I once, briefly, made my money by clearing large stacks of scrap metal from my mother’s back yard. Dad had scavenged tons of the stuff and even put some of it to good uses – we built a very serviceable workshop out of it – but after his death in 2001, there was no further need of it, and my mother asked me to make it gone. I unloaded the racks and loaded up the trailer time and again, carting the scrap off to whichever scrap metal recycler was paying the most at the time, usually the same one.
On one of these occasions a portion of my scrap was rejected summarily. “We don’t take tin!” I was told by a rather impatient scrapyard proprietor.
“Tin?” I repeated in surprise.
“That’s tin,” he explained, jabbing a finger at some thin sheet metal I had carefully tested with a magnet before heading out. I had sorted everything, segregating aluminum from iron from copper, and so on most carefully. I shrugged, still confused and left the items on my trailer. On returning home, I tested the metal sheets again and found that a magnet did, indeed, stick to them. It was perplexing. I called the scrapyard and asked what I deemed to be a pertinent question.
“Scrapyard,” snapped a voice on the phone.
“Hi, I was there a bit ago, and you told me I had tin. How do I tell tin from iron so I don’t-”
He cut me off, “Tin is thin steel.”
“Sorry, it’s thin steel?”
“Tin is thin steel,” he repeated.
“Wouldn’t a magnet-”
There was click as he hung up on me.
I had a problem. I knew then and know now that tin and iron are on the periodic table of elements. They have different atomic weights. Making one thinner doesn’t change its atomic weight and turn it into another. I thought the matter over a moment. Yes, tin was definitely a separate element. It was mined in Britain and transported to the Middle East to be mixed with copper to make bronze in the ancient world. It was patently not an extruded form of iron. Ludicrous statements such as “tin is thin steel” were intellectually offensive. I held the phone in my hand and stared at the blank screen in annoyance. “Ignorant bastard,” I muttered.
But was there something to what the scrapyard proprietor had said? Surely the man knew his business. I thought it over. I went to the encyclopedia and looked up tin just to make sure it didn’t have a week magnetism. Maybe I was mistaken in some way. Maybe the metal sheets in question were an alloy, and he could tell on sight by virtue of doing his work every day. Maybe “thin steel” was scrapyard jargon for tin or a tin iron alloy, who knew? I did some research and found a few things out.
Tin is not noticeably magnetic. However, it turns out that thin sheets of steel, for roofing and siding and such are either galvanized with zinc oxide or coated in tin. Both of these will keep the steel from rusting. Tin doesn’t rust, despite the impression you may get from a popular song by the B52s. It’s a fun song, and you probably know and have shouted the refrain, “Tin roof! Rusted.” Tin doesn’t rust, but iron or steel roofs do as do the same whose tin coating has worn down. I could only suppose that Mr. I Have No Time for the Likes of You meant that he didn’t want anything coated in tin.
Words have meaning. They are meant to communicate. That’s what they do. They are more than random noise. The frustrating sentenced, “tin is thin steel,” seemed a very poor attempt at explanation. Maybe it worked for the ordinary clientele of the scrapyard. The other folk dropping off scrap were probably not holders of multiple college degrees and didn’t commonly or even rarely consult the periodic table of elements. They would likely shrug and set aside all of their pieces of thin iron or steel without a question. Scrapyard shorthand worked for them, I suppose. I found it intellectually insulting. It was patently wrong. It probably was not intended, or even thought of, by the proprietor as being dishonest. I was simply an outsider to the jargon of the scrapyard, an over educated intruder, an interloper.
The scrapyard proprietor lost a customer that day, not over the statement “tin is thin steel,” but because he was rude and too impatient to explain. Several tons of good iron beams never made it to him. To be sure, he probably never missed it, but I took my business elsewhere. Another scrapyard a little further off but paying the same took everything I brought without complaint, even the steel sheets with tin coatings, if that is what they were. The lesson stuck with me though, long after I had broken down and sold off even the iron racks on which the uncounted beams and pipes had rested for years.
As a writer, I mustn’t assume that jargon and shorthand are enough to get by. Those doing research will appreciate explanation, and those doing leisure reading will generally appreciate not having to research. The approaches are different in the different milieus, but the necessity for clarity remains in both. Every time I write something that makes a beta reader wince the way I did that day, I remember “tin is thin steel,” and go back to rewrite the passage until it is clear.