Slang will date your writing; is it worth the risk?
Today’s topic is “Nothing Ages Writing Faster Than Slang.”
Slang is made of informal words and phrases that originate in speech, and often includes substitutions for formal words, like “ride” or “wheels” for a car. "Getting down" or "coming down," "tripping," "throwing a spaz," "digging it," "groove," and "so not into" or "so into" anything are all slang.
It’s the all-night amusement park of language, where different subcultures like artists and street criminals get to play with words and meaning. But nothing ages writing faster than slang.
Can You Dig It?
In the 1950s, stand-up comedian and jazz shaman Lord Buckley worried that his nightclub audiences had missed out on the stories of Mahatma Gandhi, Marquis de Sade, and Abraham Lincoln, along with many fictional luminaries. The embrace of the new in music, painting, and writing was leaving the classics behind. So Buckley translated the old into street talk and the slang of hipsters to revitalize the stories before they were lost.
This is what he did with the Marc Antony speech in William Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR, Act three, Scene two:
Hipsters, flipsters, and finger-poppin’ daddies, knock me your lobes;
I came here to lay Caesar out, not to hip you to him. The bad jazz that a cat blows wails long after he’s cut out.
The groovy is often stashed within their frames;
So don’t put Caesar down. (1)
Clearly what worked then doesn’t work now.
Contemporary readers have to return to the iambic pentameter source to understand what Lord Buckley had laid down:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. (2)
Jargon Versus Slang
You might be wondering about jargon. Jargon isn’t slang. Jargon is made of specialized terms from politicians, lawyers, computer programmers, and accountants, and tend to be terms that only politicians, lawyers, computer programmers, and accountants can understand—terms like leverage, onboarding, synergy, adminisphere, hegemony, Boolean, conveyance, infrastructure, and intestate.
Jargon only works when addressing the appropriate audience. Everyone else has to fumble for a dictionary and that makes for a tiring reading experience.
Slang to Standard
The malleability of British and American English allows slang to find a permanent place in our lexicon. We use “crow” to mean “boast,” “lopsided” to mean “uneven,” and “gab” to mean “talk.” These were slang terms in the nineteenth century, but many other terms from that time did not make the journey to standard English. For example, schoolteachers are no longer referred to as “flaybottomists” since laws against corporeal punishment in education have become common, and modern dentistry has wiped out the use of “head rails” for teeth (3).
Writing with Slang
Slang is great for parties and long distance telephone conversations, and can be a disaster in writing. In nonfiction and fiction, use online resources such as urbandictionary.com to check meaning and spelling. Reference books aren’t much help as most guides to contemporary slang are out of date before they’re even printed. And if you use too much slang in your writing, your work will be as out-of-date as those reference books. If you must write with slang, it’s best to use it rarely and in dialogue as a way to establish time and define characters, from hippies in the sixties to today’s masters of crunk.
Speech is where the words originate and reading slang in straight prose will confuse the reader with questions of “Am I hip? Is the writer hip? Or are we cool?”
Now that you understand slang, remember the quick and dirty rule that slang is informal and better used in dialogue, if at all. For shizzle.
The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish
Thanks again to Sal Glynn, author of The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish, which won best writing /publishing book at last year's IPPY awards. Find out more about Sal at his blog, http://dogwalkeddownthestreet.blogspot.com.
Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
Remember, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing is available now. It's a great reference for anyone, whether you are a grammar enthusiast, a student, or just want to improve your writing.
- Buckley, Richard Lord. Hiparama of the Classics. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1960, 1980.
- Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Ware, Herefordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions, 1996.
- Cromie, Robert. 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Northfield, IL: Digest Books, Inc., 1971.