Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘slang’

Learning a Thing or Two about Language


The first year I taught high school art, I wasn’t a newbie. I’d been a commercial artist for years, and for years before and after that stint, I’d taught art through a city recreation program and in elementary schools.

Late in the last century, I was hired as the middle and high school art teacher in an elite, brand new K through 12 private school. The first year opened with inspiring fanfare but the founders weren’t as ready as they should have been. There weren’t enough classrooms to accommodate all the students, an itchy fact that would take several years to correct. Sharing space meant every classroom was in use full time. Accommodation for the art program became even more inventive. Not ideal but necessary.

That first year my high school students shared an art studio with the elementary art teacher and her students, a very bad marriage as you can imagine. There are the little ones, 6 or 7-year-olds, wiggly kids happily smearing paint all over the place, sometimes on their papers. There am I at the opposite end of the studio, trying to convince my 14 and 15-year-olds that art creation must be preceded by contemplation, inquiry, and attention to process. All they wanted to do was smear paint all over each other, and sometimes they did.

If you listen to children, you know their vernacular is different every week as they turn the meaning of language on its head, always with the provocative intent of making us, their parents and teachers, as miserably uncomfortable as they can. They steal words imaginatively used in songs and videos and apply them to their lives. Fat becomes “phat” and means something entirely different from its homophone. I hate being reminded I’m fat, but tell me I’m phat, and I’m pleased to be excellent.

As soon as we adults catch on, they’re off, leaving us in a language vacuum, using some other word or phrase in another secret code, enjoying the anonymity of their activity until we figure it out. They call me fat again and mean it as the insult. They chortle as we let the door slam on our way out. It always hits us in the butt. The proverbial butt, of course.

The freshman class remained the high school pioneers for four years. They were the freshmen when there were no sophomores, then the sophomores but not yet any juniors, etc. No one to temper them with the pranks that older high school kids play on younger ones, helping to keep them in check – a bit.

Four years in which indulged children demanded glory just for being present and rarely agreed to do anything we wanted them to do. Rarely agreed even to do what was fun and creative. I suffered as much testing in my art class as the beleaguered teachers who taught history and advanced math. Tripping teachers was much fun for them. We finally graduated the inaugural bunch of them and sent them off to college campuses where they discovered the world didn’t spin on the orbits they thought they created.

I have a thing with language. An English major, I speak and write a bit more formally than most.  Friends who read early drafts of my books tell me that no one talks like my characters. I revise to write contractions, choose ordinary words, and make common dialogue mistakes. “She and I went shopping,” becomes “Her and I went shopping.” Ugh, but fair enough if I want my stories to sound like they’re not peopled by English scholars of the 19th century. Even if my hand hurts writing such language indignities.

You would think someone who’d worked with kids for so many years wouldn’t make so many errors with language. You may know that a teen who “throws shade” just insulted someone. That one who says, “I’m weak,” is falling on the floor laughing. I only mention all this to set up what happened in my first high school art class.

The class was top loaded with gangly, energetic boys and flirty, imperious girls. Inquisitive, talented students I loved working with. Rich children who vacationed in Paris and Israel, skied at Aspen, surfed in Hawaii, sailed past icebergs in Alaska, and drove brand new cars at sixteen. (More expensive cars than mine.) After too many long moments where I tried to get them to stop talking and start their projects, I would finally say, “Get busy.” Which brought a round of hoots and promises to do exactly that. Sadly, it took me far too long to realize my mistake.

“Get busy” meant to have sex. And “being busy” meant the act was already in play – thankfully not in my class.

I taught art well. Our graduates came back from their first semester of college to tell me they finally understood why I taught the demanding art curriculum they’d mastered. In college art classes they were the stars. Talented, yes, and prepared to think, inquire, and apply skills.

They also taught me a thing or two. I may have majored in English, but I didn’t know everything about language until I taught my first high school students.



Photo courtesy



You Don’t Talk So Good


“You don’t talk so good.” My toddler grandson inadvertently complimented me although I’d accidentally insulted him. My face blushed, I checked my grin. I’d caught his speech pattern accurately and pitched it back to him so well that he heard the clumsy language structure I’d heard in him. He didn’t recognize himself in my speech but he heard it. An authentic voice, caught on the fly, lodged in real time. A bit like glancing in a mirror and wondering who the hell is that stranger then realizing it’s the real me, without makeup.

