BY CHERYL ELAINE WILLIAMS, WRITING AS SHARLANA WILLIAMS
I thought I found a typo on Page One of a newly-published novel. The word in question broke my concentration and made me stop reading to consider what the devil the author meant. The sentence described horses tied to a hitching post, their ‘backs FLOCKED with fluffy, white snow.’
Huh? Surely the author meant to say, FLECKED with snow. The horses had to be FLECKED with snowflakes. No, it’s correct, another writer friend assured me, “Flocking is the process of depositing many small fiber particles, called FLOCK, onto a surface.” Wikipedia said so.
A quick search of several online dictionaries produced no such definition, which reinforced my impression that this concept of flocking snow does not spring to the forefront in the general mindset of the standard reader. Birds flock, I’ve heard of flocks of sheep, a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions. But I’ve never heard of snowflakes banding together to flurry downward in a flock. In the setting of the novel in question, the American West of 1880, would a cowboy mutter, “Old Paint’s all flocked with snow today, pardner.” If I saw snow falling on my windshield, would I say, “Damn look at it flock.”
That said, that original line is a pretty phrase. Novels try to turn a sweet phrase, so I’ll be looking to see this phrase reoccur in other novels by this same publisher now that they’ve okayed the usage. New usages of words and phrases become accepted all the time. Think of ‘gone missing’ for a disappearance or kidnapping, which came into general use in the U.S. media approximately a decade ago. Before that it was always, “So and so has been reported missing”. Another change that at least one publisher pushed in the 90’s was ‘employe’ for ‘employee’, spelled with one ‘e’. U.S. News and World Report insisted on that usage at the time and I remember that it was a distraction as I read their articles. (I checked their online website today and see they’re now spelling the word with two ‘ee’s.)
Another example: the current preference for gender-neutral language which advises that an actress must be referred to as an ‘actor’. Of course it would all depend on the policy of the media in question and the editor. An interviewer would want to ask an actress how she wishes to be addressed. I as a writer would prefer to dodge the issue because someone, somewhere might object to calling Meryl Streep an ‘actor’, and someone else might object to ‘actor’ being used at all, considering the term as having the same disreputable connotation as a carnival barker or traveling medicine man. I’d prefer the term ‘performer’ or ‘artist’, even ‘artiste’, with an adjective: ‘consummate performer’ or ‘accomplished artiste’.
A thought to consider. Should a writer use a phrase that might produce confusion in the reader, when our main objective as writers is to produce clarity of thought that keeps the reader reading, that does not distract them from the story we’re trying to tell? That said, it’s time to flick off this topic.