Thoughts On Slang

As I was reading a Yahoo! article on banned words, I got to thinking about the use of slang in fiction. As an aspiring fantasy author, my current story being set in a pre-technology society, I sometimes catch myself throwing in modern phrases and metaphors that have no place in the setting that I’ve tried to create. There are times when my two main characters need to use swear words — I mean, they’re teenage boys after all — but which ones would be appropriate without breaking the fantasy? Should I make up my own? I spent months agonizing over whether the characters could call their dad “Dad” or if they needed to call him “Father.” After the first draft, I strategically removed all but one use of the word stupid  and replaced it with foolish, thinking that sounded more timeless.

But even in fiction that is set in modern times in our own world, the use of modern slang and technology will date your story. I got a real kick out of reading “Eternal” by Cynthia Leitich Smith, in which guardian angels send memos to each other, a character starts a website to help track down a friend who’s disappeared, and frequent reference is made to various literary fandoms. Those details are a sign of the times; you won’t catch Nancy Drew using Google to find the secret of the old clock. Twenty plus years from now, will those now modern details still work? Does it matter? Should some slang be omitted simply because it’s not literary? There is already concern over literacy levels dropping due to poor spelling and grammar in emails and text messages… What does it say about a society that allows “brb” and “c u l8r” to infiltrate their literature? Your thoughts?

By the way, Happy New Year!


4 Responses to “Thoughts On Slang”

  1. 1 Faith January 4, 2010 at 9:19 am

    I really have mixed feelings. I however feel that in a time when fewer teenagers are grasping the benefit of reading it is imperative for an author to whose story is aimed at that age group to somehow identify with a younger generations social tendencies to keep them interested. I just read the “House of Night Series, which happens to be a young adult based series. She uses a lot of slang but also makes it clear that her main heroine is very against using swear words. She also makes the young reader think by having a very intelligent sub character that makes the other characters widen their vocabulary. I love that she incorporates this while still captivating her audience. Now if that will make more young adults want to read than I am all for it. I think that if you really looked back to the classic novels you might even find slang of that time. I believe it is the story that makes it timeless. “Catcher in the Rye” is a great example.

  2. 2 nonfictionnxnw January 4, 2010 at 10:09 am

    I am currently reading a book by Christopher Moore, in the midst of which one of the characters discusses looking for an apartment on Craigslist. This comment was followed be a parenthetical explaining what Craigslist actually was… Totally took me out of the moment! Though I suppose it might be helpful to readers-of -the-future, or current readers unfamiliar with the site, it felt like a distraction from the story.

    I think the issue of slang is a similar dilemma, that you might be going over the heads of some readers while simultaneously dumbing it down for others if you over-explain your use. As with anything, I know you can’t please everyone… but this is certainly a good topic for scrutiny and debate! Contemporary references may feel hip now, but beware when it is regarding a trend that no one will care to remember in 2011. I think Google and Craigslist are safe and here to stay for a fair while, but I’d like to think some of this abbreviated jargon may be short-lived…. one can only hope. 😉

    • 3 Tin Pencil January 4, 2010 at 10:43 am

      Yeah, one must be careful about longevity. Five years ago, having a character use MySpace would be kind of hip, and that would tell us something about the character. Now MySpace is passé. Does that change how we view that character?

  3. 4 Sue January 4, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Slang certainly has its place in literature. Moderation is the key, of course, as is appropriateness. Slang can help define a setting and/or a character. The author can also, as Mallory mentioned, invent a set of slang expressions for a fantasy world. Ann McCaffrey did this in her Dragons of Pern series. I ask myself “is it necessary?”, “does it reveal something about the character?”, and “is it appropriate for the target audience?”.

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