Anne Coray: Defending the Home Turf — Alaska Style

I had Visqueen, Blazo, and a .22 strapped to my snowmachine.

If you were born in Alaska or grew up here, this sentence makes perfect sense. But even if you’ve only been here a few years, you’ve probably had ample time to learn the lingo. Outside editors, however, usually have a different take. Readers won’t know what you’re talking about, is the usual caveat.

My argument is that keeping a few brand names and colloquialisms adds local color to our writing. What would Faulkner have done, if he’d been spinning stories set in the North?

Looking again at that first sentence, an Outside (to use Alaska speak) editor would probably suggest “plastic sheeting” in lieu of Visqueen, “white gas” instead of Blazo. Damn, though—that’s not what we say up here. Okay, I can concede on the white gas, but plastic sheeting just isn’t in our vocabulary. Then there’s the .22—who needs “rifle” to follow? Tacking on the explanatory noun seems redundant and unnecessary. As for snowmachine, I’ve been told by my New York editor (my younger brother, a former acquisitions editor at Syracuse U. Press) that most non-Alaskans would consider this “a machine used for making snow.” But I stubbornly refuse to use the word snowmobile in my writing.

Besides losing local color, another problem of giving in to these kinds of edits is that it makes for lazy readers. What ever happened to the practice of sleuthing out meanings based on context, or simply looking up words that are unfamiliar? With Internet now sitting in most people’s laps, how hard is it to Google “Visqueen”?

Don’t get me wrong—certainly may editors raise good points and the writer has a degree of obligation to his or her audience. We don’t want to confuse people; neither do we want to spoon-feed them.

I’d love to hear from the rest of you on this, with specific examples of words or phrases you’ve had to fight for. Or, to put in another way, when you’ve decided to stick to your aught-six.

Anne Coray’s latest collection of poetry is A Measure’s Hush, published by Boreal Books. She lives on Lake Clark and her website is

4 thoughts on “Anne Coray: Defending the Home Turf — Alaska Style”

  1. This is more of a concept than a word or phrase, but here's what I had to debate with myself whether to leave in:

    A friend (non-Alaskan), when reviewing a work of mine which is set in the fishing world of Alaska, said he found it unbelievable that a woman would be a bartender in a rowdy fishermen's bar.

    I thought perhaps if that stopped him in his tracks and caused him to question the veracity of the story, then other readers might react that way too. Maybe, I reasoned, I should make the bartender a burly guy.
    Wait just a minute, I then told myself. Bartenders in rowdy fishermen's bars are ALWAYS female in the ones I've been in.
    She stayed in my story. Because that's the way it IS in Alaska – at least the one I know.
    Therese H.

  2. Debby Dahl Edwardson

    I had to change snow machine to skidoo in my picture book, Whale Snow. The editor said people in the lower 48 don't know what a snow machine is and would be apt envision a snow blower. I fought, as well, to keep an image comparing snowflakes to cotton grass. I won that one. They initially thought it referred to t-shirts on a clothesline or something.

    I used village English in Blessing's Bead–that took a lot of back and forth with copy editors.

    More examples then I can even remember in my upcoming book, My Name is Not Easy.

    I guess we just keep fighting the good fight to write it true.

  3. Anne,

    Don't change your word usage, change the world through your word usage. I say "crick" not "creek." And many times I've had to explain the difference between a "troller" and a "trawler." Thanks for the interesting post!

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