Monday Metaphor: slang: this is so rad

Does slang have a place in literary fiction?

In my opinion it does, but there should be a good reason for it. The author can’t just throw in a slang expression for the heck of it. Generally, slang is associated with a particular character or sub-culture. If the character would use slang in his normal setting, then it would not be out of place. It’s best to put vernacular into dialogue, not narrative.

The uses of slang are many, from the teen who wants to distance himself from his parents and the rules of the mainstream culture to the parent himself who has picked up the expressions from his child.

The writer can establish a time frame for his story by using the slang of the day. Writing about the 1920s? Maybe your character is a flapper. She would have been the bee’s knees. Is her fella a big cheese? They might have gone on a blind date.

Slang is as informal as you can get in writing or speaking, hey Cats?

Clark Gable played a lady’s man in Somewhere I’ll Find You. The writer wanted to show him as being clever with a quip. He tells another Lothario, “Guys like us are strictly Cash and Carry On.”

Anachronisms of slang create humor and show the character either has knowledge of the past or, quite the opposite, is totally ignorant of the passage of time and innocently makes a fool of himself. Would I be caught dead saying: “tuff”? Know anybody who wears a D.A. or a French twist or foam domes?

The writer is always looking for ways to create diverse characters. The slang-using character provides the author with a fresh voice.

In my Wounds, when Craig seems to be feeling sorry for himself and doesn’t want to expose himself to ridicule at the Winter Carnival, I allow Nelson to indulge in a bit of slang:

            Mrs. Ark peeked around the door from the laundry room. “Get your coat on, Craig. Let’s go.”

            “I’m not going.” He frowned.           

            “We need your help, Craig,” she said. “I know you don’t want to face all those people. But you’ve been a part of this from the beginning, and you have to see it through to the end.”

            Nelson came up behind his mother. “Yeah, suck it up, Craig.”

J. D. Salinger supplies us with several examples in Holden Caulfield’s introduction in Catcher in the Rye. (bold is mine)

            “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

            “They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence.”

             “I was surrounded by jerks.” {Holden hated “fake” people}.

Since Holden is an icon of the 20th Century, we  have to recognize that readers enjoy knowing the character for what he is, even if some of his warts happen to be slang.

More recently, slang in young adult literature often says one thing while meaning the opposite:

“I am SO sure!” “That’s so BAD.” “Yeah, right.” 

Professor Samantha A. Flanagan of Ithaca College explored the “ways in which teen slang is used in young-adult fantasy literature, specifically within vampire novels, in order to determine how teen slang has a positive or negative portrayal of young adults in America today and whether or not it has a marked effect on the popularity of the book as a whole.”

She concluded that “books that use both {sex and teen slang} as little as possible are much more popular among a large expanse of demographics and project young adults in America as a more mature group of people.”

And that leads me to conclude that slang is a pretty immature use of the language. So if a writer has a need to show his character or culture as juvenile, uneducated, or extremely casual, slang is one way to do it.

***********

Sources:

https://ncur.ithaca.edu/ncur/search/Display_NCUR.aspx?id=52155

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nancy Stewart
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 08:40:30

    Personally, I think this post is way cool! Keep it up, Barbara. These are truly rad.

    Reply

  2. James Hartley
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 09:38:01

    One thing you haven’t considered is slang that doesn’t exist … yet! Many SF writers have invented slang words, and liberally peppered their works with them. One series uses the slang word “tanj” (actually stands for there-ain’t-no-justice). Heinlein made good use of “tanstaafl” (there’s-no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch). Others have just created meaningless (as of 2011) words and assumed they were in normal use in 21xx, especially when they are replacements for George Carlin’s Seven Words … a good way to sneak bad language past your editor!

    Reply

  3. Bill Kirk
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 11:30:33

    Another interesting topic, Barbara. Nice teaser to attract comments from practitioners of the language form. It’s curious how the meaning of certain slang words can shift over time, by remaining slang with an evolved meaning or even (perish the thought) by becoming mainstream—almost slang’s death knell.

    Someone can be cool as a cucumber, “cool” as in a “neat” or “rad” way or cool as being stand-offish. One can “maintain your cool” and not blow your cool. Or if you do, you may need to coo off. And what yearbook hasn’t had, “Always stay cool” written in it, as in “stay real and true to the youthful code”. The last thing you want to hear is “get real” but “be cool” is not a bad farewell….

    Reply

  4. Bill Kirk
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 11:32:11

    Another interesting topic, Barbara. Nice teaser to attract comments from practitioners of the language form. It’s curious how the meaning of certain slang words can shift over time, by remaining slang with an evolved meaning or even (perish the thought) by becoming mainstream—almost slang’s death knell.

    Someone can be cool as a cucumber, “cool” as in a “neat” or “rad” way or cool as being stand-offish. One can “maintain your cool” and not blow your cool. Or if you do, you may need to cool off. And what yearbook hasn’t had, “Always stay cool” written in it, as in “stay real and true to the youthful code”. The last thing you want to hear is “get real” but “be cool” is not a bad farewell….

    Reply

  5. J. Aday Kennedy
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 14:07:26

    Barbara,
    I’ve yet to write a true redneck character, but when I write a Texan into one of my stories they’ll be plenty and I’ll have to add the funny sayings, too. It should be great fun.
    One of your commenters mentioned how SF writers create “slang words,” but even in realistic fiction kids and teens can coin a phrase and from time to time should.
    Blessings,
    J. Aday Kennedy
    The Differently-Abled Writer & Speaker
    Children’s Author of Stella the Fire Farting Dragon (April 2011)
    http://jadaykennedy.blogspot.com

    Reply

  6. Pam Maynard
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 21:14:08

    The fun thing about slang is that is changes all the time. My son keeps me in the loop! 😉 Great post!

    Reply

  7. barbarabockman
    Jun 29, 2011 @ 15:00:27

    Nancy,
    I’m so glad you found this post rad. You are so cool.

    Jim,
    I’m sure cool cats will continue to think up new ways to jive. Even so, I think the uses will be the same for people who are a little rebellious or are bored with the status quo.

    Bill,
    I’ll bet we use lots of expressions that came into the language as slang and have now become part of everyday usage.

    J. Aday,
    I’m looking forward to your creation of a real Texas redneck.

    Pam,
    Kids think it’s so funny when they hear grown-up using “their” language.

    Reply

  8. Holly Owen
    Jul 01, 2011 @ 19:25:28

    I’ve always enjoyed the way slang can help describe the timeline of a story or the age of a character. When I was a teen in the 80’s one of our favorite sayings was ‘gnarly dude.’ Using that slang now would probably produce a few chuckles. Instead, today one might hear their teen say that something is ‘totally sick,’ which, of course, means really good. Thanks for the ‘peachy keen’ blog post.

    Reply

  9. barbarabockman
    Jul 02, 2011 @ 17:27:25

    Holly,
    And when I was in college, everything was “tuff.”
    I can’t help myself; I use a lot of slang. But when writing, I make sure it’s appropriate to the character.

    Reply

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