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Monday, January 5, 2009

What's Up With Slang?

Not long ago I was eavesdropping on the conversation of two college-age girls, hoping to catch a phrase or two to sprinkle into the dialogue of my wip. Although exact details escape me, the conversation went something like this:

So, she like told me to get out of her face and like mind my own business. And I like said she couldn't tell me what to do and that like pissed her off. So she like....

Seriously? I thought that Valley Girl patter choked on a wad of bubble gum and keeled over a dozen years ago.

Not long after overhearing that unenlightening conversation, I read an article in which a publisher of YA books cautioned authors not to use slang in their writing. Not use slang? The only person I know of who doesn't use slang is Alex Trebek. And who knows what the guy says off camera?

I concluded that the publisher was warning authors not to overuse slang or throw in slang that's "here today/gone tomorrow." But that left me wondering what's the right slang, how much is too much, and who can prophesy which slang will be around next week? In a TV interview with the Heisman Trophy candidates, one of them said he "had a blast" at one of the events. I'm almost positive that expression came into being when I was in high school. Who could predict college students would be using it several...years later?

A writer friend of mine who claims to spend hours googling slang Web sites swears by urbandictionary.com. When my MC was telling her friend not to snitch, I decided to see if snitch is still in teens' vocabulary. Or would rat, tattle, fink, or narc be more hip, now, or happening? I typed snitch in Urban Dictionary's search screen and found plenty of options. Punk, informer, backstabber, and squealer weren't quite right. Curtis and grass left me shaking my head. And most of the other synonyms were too raw for my writing.

What did I learn from my reflections on slang? First, use slang sparingly. Second, double-check meanings before using unfamiliar slang. Third, flash-in-the-pan slang may be gone before your book hits the shelves. Fourth, when in doubt, swallow your pride and ask a teen.

Just use slang that feels right--kickass, awesome, gnarly--for your characters and chillax. It's all good.


Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

The trick I always used with respect to slang was to use a) timeless slang. "Cool" will probably never go out of style, you know? And b) make up your own.

Who's gonna ping you for it then?

Unless of course, you wind up with the contest judge I had on AdiĆ³s, once, who wrote on the sheet, "I know several teenagers and I've never heard them throw around so much slang."

Uh-huh. Well good on you, bub. *g*

Khy said...

Well, I can tell you a few of the words you mentioned that should be avoided:

Fink and Narc: Never heard anyone say either of those. Only seen them in books.

Squealer: I have no idea who came up with that one. That is one I've never heard either.

Curtis: Whaaaa? xD

Gnarly: Only use for surfers, or people trying to be surfers. I've only heard a few people actually use this term, and they were stupid surfer friends of my sister.

Danielle Joseph said...

The whole issue of slag is a pretty sticky situation and I agree that it should be used sparingly. Also, it has to feel natural for your character or it will really stand out as a sore thumb. And then you have to consider where is your character from. I was guilty for having my mc crank up the tunes, thank god for great editors! And I love making up words too because then you really own them!

Bookworm said...

Books with too much slang make me feel like the author is trying too hard to be a teenager or is trying to appeal to teens by being "cool". Same goes for swearing. It just doesn't work for me.

LM Preston said...

I believe there are too many different types of slang used today, yesterday and that will be used in the future. There is cultural slang also. I believe littering your work with the right slang is a good idea, but if you want to market it way in the future put some thought into what your dialogue is and how you want it marketed.