I picked up a book on the remainder pile awhile back, called Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures. Oh yeah, baby, I love this kind of thing. Love it. And just listen to these subcultures: Americans in Antarctica, Furry Fandom (seriously: who knew?), Renaissance Fairegoers, Historical Reenactors, Parapsychologists … Ooohh. Be still my heart.
I grew up listening to my parents’ slang. They were talk-y people. If something was really special, it was the cat’s meow. We kids were eager beavers (especially on Saturday morning, when Mom and Dad wanted to sleep in). It’s great imagery, if you stop and think about it. When my dad was ready to leave, he’d say, “Let’s make tracks.” Fifteen years later, I was saying, “Let’s jam” to convey the same idea. Things were, for the teenage me, a drag—or they were groovy. (Slang seems to cover the same basic concepts—coming and going, good or bad, sex, money, drunkenness—generation after generation.)
Writers use slang for characterization, to place a scene in a particular time, or to establish a milieu (think about West Side Story, for example). Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett … these guys knew how to use it. You know exactly where and when you are. But slang isn’t just for the hardboiled types. Think Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Or Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels, wherein a young lady might set her cap at a man only to discover he was punting on the River Tick; she would be blue-deviled with frustration and her friends might think she was making a Cheltenham tragedy out of it (this is a brilliant blog post about that, btw). Anthony Burgess created slang for his futuristic A Clockwork Orange, and it makes the thing weird and creepy and perfect. (On the other hand, Beverly Cleary is still selling children’s books she wrote decades ago precisely because she didn’t use slang. J. K. Rowling avoided using slang, too, and you see where that got her.)
Me, I’m just a girl who likes words, especially the fun ones, and slang ain’t nuthin’ if not fun. Just talk to an Irishman, and you’ll see what I mean. (I know, I know, you love the accent. And you know they are gifted storytellers. But that’s not what I mean.) And if you don’t have one handy like I do, I have just the place for you: the O’Byrne Files. It’s not for the faint of heart, dear ones. But even now, I’m laughing out loud.
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