Monday, January 17, 2011

The Controversial World of Slang

Being a historical writer certainly comes with its challenges. I'd say one of the more interesting and, often times, more fascinating aspects is the use of slang. If you're a more contemporary writer, or one of those who delves into Fantasy, Science-Fiction or other-worldy genres then you might not feel the need for believable slang in your writing. But for me, it's essential.

When I wrote my first novel, which takes place during the mid-1800s, the first major roadblock I ran into was that my dialogue was just not convincing enough. "Why would a slave speak like an everyday, ordinary human being?" one critiquer asked. And you know what? That particular critique was spot on. I had written flat characters onto the page, simply because I had ignored the speech patterns of each individual character. And I had avoided the lingo of the time period.

Among the three time periods I've tackled (1850s, 1920s, and 1940s) I'd say the one that takes place in the 1850s was the hardest for which to research the slang. Why, you may ask? Because it's not as easy to trace slang when no one today was alive during that time period (let alone really speak it since most of it is viewed as derogatory). Yes, it gets passed down and we find certain references in other literary works, but writing styles during the 1800s were quite unlike the writing styles we find today. Those writers may not have followed the slew of rules that bog down the more modern tippy typers, but a majority of literature one reads in a World Lit class, American Lit class, European Lit class, etc. was written by highly educated individuals (or incredibly detailed individuals). Now, I'm not saying that writers today aren't a wonderfully educated bunch, but the difference lies in the fact that colloquial speech is much more acceptable this day and age. But that also depends on the words one chooses to use.

When contemplating the use of slang in your manuscript there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • First, take a look at your genre. Some genres (like sci-fi and fantasy) don't necessarily require the use of slang. In actuality, it might even age your writing. If you're using today's slang, then five, ten, twenty years from now, readers are going to see that what you wrote has become outdated (just take a look at some of those sci-fi movies from the eighties). There are a few exceptions, like with Steampunk, where history is mixed in, therefore the use of slang would actually add to your story.
  • Secondly, don't overuse it. Slang is good in small portions. If you decide to go back and infuse your manuscript with this element, make sure you aren't writing large portions of dialogue or prose that get bogged down with slang. This just makes your writing ridiculous. Just like with any other element you decide to use (flashbacks, multiple POVs, the "to be"verb, etc.) keep it to a minimum. You don't want to draw unwelcomed attention to your writing -- you want that writing to sing, uninterrupted.
  • Thirdly, don't confuse your reader. Finding a treasure trove of words from say, the 1920s, doesn't mean your audience is going to understand what you choose to use. Make sure your target audience is going to grasp the meaning of your chosen slang. With historical, readers expect a different vocabulary, but again, don't use the most obscure terms you can find. And put it into a context that can lead the reader to its meaning. For instance, when I referred to my protagonist as a partier I used the term "liberally spifflicated." It's an old term referring to one being drunk, and one of my critiquers instantly picked up on it and actually enjoyed the use of it. 
  • Lastly -- and keep this in mind -- know you're not writing to be "Politically Correct." If this mindset sets in, then know that you're not really writing -- you're putting things on a page that a PC-populous would want from you. As writers, we need to respect the lingo of our chosen time period, no matter how offensive it would be viewed today. There was a reason for its birth -- don't squash that reason with your seat-shifting need to avoid it. If you're not comfortable with writing certain words, then perhaps you should change aspects of your story around in order to avoid them.
This final point brings me to a debate about which I recently read. As a writer, my hope is that through the years my work will be passed on from generation to generation. I'm sure Mark Twain had that in mind as well. There was an interesting article published on Entertainment Weekly's website concerning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn debate. Basically, what the article states is that a new version of this wonderful novel will be published with the "n" word and the word Injun removed and replaced with the less offensive terms slave and Indian. There is the argument that this is a form of censorship. I believe Mark Twain had a purpose for writing the story as he did. Does that mean that years later a PC public should come along and change it just because we now view these words as offensive? You can read the article and responses and decide for yourself.

The Indian War Memorial monument
(2006) courtesy of Wikipedia
Another example I'd like to point out involves The Indian War Memorial monument at the center of the Santa Fe plaza. I bring this up because this is the first I've seen like it. Just so you know, I'm not condoning the use of derogatory or hateful language of any kind, especially this day and age. I'm simply stating that there is a reason why writers choose the language they place in their work.

If you've ever been to the monument, seen the inscriptions, and then read the plaque in front of it, then you've seen that some of the original inscriptions have been chipped away. It once read "Savage Indians", of which only "Indians" remains. It's been a while since I last visited the monument, but I also believe a couple other offensive terms have been removed (correct me if I'm wrong). Even so, should a monument, with an inscription that once reflected the charged, strife-filled atmosphere of Santa Fe, have its historical meaning removed in order to placate those who don't want a reminder of history staring them in the face? History is just that -- history. If we remove the words that created our world, simply because today we find them offensive, then how will we ever fully understand the past? As a historical writer that's exactly what I need to know in order to craft my story properly and bring a bit of what was once known to the world we live in today. Otherwise, we may just end up repeating that past so many others want to believe doesn't exist.

How about for you? Do you think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn debate is a form of censorship? Or do you view it as minor corrections to a work children will read in their classrooms? Should we erase offensive slang of the past so as not to bring up the children of today in a world that still bears the scars those terms created? Can you think of other instances where either literary works or public inscriptions have been changed?

Just food for thought that I believe is worth munching on!

♥ Mary Mary

Thanks, for this lovely award, goes out to the The Blogger Formerly Known As and also over at Jennifer Lane Books. Stop by and show them some love! Perhaps I will pass it on at a later date, but I'm just unable to at the moment.

Stop by and see what I've got going on over at The Random Book Review!


  1. I think Mark Twain’s books capture a time and place.

    In my view, this is 21st century censorship, which misrepresents an author’s work.

    I hope he comes back and haunts those responsible :)

  2. I am a hundred per cent against PC culture that has ended up doing more harm than good. We live in a much more racist, misogynist, homophobic, hostile world despite all that nonsense that it is wrong to use words such as “actress” or “lady”. I happen to be a lady and damn proud to be one. And to be quite honest, I never felt people loved more in the States, because I was “Latina” instead of “Hispanic". I could never tell the difference.
    I read about the mutilation of Huck Finn, and I was appalled. I am just holding my breath waiting for them to bring the ax to other classic novels (GWTW, has the “N” word in it. Scarlett uses it in a moment of rage that she immediately regrets).
    Hurrah for those courageous words from Sister Mary, Mary

  3. I am totally against changing anything in Twain's or anyone else's work. A lot of the misunderstanding of why it is important not to change literature to make it PC has to do with the general public's lack of historical knowledge.

  4. The Blogger Formerly Known As -- He should come back and haunt those trying to rework his story! It just makes me sad that they would mess with it in the first place.

    Violante-- I couldn't agree with you more when it comes to an overly-sensitive, PC culture that basically makes each and every one of us guilty of saying or writing something wrong. I sure hope it doesn't come to changing more classics. A writer has the right to write what he/she deems is proper for the genre he/she writes in.

    Anonymous -- You're right on track when it comes to the general public's lack of historical knowledge. We need to know and understand why certain words exist in our language today.

  5. When I read the beginning of your post, I immediately thought of the Mark Twain debate.

    This isn't my original thought, but rather paraphrased from a friend that I agree with: If taking some of those phrases out of traditional books brings the classics back into schools, it seems like a good trade-off. Then the students can decide whether to go after the original or not.

