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Epithets


Libby Drew

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The auburn-haired mother of four greeted her children as they came to the table. "Eggs for breakfast?" she asked the blond twelve-year old boy.

"I want waffles," the youngest daughter cut in.

"Me too," said the dark-haired brooding teen, the oldest of the four.

"This isn't a restaurant." The frazzled woman frowned. "You'll eat what I give you."

[This example brought to you by a Thursday morning at Libby's house.] :D

 

So...epithets

 

the taller man

the blond

the young girl

the cop

the waitress

 

They're a popular writing device, but I do I try to use them sparingly

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It took me a long while and more than one person to pointedly tell me before I figured out that using the epithet 'the other man' really sucked. That's one of the things I'll change when I edit my story Mike and Winston one last time. But it's something that's highly tempting, especially in a gay story, because they're both guys... If it were a heterosexual relationship, you could bounce between 'he' and 'she.' But here, you can't. Nonetheless, I think repeating names is better than the particular epithet I kept using.

 

I've written stories and scenes -- usually when characters are just being introduced -- in which I don't want the reader to know the names of the characters just yet. Sometimes it's because I think knowing a name will somehow... pin the character down before I'm ready for it. Other times they just haven't had a chance to introduce themselves.

 

It might be the case that I, as a writer, have been more sensitive to the presence of characters' names than the readers are.

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Hmm... I almost always use either a character's name or a pronoun. Though I think, epithets are okay, if used sparingly. I find it awkward to use them writing first person, but third person does it well for me.

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But it's something that's highly tempting, especially in a gay story, because they're both guys... If it were a heterosexual relationship, you could bounce between 'he' and 'she.' But here, you can't.

 

 

Tempting? Sometimes it's your only choice, plain and simple. ;) And -- as the writer -- it can be difficult to see whether a "he" or a name is more appropriate. But I've noticed my betas never hesitate to tell me when I've over used "he" and the characters are getting confused in their heads. So I work in a name, an identifier, while all the while trying to keep the prose flowing smoothly. Frustrating!

 

The most challenging for me? Intimate scenes where there's a lot of alternating action. He did this, he did that.

 

I mean, the other he. :P

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I find it awkward to use them writing first person, but third person does it well for me.

 

 

Which makes perfect sense, right? I mean, how often do you refer to someone in your own head like that? Unless you're calling them colorful names. :lol:

 

Completely agreed on the first person issue. :D

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It took me a long while and more than one person to pointedly tell me before I figured out that using the epithet 'the other man' really sucked.

 

Yeah it took ages...... :P

 

I think I, on the other hand, am almost under-using epithets. I use the characters' names or pronouns, not because I'm trying to avoid epithets but because I rarely think of using them.

 

I've written stories and scenes -- usually when characters are just being introduced -- in which I don't want the reader to know the names of the characters just yet. Sometimes it's because I think knowing a name will somehow... pin the character down before I'm ready for it. Other times they just haven't had a chance to introduce themselves.

 

Yes, that happens to me too; a name gives you an intimacy that you don't always want at first, and at the same time it gives you a certain distance to a character -- sounds weird, maybe, but where you introduce a character's name in a story matters very much, I think. So yeah, sometimes one has to delay that.

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I've written stories and scenes -- usually when characters are just being introduced -- in which I don't want the reader to know the names of the characters just yet. Sometimes it's because I think knowing a name will somehow... pin the character down before I'm ready for it. Other times they just haven't had a chance to introduce themselves.

 

It might be the case that I, as a writer, have been more sensitive to the presence of characters' names than the readers are.

I definitely agree that you need to use epithets in order to maintain a little mystery, if that's what you're trying to do. Withholding the name, say until the very end, could really mean a lot to the story as a whole, so in that case, pronouns would get a bit confusing with the other mostly male characters, as well as you cannot introduce their name just yet.

 

As for the writing being more sensitive to the possiblity of overusing a characters' name, yeah, I'm sure that's true. Usually, writers are more critical of their work than anyone else, but I wouldn't want to use the same name ten times in one small paragraph.

 

I guess it's a good idea to limit it, but when you do use it, make sure it fits into the story and really works and blends well. However, I'm sure a lot of writers use them and don't even realize it until it is brought to their attention....like right now.

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It is useful and sometimes important to mention characteristics of a character. The original section gave some broad descriptions of the characters involved and that's good, though it misses the names. As an example, I would use the mother's name at the start of the second sentence, rather than "She". The reader has a few details from the first sentence, and the second sentence is a good place to introduce her name.