That’s what we want when we write dialogue, a voice so accurate we recognize the speaker, whether it’s ourselves or the transplanted Southerner who works down the hall, spoken with  a drawl, “The new gal’s showing too much of her religion.” (Her skirt is way too short.) The VISA employee in India who answers the customer service line, in sing-song style with clipped consonants, “I would be veddy pleased to assist you, may I have your credit card number, please, as well your name and address?” (I’m going to pretend to help you but your question is above my pay grade, please do not ask for my supervisor.”) The teenager who only speaks rap, sort of sung while sort of dancing with hand movements that mimic catching toads, “I’m comin’ on extreme strong cuz my shadow is crazy long, you ain’t got no common sense to be gone, I know you is damn bogus wrong.” (Your guess is as good as mine.) The old lady who gestures when my dog poops on her grass, wheezed with the anger of self-righteousness, “I’m calling the dogcatcher on that filthy cur.” (Needs no translation.) What we don’t want to lasso is the perfect elocution of the English professor. Formal diction played out in actual conversation is phony – unless an English professor is talking in our book. My goal: making myself blush with recognition at the language I write.

Who knew that cleaning up could mean messing things up, scrambling perfectly good sentences into something I’d never say? I’m pretty good at dialogue but sometimes it’s too perfect. My English lit background gets in the way of my stories by being too essay-correct. You’d never catch me saying, “Her and I went shopping,” so I never write in this colloquial context. Yet I hear that kind of error all the time and have consciously returned to a scene to write it in street speech, the way that real People speak, even if that People isn’t me.

I often speak in perfect past tense: “I would have gone shopping had it not been for a car accident.” Is that accident in a parking lot or in my brain? Real world, more publishable: “I would’ve went shopping but Ralph busted up the car.” Two grammar screw ups in one sentence, a verbal feast common to real speech, though the sentence wouldn’t earn high marks on a school essay. Still, it’s the one to come out of a character’s mouth. Here’s another I’ve been heard to speak: “Behave yourself appropriately.” (Not only the English major here, but also the mommy/teacher – sheesh! My kids never had a chance!) Likely a better choice in a book: “Don’t do nothing bad.” Not only does this have more street cred, but it has the muscle of a real mother with its double negative threat, finger pointing in the kid’s face.

Slang is a whole other exotic pet, one that’s as difficult to potty train as a Siamese fighting fish. You have to get yourself not only down on the street to listen to people speak what is often a local dialect but also one that’s transient and fickle – It ain’t gonna be ‘round long, bro, and by the time you get the hang of it, it’ll be long outta use. Klutzy? Probably. I haven’t been hanging out at the local hot spots where young people congregate. Use slang craftily, minimally, to house your story in a specific place, at a particular moment in time. Avoid it otherwise or it will sound like ragtime at the opera.

Diction is our choice of words to express how our characters speak, both the style of language and the words themselves. Great dialogue shows off how close we are to our characters’ true personae and how tight we are with the culture that produced them. Of course we writers create the cast of our story. They are our virtual babies, but we have to write ourselves out of the scenes. Like sending our babies off to kindergarten, we don’t get to climb aboard the bus. Whether it’s the use of slang, dialect, garbled speech, accent, or idiom, our characters have to be true to the ducklings we’ve hatched. Even the ugly ones.

Perhaps the most difficult part of conveying honest speech in our writing is to say less, implant a red herring, or imply more. This is where the most highly skilled and insightful writers win top awards and earn loyal audiences. Clever dialogue reveals the worries, understanding, or ambitions of one character, and the evasion of the other who is listening but perhaps feigning sympathy or leading the first speaker astray. For examples, read Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. (Really, for examples, read Shakespeare. He was a playwright and a poet, but his use of dialogue to convey the whole world – I don’t care who the guy really was, he was brilliant, and a more dynamic and talented example you’d be hard pressed to find.)

For my own writing, I make progress when I slash the formal speech typed into my manuscript and replace it with something a reader can believe. I keep hoping even if readers think I talk funny, they still believe in the characters who say those words. To be successful, I have to know the character in my book. I built him from the keys on my keyboard and the drifting nimbus in my head, and I have to know his history, quandary, and motivation, to know more about him than I write in order to make him authentic. Maybe just getting a single line of his dialogue absolutely right is worth a whole day’s effort fiddling with my manuscript.

I’ll run this idea by my grandson.


Painting courtesy Google public domain images: