OMG Homie! When Slang Goes Bad

001A few weeks ago, David and I were on a road trip to Tucson and he made me snap this pic, since he was driving. The pick-up truck had not only been heavily loaded with an unlikely assortment of salvage, the sides had also been built up in an attempt to keep the teetering pile from tumbling off.

The intentions might have been good, but the final result quite astonishing.

David also told me a story recently, that he’d been listening to the radio and the DJ – a white guy – was going on about a ball player’s injury during a game the night before. “I sure hope my homie is okay,” the DJ exclaimed, which is what caught David’s attention. It jarred him, he said, this guy using the slang term “homie,” which seemed so unnatural to both who he was and his relationship to this athlete.

Then, not a day later, I saw an author say on Twitter “omg! [my book is on sale here]!” I had the same jarring experience because I’ve met that author and she is not the kind of person to exclaim “omg!” She probably used it in her tweet to because it’s the perky marketing thing to do, but it hit me all wrong because it didn’t feel like part of her natural voice.

As writers, we talk a lot about voice. Finding and cultivating our authentic voice is key to honing our craft. For readers, voice is what makes the stories come alive and what brings us back time and again to the same authors.

Slang can be a difficult proposition. On the one hand, writers want to appeal to as many readers as possible, which includes the younger ones. That means not using language that communicates “old fogey” to them.

(I once saw a early twenties agent tweet that she’d read a manuscript with a character saying “cool beans” and it made her cringe at the unhipness of it.)

On the other hand, using slang that isn’t an organic part of our voice can ring false – as with homie-guy and omg!-gal.

Thus, the solution is not adopting whole-hog the slang of another generation or culture. This would be akin to piling every salvageable item onto our pick-up trucks and roping the teetering pile into place. Instead, we should take what we like best, what fits for us. My rule of thumb is that I only use slang I’d use in conversation with someone I know well.

(Online conversations totally count here for me.)

This is reasonably easy for me because I have a conversational voice to begin with. Many times people have commented that reading my books sounds just like talking with me and vice-versa. I also try to weed out of my books some of my old fogey slang (Goodbye “cool beans”!), wherever I’m aware of it.

Anyone else have good rules of thumb for using or not using slang?


OMG Homie! When Slang Goes Bad — 14 Comments

  1. I have, I hope, gotten away from a lot of it simply because editors aren’t crazy about what’s old and I don’t like what’s new. Also, I can’t keep up. (I didn’t know “cool beans” was passe. Sigh.) Regardless of who you are, or your age, use of a lot of slang will date your book.

    Good post as usual, Jeffe!

    • Thanks Liz – and sad on “cool beans,” huh? I mean – gag me! 😀 I think your solution is a lovely, simple one. Like with fashion, sticking with the classics is always a good bet.

  2. I really struggle with this because I’m writing older heroines and they aren’t going to talk like twenty-somethings, but on the other hand, I find that as I age, I’m getting much freer with my use of “bad” language. I think I’m just more comfortable with intensifiers and less worried what people will think about my use of them. Thus, so are my heroines.

    Funny story…when my editor read Once More From the Top, she said, “No 15-year-old kid would use the word ‘asshat’, you need to change it.” I was at a loss, so she asked her college freshmen writing class for an alternative. They suggested “douchebag” or just simply “douche.” I used it…and my own kid who’s 34 said to me, “How’d you know that word, Mom? Are you cool or what?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him what that word meant to me or how I found it–it would’ve been TMI to the max, so I just said, “Your mom is cool, babes.” He couldn’t deny it. 😉

    • Wait, “asshat” is dated but “douchebag” isn’t??? See, this is when slang is hard. Some terms live on and become classic while others become outdated almost immediately. Love that story, Nan!

      • I’m with you, Jeffe. I didn’t know asshat was dated. And douchebag has been around forever. Anyone know anything about dickhead? Is that passe? I can’t even ask my kids because they don’t really use slang. Fortunately, my editor seems to be on top of things.

  3. I cracked up at your title, Jeffe. I do use slang in daily speech, on occasion. However, when writing, I try to be conscious of using terms my character–with her particular background and upbringing–would say, rather than base it on what I might personally say. As you can imagine, sometimes it’s hard to separate the two.

    I often smile (okay, snicker) when I hear someone use a term that seems out of character for them. However, just like other terms that have been absorbed into mainstream English over the years, slang gets adopted by other cultures. Steve Stoute’s book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy talks about this phenomenon and how such usage over time becomes quite normal.

    On the other hand, I know I’m getting old because I grew up on hip-hop; yet I sometimes turn to my husband after hearing a young’un speak and ask, “WTH did he just say?” My husband will shrug. Then I’ll turn to my twenty-something son and ask, “Translation, please.”

    • That’s very interesting, Reese, about the incorporation of Hip-Hop culture – which is where I suspect “homie” comes from – into the mainstream. Even so, I think that some terms never sound natural to a person. Something to do with that authentic adoption of the concepts as opposed to “dressing up” in it for show.

      (I have asked for translations from those hipper than I, also :D)

  4. The wrong kind of vernacular can totally turn me off on a book–and has, many times. I read one book (can’t remember the title or author) where the early-30s hero used derrière. Um…no.

    That said, I didn’t know cool beans was out, either? I’ve never used it in writing, but I’ve said it. And I didn’t think I was *that* old. Lol Also, when you saw omg!, did you read that as oh em gee? Because I *always* read the acronyms as what they’re shortening, not just the letters. I also use them all the time. Because I’m lazy like that.

    • Ha! now I totally want to have a character that says “derriere” in an authentic way. I think I’m doing a May-December romance next. Maybe I could pull that off?? (also makes me realize I’m going to have to watch my May’s use of slang – dammit)

      I think “cool beans” is 80s, alas. It took me aback also, so I’m glad I’m not alone in that!

      As for how I “hear” the acronyms – it totally depends. I read Oh Em Gee, but then LOL as loll. That’s a whole other perspective, the internet lingo we all acquire as a primarily written/read language, rather than spoken.

  5. Pingback: Jeffe Kennedy » OMG Homie! When Slang Goes Bad

  6. My problem is music. Unless my people listen to classical, I would have NO idea what’s playing on their 8-track. Oops, dating myself! Cassette player? Nope. And now it looks like DVDs are out.
    O. M. G.

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