 

My only other real comment on the above example is that it was so heavy with descriptions that it is hard to keep the character straight in my mind -- they were thrown at me too fast. Alternatively, you can just say I'm slow :P

 

It doesn't take a lot to use these sorts of things from time to time, but moderation is key. It can also be useful as a way of reminding the reader of a characteristic that they may have forgotten: The skater looked up from his lunch. "What the h*** do you think I'll be doing after school?"

 

As a final note, the above examples are more description than epithets. None of them were really defining characteristics of the person. See also the Wikipedia article on the subject of Epithets.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I say they are a good thing. It's something that I use on regular basis. I find it more original to use those rather than using simple pronouns. It's also a good way to introduce characteristic of your protagonist/antagonist.

 

But It's the same as most of the words... you gotta vary them. always using the same one make it boring and redundant.

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About the only time I find epithets confusing and inappropriate is when there are multiple epithets in one sentence or paragraph and the reader can easily get confused about which character is being referenced. It's even worse when personal pronouns are involved.

 

Corvus, having read M&W several times now, including as a beta and an editor, I didn't find any glaringly obvious abuse of epithets or personal pronouns. Procyon has read it too and seems to agree with my assessment. I think you're being too harsh with yourself.

 

There are plenty of examples from other authors where epithets and personal pronouns are horribly abused. To the point where I have no idea who is saying what to whom. It's the kind of mistake that's often made by novice writers and is yet another example of why having a beta is such a great idea. :)

 

More salient to the topic of this thread, I agree with what Libby stated:

 

But, unlike what I've been told, I disagree that epithets are universally bad. I think they can do an excellent job of fleshing out a new character, one who's being newly introduced and also occasionally for other reasons.

 

There is certainly a place for epithets in stories. Just don't abuse them or you run the risk of them becoming cliched and, as I stated before, confusing.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I personally think it is better to have a good mix. I do not think there is a magical ratio of character name versus epithet. However, over usage of pronouns does seem to be a common problem. In addition, it is often better not to use archaic terms like "waitress". Instead, gender-neutral words like server should be used. :)

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I actually had this as an issue with something I recently wrote. I learnt that there is only so many ways to refer to someone when you don't know their name....

 

I found it a challenge to avoid being repetitive. I'm hoping I succeeded. :D It's in my next anthology entry, so if you think I didn't succeed, feel free to tell me.

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I personally think it is better to have a good mix. I do not think there is a magical ratio of character name versus epithet. However, over usage of pronouns does seem to be a common problem. In addition, it is often better not to use archaic terms like "waitress". Instead, gender-neutral words like server should be used. :)

 

Why?

A gender neutral word gives less information.

If you're writing a story then you want to create a picture in the reader's mind. You might describe the colour of the table cloth, so why not refer to the gender of the person to complete the mental picture?

 

What may be 'archaic' where you live may be perfectly up-to-date elsewhere. For example, the use of 'gotten' is considered to be archaic here in England but (IIUC) is still commonly used in the USA. Referring to a waiter or waitress as a 'server' where I live would make you a laughing stock - provided, of course, that they didn't take it as an insult.

 

Futhermore, if it really is essential for PC-ness to avoid any reference to gender then one should at least try to avoid 'ugly' alternatives or more demeaning alternatives. Regardless of gender, 'server' is much more demeaning than 'waiter'. Whereas 'waiter' is just a job desccription, 'server' invokes connotaions of servant, servility, etc.

 

Kit

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Kit, there are differences here. That I can assure you. I just figure it best to try not to insult anyone. I would actually prefer not having to be PC. I think too many Americans have corncobs up their butts. Until that problem is solved, I'm afraid we just have to go along with it even in writing. By the way, there are other ways to reveal a character's gender.

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I had dinner with my father tonight. The guy who took care of us introduced himself by stating, "Hi guys. My name is Bill and I'll be serving you tonight. Just let me know if there's anything you need." That's the way all the wait staff at this restaurant introduce themselves. It's a very nice seafood restaurant that's been around for decades.

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Job titles are changing all the time. To an extent, using them helps set the time and location, because they do change.

 

For example, a modern story would use "Flight Attendant", while a story set back maybe twenty years would use "Stewardess" (or "Steward" with a raised eyebrow if the person was male).

 

In Australia, I would use waiter or waitress, though I could use waiter as a gender non-specific term, just like actor is being increasingly used for both male and females.

 

At a restaurant, I could get "I'll be serving you tonight", or "I'll be your waiter tonight". Either is possible, and both are correct. One is saying what they'll be doing. The other is saying what their role will be. "I'll be your server tonight" would be rare.