  6. I can see your point, Erica. I understand the need to expose our children to the great literary works. But here's the thing, as far as I know most schools haven't stopped putting this book on their reading lists, so why the need in the first place? According to the article I listed above, they are only editing one edition of the Huck Finn book. This will be the most recent edition put into publication. I don't know. Slowly diluting the past doesn't seem like the best option.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Revisionism is one thing but the perpetuation of human debasement is wholly other. Though what is happening with Huckleberry Finn arguably stems from a misapprehension of the novel's relative progressivism when historical context is preserved, I believe contemporary writers of new material are nevertheless well-advised to tread with humility. There's a difference between token politcal correctness- which is often a failure of both impact and imagination- and actively contributing to a culture of respect. Sadly, sometimes the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.

  8. According to the dictionary, a censor is
    "any person who supervises the manners or morality of others." So in my opinion it is a form of censorship. I think to change Mark Twain's words is a way of negating the historical context in which he lived. So many have condemned censorship throughout the years. Why is this acceptable now?

    Violante, what is wrong with the words "lady" or "actress"?

  9. As always, thank you both Aurora and Lorena for your insightful words. I agree with the censorship issue. If we start now, when does it stop? It becomes a slippery slope. Twain was never viewed as a racist, just a writer using terms not uncommon to the world around him at the time.

    As to 'lady' and 'actress' to which Violante refers (and correct me if I'm wrong, Violante) but I believe the term they use for actors as a whole now is 'actor.' Women are almost never referred to as actresses anymore. 'Lady' can be construed a bit differently in different cultures, but my guess is that the term 'lady' can mean more of a soiled dove or a debased woman. Like 'a lady of the night.' Anyway, that's my guess.

    Thanks for both your comments!

  10. They are considered sexist Sister Lore. An "actress" is now called "actor" as an example of equality. Lady is also considered sexist since it places a woman into a subserviant category that "limits her freedoms".

  11. When you have a chance, I have a little something for you at my place.

  12. Thank you for you kind comment on L'Aussie's blog. Glad to have found your blog.

    I agree with what you said about the slang. Fifty years from now the slang could have disappeared and then no one will know what we were trying to say. That being said, I don't think they should change history. I say keep the books the same. We learn a lot about history that way.

  13. Clarissa, I couldn't agree with you more with keeping history the way it is. I enjoyed your interview over at L'Aussie's blog!

  14. LOL What WOULD the PC brigade do with Uncle Tom's Cabin?

    I agree with keeping the text of books like Mark Twain's as originally published.

    The memorial in the park though? Have to strongly disagree there. In my mind that's pretty much the same argument as saying that signs all around Johannesburg from the apartheid era designating which areas were for whites and which were for blacks should stay as they were to preserve historical accuracy. I can't put my finger on why the two are different but in my mind they definitely are.

  15. Hmm, Uncle Tom's Cabin has to make you wonder.

    I see your point with the memorial. The only thing that I would say is different considering the signs, is that those are primarily metal, removable signs. A stone monument is not. I guess the fact that someone came along and actually dug into the stone (literally, the impressions are about an inch deep) and removed the words really seems absurd. I've seen hundreds of stone monuments, many of them in Europe, a continent that battled for years between numerous countries, and there are still stone or full size metal monuments in place extolling this or that power.

    I guess in the end it's all about how you view the portrayal of history.

    Thanks for your comments, Adina!

  16. This is really great information that could benefit writers in all genres. I'm going to bookmark this for future reference.

  17. I'm glad you think so, TK. Censorship of any kind can be a touchy subject, so I'm glad you found this useful. Thanks for stopping by!

  18. I've never attempted a historical for this very reason, although I have the utmost respect for those who do.

  19. If we ignore our past, we are doomed to repeat it. That's something the PC Crowd doesn't take into consideration in making everyone watch what they say.

  20. That's a very true observation, Jeffrey. There is a reason for the words we create.

  21. What a great post! I like to think of past books as "time capsules". I'd hate to change a word.


  22. I agree with you, Debbie. Why fix it if it isn't even broken?


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