It may seem like slang is rampant throughout modern language, but it’s something to be used in moderation in writing, if at all.  My preference would be none, but if your novel requires it, use it only where it’s appropriate.  Your book may end up being read anywhere in the world.  It may be confusing or even insulting for a reader who doesn’t understand the slang in its proper context.

Even in North America, one word of slang can be interpreted in different ways.  ‘Soused,’ for example, means ‘soaked to the skin,’ in Texas.  In Canada, it means ditch crawling drunk.  Pity the visiting Texan preacher who announced to a Canadian congregation that he’d just been out in the downpour and ‘got soused.’

Sometimes an item is called different things according to where you live.  The American ‘watch cap’ would be called a toque (Pronounced ‘too’ with a ‘k’ sound at the end, but no ‘eh’ sound.) regardless of whether it’s made of wool or worn in any season other than winter.  Don’t spend too long on that one, a lot of Canadians cannot spell ‘toque’ correctly, either.

The passage of time can change the meaning applied to a phrase.  One old bit of literature mentions people not being able to stand to do their work.  The modern take would mean they couldn’t tolerate it, while the actual meaning was that they literally could not stand up.  Archaic phrases should be used carefully.  A character misplaced from his own time or country, for example, might use ‘odd’ language.  Most of us know what someone trying to speak English sounds like with their ‘original’ accent.

I recently came across a blog that advised, ‘don’t drink the pink kool-aid.’  As a Canadian, I assumed it was akin to ‘don’t eat the yellow snow.’  However, when I googled ‘pink kool-aid,’ the results were mostly about the instant drink mix.  That didn’t explain the warning, so I googled ‘pink kool-aid slang meaning.’  It seems to be a reference to some kind of illegal drug.  How many non-western Internet users would 1) know about the drink mix, a legitimate and legal product? Or 2) understand the illegal drug reference? Or 3) mistake it as a reference to the Jonestown massacre when a cult leader murdered his followers with poison in the beverage?  Why risk this kind of misunderstanding with your readers?

(Many readers will desert a book when they run across too many things they don’t understand.  It might make them feel stupid, but it’s more likely they’ll decide the author is a bad writer, instead.)

The nature of slang is that it’s only ‘cool’ for a short time before it becomes dated.  Most words and phrases avoid being integrated into mainstream language.  Ironically, the word ‘cool’ seems to be the exception to the rule; it retains both its slang and mainstream meanings.  Most of the slang from that period (mid fifties to sixties) has been replaced by newer stuff..think back to the ‘valley girl’ language used briefly in the eighties.  “So, like, you gonna eat that third donut, or what?  Grody!”  Or “Kuel,” a valley girl variant of ‘cool,’ if she liked donuts and wasn’t sneaking into the biffy to hurl her cookies.  Valley girls tended to be thought of as vain anorexics with affected California girl accents.  Is your character a valley girl?  Kuel.

Another problem with slang, especially if you attempt to have two or more ‘brands’ of it, used by different characters, is ensuring your readers can identify each character’s ‘voice.’  If you read either of my novels, Been Blued, or Martian Blues, you’ll find I minimize the use of “he said” and “she said.”  You should be able to waltz your characters through the action without a lot of these visual stumbling blocks for the reader.  Do it correctly, and your reader will always know which character is speaking, regardless of what’s happening.

Thanks for reading.  🙂

Phyllis K Twombly  

About Scifialiens

Author of the Martian Symbiont series: three titles, so far; Been Blued, Martian Blues, Martian Divides. Currently writing screenplays. 'Mating With Humans' can be found on her account. Enjoyed writing from the start. Also a Star Trek and Doctor Who fan. Canadian so far. Paternal grandparents were American. Feels more at home in the States. Loves dogs and most other animals. Loves cats from afar--allergies. Plays flute and saxophone; 'messes with' keyboard and electric guitar. Single so far. Not really looking at the moment. Age: irrelevant. Not to be confused with the fictional comic book character, Phyllis Twombly, who lived for 600 years in the American Midwest.

One response »

  1. dfrucci says:

    When a write I try to use no slang at all, however in dialog I use plenty of it depending.

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