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I'm with Kit on this one; I see nothing insulting in using a gender specific title. Hence, I'd certainly use waiter or waitress rather than server. To me, a server is a computer system. LoL. I also use "stewardess" where appropriate. I don't see this as different from using "congressman" or "congresswoman" (which I do use, though I tened to use "Congresscritter" far more often) or simply saying he or she. I've seen gender-neutral pronouns used too, and I find that jarring when reading. I do however feel this should all be up to the author's preferences. :)

 

CJ :)

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I'm with Kit on this one; I see nothing insulting in using a gender specific title. Hence, I'd certainly use waiter or waitress rather than server. To me, a server is a computer system. LoL. I also use "stewardess" where appropriate. I don't see this as different from using "congressman" or "congresswoman" (which I do use, though I tened to use "Congresscritter" far more often) or simply saying he or she. I've seen gender-neutral pronouns used too, and I find that jarring when reading. I do however feel this should all be up to the author's preferences. :)

 

Lol, that's what 'server' makes me think of too. I'd never heard it used for waiter/waitress. Btw what is not PC about that anyway? That it's gender-specific? Is that offensive these days?

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Lol, that's what 'server' makes me think of too. I'd never heard it used for waiter/waitress. Btw what is not PC about that anyway? That it's gender-specific? Is that offensive these days?

 

I'm just guessing, but I think some people might feel that way. I personally don't see why, but that's just me. However, I'm a little biased on this issue, as I think that "politically correct" is about as offensive a term as exists anywhere. LoL.

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Kit, there are differences here. That I can assure you. I just figure it best to try not to insult anyone. I would actually prefer not having to be PC. I think too many Americans have corncobs up their butts. Until that problem is solved, I'm afraid we just have to go along with it even in writing. By the way, there are other ways to reveal a character's gender.

 

Is it really considered insulting in the USA to refer to a person's gender?

Is gender something to be ashamed of?

As far as I'm concerned gender is no more discriminatory that hair colour. Do red-heads or blonds feel insulted when you refer to them as a red-head or blond?

 

As Graeme mentioned, now 'actor' is used for both genders and I no longer see use the word comedienne used. While I personally feel that this impovershes the language, I have no real problem with it. So if one really wants to be gender neutral, why not, by analogy with 'actor' and 'comedian', just use 'waiter' for both genders?

 

Why do I feel that insistence on gender neutrality impoverishes the language? Let's look at some examples that may appear in a story.

 

'During the meal I was sure the server was flirting with me.'

or

'During the meal I was sure the cute red-haired server was flirting with me.'

or

'During the meal I was sure the cute red-haired waiter was flirting with me.'

The first example isn't very informative and doesn't much help the reader form a mental picture. The second example tells the reader a bit more, not only that the server was red-haired but that the 'I' character finds him/her cute. The third example indicates not only the gender of the people mentioned but also sexuality and hints that a certain sexual attraction betwen them may be giving a little frisson of excitement to the meal.

 

'He had sex with a famous Holywood actor.'

If that was in a story with gay characters one might assume that the actor was male and that both 'He' and the actor were gay or bi. On the other hand, both could be bi and the actor could be a woman. So maybe you should specify, i.e. 'He had sex with a famous female Holywood actor.' However, to me that sounds less elegant than 'He had sex with a famous Holywood actress.'

 

'I enjoyed visiting my sibling.'

or

'I enjoyed visiting my younger brother.'

Is the latter insulting because it refers to both gender and age?

 

'The parent prepared food for the child.'

or

'Mother prepared lunch for her little boy.'

 

Yes, I know some of the above examples are extreme, but they indicate how an insistence on gender neutrality could either impoverish the language or require that the writer jump through hoops and indulge in linguistic gymnastics just to avoid being gender specific.

 

Maybe some people will take offence if I'm gender-specific in my stories, just as some people will take offence if I write about gay relationships. However, I won't be jumping through any hoops or doing any linguistic gymnastics just to avoid offending those over-sensitive people. Indeed, how can one write about same-sex relationships without being gender-specific?

 

Kit

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At a restaurant, I could get "I'll be serving you tonight", or "I'll be your waiter tonight". Either is possible, and both are correct. One is saying what they'll be doing. The other is saying what their role will be. "I'll be your server tonight" would be rare.

 

Yes, I totally agree.

I must stop agreeing with you so much, Graeme, or people might start suspecting that we're having a secret relationship!

:)

 

Kit

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At the restaurant I work at, my job title is either "server" or "salesperson" depending on what mood the business is in. If they feel like crunching me for not selling enough, then I'm failing at my job as a salesperson. If I've screwed up and delivered food to the wrong table, then I'm a failure as a server.

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