The Perils of Slinging Slang

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To slang, or not to slang?

First, it’s important to make a distinction between slang and genre dialect. If you’re writing crime noir set during the Depression, your readers are going to expect some gaudy patter about gats and dames and gin joints. And if your novel is set in the Old West, there’s going to be a lot of shootin’ and ridin’ and “pardner” this and “stranger” that.

But you have to strike a balance — an excess of slang within dialect will easily tip homage into parody. And, prithee, don’t clutter your medieval romance or high fantasy with feverishly filigreed language that would require subtitles if it were to be adapted to film.

A more immediate danger, however, is in incorporating contemporary lingo or catchphrases into fiction that takes place in the present or in nonfiction about a current topic. Ten years on, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” or “Not so much” still work, but they’re getting stale. Soon, they’ll likely be as irrelevant as those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink parody movies like Scary Movie and Epic Movie, where look-alike cameos of pop-culture 15-minute wonders pop up randomly, with hilarity presumably ensuing.

Some years back, I read a detective novel featuring a black private eye in which the narrative and the dialogue alike were laced with “Aaaiiiiight” and other African American elocution. It was less annoying than you might think (the authenticity was actually refreshing), but the novelty was just that — in retrospect, an ephemeral affectation.

The medium for which you write will determine the shelf life of slang. Online publication can be almost instantaneous, but it lives on forever, and the slang therein soon loses its luster. Newspaper readers are more forgiving, because they’re consuming the paper’s news and feature articles in the moment, but a magazine article sees print up to several months after submission (and people are likely to hold on to periodicals than papers), and books and film scripts are written a year or more before they hit the shelves and screens.

Some slang lives forever — booze and “beat it” are each hundreds of years old — and occasionally a slang term (mob, for example, or lousy) — becomes part of standard speech, but be prudent about incorporating slang into your writing; individual writers who nominate rad or groovy for posterity when something with the staying power of cool is available risk distracting their readers with an unintentional verbal equivalent of a speed bump.

Slang can also be misinterpreted, or may at least interfere with comprehension, as language shifts. The context will probably help your readers understand what you mean by tranny, but as the diminutive of transvestite overtakes that for transmission in terms of frequency of use, any employment of it for the latter meaning outside of a car magazine may elicit an interruption of concentration.

The ubiquity of slang in spoken discourse inures us to it, but when it is sealed in print or online like a pressed flower, it may lose its bloom, so chill, aaaiiiiight?

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11 thoughts on “The Perils of Slinging Slang”

  1. Ten years on, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” or “Not so much” still work, but they’re getting stale.

    I’m not familiar with either of those as examples of contemporary lingo or catchphrases. Is this another America-only thing?…

    (Tranny is, or was, also the diminutive of ‘transistor radio’ but that was already fading from common currency, and feeling old fashioned, when I was young. Maybe that’s another British English thing…)

  2. Jon:

    Those catchphrases originated on, respectively Seinfeld and The Sopranos, two hugely popular American TV programs I would expect many people in the United Kingdom to be familiar with. Perhaps not so much — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    Meanwhile, tranny as a nickname for “transistor radio,” to my knowledge, was never employed in the United States.

  3. Thanks Mark. Neither Seinfeld nor the Sopranos were ever my cup of tea, but were in fact hugely popular in the UK (and Australia for that matter).

    I guess that highlights the risk of using (near-) contemporary references in print – especially when such references are (out of context) fairly ‘ordinary’; the nuance can be lost. Not a new thing either – Chaucer and Shakespeare have witty “contemporary references” that these days require footnotes to explain.

  4. I signed up for the mailing of tips because they have been an asset to me however I have yet to receive a link to or otherwise told how to get the free ebook.

  5. With respect to your opening paragraph–it is extremely important (and, from my observation, extremely difficult) not to mix your periods when using slang and catchphrases in novels set in the past. I once read a mystery written in the first part of this century in which a high school student on the verge of leaving for Vietnam in the late 60s told someone not to be a ‘noid. Having lived through both the 60s and the 70s, I can say with reasonable confidence that the slang convention of substituting the final syllable for the whole word (‘rents, ‘za) did not gain popularity until the mid to late 70s. And I’ve noticed from time to time in books and movies set in the past that catchphrases such as “I can live with that” sneak in, I think because we use them so automatically that we no longer think of them as contemporary catchphrases. Writing historical fiction is much, much, much harder than most people seem to think, requiring an almost encyclopedic awareness of both the time and the place where the book is set–why I’ve stopped trying to read historical fiction.

  6. Slang has its place in writing. It’s up to the writer to determine if it’s necessary or not. It’s important to make sure slang is era appropriate. Some research may be necessary if you’re not familiar with ‘slang’ from the 19th or 20th centuries.

  7. Tranny=little transvestite?? Wow…have I been living under a rock somewhere? I don’t read car mags or manual on a regular basis, but to me, a tranny is a car part!

  8. Kathryn:

    “And I’ve noticed from time to time in books and movies set in the past that catchphrases such as ‘I can live with that’ sneak in, I think because we use them so automatically that we no longer think of them as contemporary catchphrases.”

    I don’t think the “I can live with that” syndrome has anything to do with sneaking — I believe it’s a conscious effort to reboot the past to make it seem more relevant: “Hey, Sherlock Holmes talks just like me! What a cool dude.”

    As Jon noted in his comment above, we need footnotes to get Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s jokes and gibes, but that’s only when we read them; in the latter case, at least, in the hands of skillful directors and actors, we can be induced, with little effort, to laugh as uproariously as contemporary audiences did.

    Literary and cinematic depictions of the past shouldn’t pander to the present; when they’re authentic in word and deed (to the best of our knowledge), we may miss some nuances, but that’s no excuse to dumb them down.

  9. Bluebird:

    Yes, tranny is a diminutive of transvestite — but the transvestite doesn’t have to be diminutive to qualify for the nickname. (And size doesn’t matter when trannies are concerned.) I knew this meaning long before I first become aware of the other (just a couple of years ago). Perhaps living near and working in San Francisco had something to do with it. Even in the global village, local usage will prevail.

  10. Marc:
    Good lord, you could be right! I honestly never thought that the use of such phrases might be deliberate; guess I’m just a cockeyed optimist about human nature and intellectual honesty. Sigh >>sheds a tear for human fallibility<<

  11. I love developing slang for my fiction that pertains to the world I’m writing in (fantasy) and does away with our own language slang from any era. ‘Riversick’ instead of motion sick, for instance. I think it helps keep the reader closer to the world more than simply avoiding incorrect/non-lasting slang.

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