Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Slang, American Style by Guest Author Michael A. Black

Please welcome guest author Michael A. Black. Michael is the award winning author of 31 books, the majority of which are in the mystery and thriller genres, although he has written in sci-fi, western, horror, and sports genres as well. A retired police officer, he has done everything from patrol to investigating homicides to conducting numerous SWAT operations. Black was awarded the Cook County Medal of Merit in 2010. He is also the author of over 100 short stories and articles, and has written two novels with television star, Richard Belzer (Law & Order SVU). Black is currently writing the Executioner series under the name Don Pendleton. His Executioner novel, Fatal Prescription, won the Best Original Novel Scribe Award given by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers in 2018. His latest novels are Blood Trails, under his own name, and Dying Art, under the name Don Pendleton. Both are available on

 I’ve always been fascinated by language and all of its nuances. While I studiously learned the rules of grammar in school and studied English in college, I soon came to realize that language changes and evolves over time, like a living thing. Having to learn Middle English while studying Chaucer as an undergrad, I marveled at how different things sounded back in the 1380s when Geoffrey was penning The Canterbury Tales. Take a look at the Prologue:
WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Which translates in Modern English as:
WHEN APRIL with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
Yeah, things have changed quite a bit over the years. In fact, by the time Shakespeare started penning his plays about 200 years after Chaucer, the English language had morphed into something closer to what we speak today. Note the difference:
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
Except for the “doth” part I might have come up with that one myself.

As I said, language is always changing and one of the most noticeable changes is often reflected by slang. Slang expressions, or idioms, are present in every spoken language. The words take on new meanings, which are influenced by a variety of sources. It’s important that a writer keep tabs on these changes in language, especially if he’s writing historical fiction.

Now let me break in here to point out a bit of change that has occurred to our language in the past several years. Take a look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph, more specifically, if he’s writing historical fiction. Back in the day, when I was in school, the masculine pronoun was considered the automatic default when speaking in generalities. Thus, the sentence, Everybody should keep his affairs in order would be correct. Social changes now dictate that it should be Everybody should keep his or her affairs in order, or the grammatically incorrect, their affairs. Everybody is in fact singular, so the usage of a plural pronoun in this instance should be totally wrong, yet as our society continues to change, such usage becomes more widespread and accepted.

Well, I’ll leave that one for the grammarians to fight out, but it’s wise to remember that people don’t always speak in grammatically correct sentences.

So if you’re writing a period piece set in the 1800s, and you want it to sound appropriate to the period, you wouldn’t have one character ask the other, “Can you dig it?”

“Dig what?” the other guy might ask.

The overuse of slang can be offsetting, as well. Back when I was a cop I had to learn to communicate with a lot of different people. Slang terms used by the people I had to deal with on the street sometime was like going back to study Chaucer.

“I was just standing there rappin’ when the m/f stole on me.”
 Translation: He was talking when someone punched him.

“He was looking to score some tac.”
Translation: He was attempting to buy some PCP.

“That one was off the chain.”
Translation: It was very good.

She’s hot. Translates to she’s very pretty.

He’s jonesing for her. Translates to he desires her.

I should mention that cops have their own forms of slang, too. These terms often vary from region to region, and a little research as to what type of vernacular is used where, can be helpful in your writing.

The term “perp” might be common in New York, but nobody in Chicago or LA is going to refer to a suspect that way. And while police in the Chicago would use the phrase, “Ten-four” as an acknowledgment, an officer in LA would say, “Roger that.”

A lot of these misconceptions stem from the movies and TV. Do your research to avoid sounding out of place.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add my own personal lament on what I deem the deterioration of language in the twenty-first century. Since the advent of texting, a whole new set of slang terms has emerged from millennials, and my opinion, it’s to the detriment of language. LOL, FYI, BBF, #METOO, GOAT, etc. have all taken the place of using actual words to say what you want to say. I consider this LL—lazy language. The same can be said about the tendency to combine numbers and words: Boys2Men, 4you, and the like.

This personal bias on my part can be traced back long ago to my high school days. One guy, whom I particularly didn’t like, signed my yearbook with the inscription, 2good 2be 4gotten. I thought he was an idiot then, and nothing has occurred in the intervening decades to alter my opinion. But with 20/20 hindsight, I now think that perhaps I was wrong. Considering some of the newest forms of millennial slang, perhaps he was more prescient than I thought.

But how much slang is enough, and how much is too much? Since the basic purpose of writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is to convey a message, the important thing is to make sure the message is not too esoteric. Writing something in slang may result in that message not being transmitted properly. Keep in mind that it’s far more effective to sprinkle a bit of slang here and there in your work, to give it the flavor of the speech you’re trying to emulate. It’s like sprinkling a bit of salt in the kettle of soup. Too little and it has no taste; too much and it tastes briny.


Camille Minichino said...

I always learn something from Michael's posts, and this one is no exception!
"Off the chain?" I'll be using that soon!
Thanks Ann and Michael.

Liz V. said...

Hmm. "Off the chain" brought to mind two films, Unchained Melody and The Defiant Ones, both of which center on prisoners escaping and comport with one of the urban dictionaries' definition. The example of a pitbull slipping the chain was given as well.

Ann Parker said...

I'm sooooo far behind on the current slang. Stuck in the 19th century/early 20th century (with a bit of the '60s thrown in from my own checkered past). Thanks so much for the fascinating post, Michael!