Elmore Leonard’s extraordinary ordinary language

Tuesday, 11 March, 2014

In the early 1950s, Elmore Leonard worked as an advertising copywriter for Chevrolet. When he was asked to come up with a catchy line for the company’s half-ton trucks he went into the field to interview the men who drove them. One guy said, “You can’t wear the motherfucker out. You just get sick of looking at it and buy another one.” The Chevy executives laughed nervously when Leonard presented it to them, but said no thanks. That wasn’t what they wanted on billboards or in magazines. But it was exactly the kind of language that appeared in Leonard’s books a decade later when he turned to crime fiction writing, where it expressed the ordinary without being ordinary.

For example, there’s a scene in the 1995 film Get Shorty where Chili Palmer’s coat disappears from a restaurant cloakroom. When he takes the restaurant owner aside, he doesn’t say, “Hey, where my coat, it cost $400,” Instead, he says: “You see a black leather jacket, has lapels like a suit coat? You don’t, you owe me $379.” In the film of the book, John Travolta riffs memorably on Leonard’s language.

Language note: According to Jim Dawson’s The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words, “Possibly the earliest literary use of the term motherfucker was in the Ionic poetry of Hipponax, who accused a sculptor who had insulted him of being a metrokoites.” Dawson traces the first written American instance to a Texas Court of Appeals judgement in 1890.

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