Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Girl is....thinking about slang

Slang is one of those terms that’s surprisingly hard to define, though I think we all intuitively known what it is and recognize it when we encounter it. It’s, basically, informal language that is often tied to a particular subculture or group. We tend to think of slang and young people’s lingo, but really it’s not restricted to youth. Those of us who adopted slang terms as teens, often continue to use the same terms well into adulthood, much to the horror of our kids. Oh, and it’s hardly an English-speaking phenomena – slang is found in most major languages.

Slang always seemed to be an oral medium, but today, with text messaging and the internet, it’s become increasingly written as well, often starting that way and then filtering into our speech.

Slang can work two ways: it can either invent new terms for familiar objects (in the late 1930s people began referring to a phone as an “Ameche,” in reference to the actor, Don Ameche, who had played Alexander Graham Bell in a film) or it can attribute new meaning to familiar words (using the word “hot” to imply someone’s good looking). The types of terms it often embodies are for “forbidden” things, which is why there are so darn many words for sex and body parts. 

Every era seems to produce its own slang, but the first half of the twentieth-century seemed particularly ripe for it. Part of that may stem from a more clearly defined youth culture. As teens became a population unto themselves after World War I, they may have found it necessary to create their own language. 

In Iris’s world the slang is coming out of the Jazz music and swing dancing phenomena – many of the terms originating in the dance halls and then filtered into other parts of society. Speaking these words means you’re branding yourself as part of that subculture. Suze, Rhona and Maria all use terms that would’ve originally been spoken at places like the Savoy.

But that isn’t the only kind of slang Iris encounters.  Her more upper class friends use teen-speak that probably developed out of their cliques. And the world around her is increasingly using G.I. talk, a unique form of slang developing out of the war. 

It can be a challenge to figure out how to integrate slang into a story without overwhelming the writing. On the one hand, the terms are going to be unfamiliar to your audience and may potentially rip them out of the story. On the other, though, if you’re trying to realistically depict a subsection of the population during a moment in history, you have to honestly depict how they communicated with each other, and that means integrating some of these unfamiliar terms and hoping your audience can suss out the meaning from the context. It can feel forced if you don’t do it delicately and you can, of course, completely overwhelm the dialogue by using too much slang (see my first Rosie Winter novel, when I was enjoying slang a little too much).  Sometimes utilizing the rhythm of how people talked “back then” is just as successful as sprinkling dialogue with unfamiliar words.

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