Slinging slang into your styling

I’ve always been dubious about using slang in writing.

Writing fuel!
Writing fuel!

Slang has to be one of the trickest things to write. Done well, it gives the material a sense of up-to-the-minute modernity – it adds colour and an authentic feel, if that’s what you’re after. It adds place. What would a story about Cockneys be if it didn’t have at least a hint of the patter?

But there are a few problems. Slang is transient – the words spread organically – these days, sometimes very quickly – and nothing dates faster than yesterday’s buzzword or yesterday’s usage.

That’s hard to avoid even when sci-fi writers try to create a sense of social future by coining it. E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s writing was full of coined slang – which was fine, but he did it on the principle of ‘different but not too different’ – a very sensible approach that gives the audience a feel of novelty without total alien-ness. But it also means that, today, Smith’s slang has a very ‘period’ feel.

The onus is also on writers to get it right if they’re putting together a period story. Cockney rhyming slang, for instance, has changed quite a bit in the last century. And if you get it wrong, somebody’s bound to spot it.

Someone who got it right was George McDonald Fraser, whose Flashman stories were filled with authentic nineteenth century middle-class/officer slang (‘fig’, for instance, meaning ‘uniform’; ‘plunger’, meaning ‘yuppie’, and don’t ask me what ‘poonts’ are.) Fraser nailed it to the point where at least one reviewer believed Fraser’s absurd conceit that the stories were a genuine ‘found memoir’ (penned by Harry Flashman, the bully of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.)

However, Fraser had a very special talent and it’s rare to see such a spot-on effort.

The other issue is quantity. A book filled with slang becomes hard to parse: the reader has to constantly ‘translate’.

My answer – solving both problems – is that it’s better to hint at the presence rather than blast it full-on into the story.

Yup – judicious slang! Enough to give the flavour and sense that slang’s about – adding the necessary colour – but not enough to derail the reading experience or create a fast-dating story that nobody’ll want in a year or two.

Do you add slang to your writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


18 thoughts on “Slinging slang into your styling

  1. totes blingin’ m8 lol roflamo

    There’s an interesting segment in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London about the slang used in London during the 1930s. Some of the phrases are still used today, although many were utterly incomprehensible. I tend to try and avoid slang in my writing, though. Innit.

  2. Only if I want a piece to reflect a certain Aussie feel. However I do like to tease the reader by using words that are less well used these days. It’s probably lost on the youngsters, but for lovers of the complexity of the English language, I hope it causes some reflection.

    Occasionally I come across cockney slang and it depends how skilled the writer is. Done well, it builds a real atmosphere, but executed poorly it looks forced and clumsy.

    1. Cockney slang is amazing. My grandfather was a Cockney in the late 19th century and knew that version (especially the rhyming slang, e.g. ‘Frog and Toad’/road) which is TOTALLY different from today’s patois. It’s extremely difficult to write, as you say.

  3. Sometimes I add slang but usually I go for using specific regional terms. Like in Massachusetts (possibly other states in the east coast as well) they refer to a water fountain as a bubbler.

      1. I agree. We had an author submit to our magazine with a piece that was so heavy with slang, I couldn’t make it through the first page. It did not get published.

  4. My books, though not “historical novels,” are set in the 1910s through 1930s. I thought about using period slang, but after looking into it decided it would be too much trouble to get it right. So I limited myself to a kind of timeless (I hope) colloquial style instead.

    1. Sounds sensible. It’s very difficult to write slang in compelling ways, and slang from a century ago sounds peculiar to the modern reader even if it’s actually how things were back then – that issue of ‘different but not too different’ applies!

      1. I remembered that I did research and use Acadian and Cajun phrases for the book narrated by a character from New Brunswick (Canada). I did feel a bit uneasy as to whether I was using them in the right context, so kept this to a minimum. It’s effective to vary the tone of your characters by using more or less formal speech, thus indicating which ones might be using slang, without going to the extent of using outmoded slang terms.

  5. I find the occasional use reinforces the slang and positions the character better than trying to copy reality, which in most cases would be unintelligable to any outsider. But it can be an interesting tool to play with. The snob who occasionally lets the mask slip when he drops his ‘aitches; and in my current work a guy from Mississippi whose dialogue is utter gibberish that no one (including the reader – deliberately) can make head nor tail of.

    The one area I would always avoid is teenage patois. It seems to change by the hour and leaves the author not only undermined chronologically, but made to look like the worst kind of hip old fart.

  6. That’s a tricky one! It can be extremely time-consuming to research period-appropriate slang and make sure to get it right, especially when considering regional differences as well. And despite getting it right sometimes the result can actually be off-putting for readers who might struggle to understand it, or perhaps also get the wrong impression of a character. What might’ve been considered vulgar or insulting in the 1860s might be nothing but amusing now – which if not careful might transform your bloodthirsty villain into a clown.

    I like the suggestion of hinting at it without going overboard. Show that you’ve done the research, use it to add some colour to your dialogue, but try to avoid going too far with it unless you are really confident in your ability.

  7. My first introduction to slang in fiction was a book titled Squadron Airborne by a writer whose name I can’t recall. I was maybe 12 when I read it. The slang was all specialized jargon, since the action of the story concerned a Spitfire squadron during the Battle of Britain. I had no idea what a “trolley-acc” might be or why one would hook it to an engine — but fortunately there was a glossary at the back of the book! The glossary introduced me to a whole new world of “Raff slang” as one of the female characters put it.

    That female character, however, introduced me to a different way of looking at the world. Specialized jargon abounds in any profession — in some cases developing into slang. In some ways it always seems like a different focus on reality: “Here’s what so important in our corner of the Universe that we’ve developed our own unique way to talk about it.”

    So as you point out, done right, slang can bring a world alive. But I’ve had several WW2 vets criticize writers (not me — yet…!) who don’t get the slang right and wonder why they even try. I’m not as good as Fraser (a very great writer) so I just throw in a word here and there to brighten things up a bit.

    Didn’t Anthony Burgess, in A Clockwork Orange, develop a whole slang system — NADSAT? — for his characters in that book? “It was me and my three droogs…” Of course inventing a system of slang has its own problems.

    1. RAF slang was peculiar to say the least! There is a rather good Python skit that might be floating about in YouTube land in which various pilots can’t understand each other’s banter (“I say, old chap, your banter’s a bit off today…”) I have a post coming up on Burgess and Nadsat after a failed attempt to wade through that book – what killed it was the density of Nadsat, some of which didn’t actually mean anything. I did see the movie.

  8. Using slang is hard, mainly because it varies so widely. Recently, I read several novels on my Kindle that used slang words which I had no clue what they meant. One in particular used a person’s first and last name. I’m assuming it was a politician, but I did not know how to read the scene because I didn’t know what that person did. Unfortunately, the author did not help out with an explanation.

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