problem for me, trying to decide when to stick to my guns, and when to yield. The writer is the custodian of the story’s interests, and the editor that of the reader’s interests. Once you publish, of course, the story belongs to the reader. On the “heavy horse” issue, we compromised on “detachment of heavy horse”.

The meaning of words, and how they change over time and place, is fascinating, and part of an author’s stock-in-trade to convey not only meaning but atmosphere. Even the word “word” carries new resonances today. It comes from old English, in which it means both an utterance and a truth. The second of those meanings, as in “my word is my bond”, has migrated into US street lingo.

“I got a new car.”
“Word?” [i.e. Really?]
“Word.” [i.e. I’m telling the truth]

However carefully you select your words and pin them to the page, they live lives of their own and will escape eventually. Nevertheless, we must try, as William Carlos Williams reminds us in Paterson:

“It is dangerous to leave written that which is badly written. A chance word, upon paper, may destroy the world. Watch carefully and erase, while the power is still yours, I say to myself, for all that is put down, once it escapes, may rot its way into a thousand minds, the corn become a black smut, and all libraries, of necessity, be burned to the ground as a consequence.”


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