Slang, Colloquialisms, and Clichés #amwriting

Words are awesome. I love obscure, weird words. J.K. Rowling used the word ‘snogging’ in her Harry Potter series, to describe couples who were engaged in prolonged kissing, or as we sometimes say where I come from,  ‘canoodling.’

Another good word is ‘kerfuffle,’  a Briticism for a  noisy disturbance or commotion. That word has become more common in American conversation over the last few years.

Words are how authors convey the imaginary world to the reader. Artistry comes into play in the way the author assembles their chosen words into sentences and paragraphs. In reading those words, the reader finds themselves in a new reality, a mental picture painted by the author.

English is a mash-up language. It is old Latin glued to an evolving language with completely different roots, Frisian, with a bunch of words and usages invented by William Shakespeare added in.

Thanks to the human drive to explore new worlds, English, the mish-mash language, went to America where it absorbed many words from the various languages it encountered among the people already living there.

English also went to Australia where the same thing happened. Each of the many dialects of English contains wonderful, wild words that are unique to their local population.

Colloquialisms are fun, informal things, but truthfully, they are much like clichés. Unless we are writing a contemporary piece where words unique to a particular culture are part of the world building, we shouldn’t rely on them to tell the story.

Sometimes, we find ourselves using words that are what I think of as subtle clichés. They are subtle because they feel so natural sitting in that sentence. Consider “damn fool.”

It was a common thing adults would say about a particularly reckless or impulsive neighbor when I was growing up. But would I write it into a narrative? Maybe, if using that cliché showed the personality of a minor character whose only onscreen time was shown in that brief conversation.

The problem comes with word evolution, and how common phrases evolve differently from place to place, and sometimes even in the same town.

That was a damn fool thing. This was how I would hear that phrase as a child.

So, if that is a concept that we are trying to convey, how do we say it? If you listen carefully, people say it just a bit differently depending on where they are from. Some say it with two words, some make it one, and others give damn an “ed” ending as if the suffix adds a sense of finality.

Do we spell it damn fool, damnfool, or damned fool?

According to the Urban Dictionary

damned fool

  • A person who is extremely foolish. Their actions are not only irresponsible to themselves but can possibly be harmful towards others.
  • If a guy tries to talk you out of using a condom, he is a damn fool. (You can’t make this stuff up–you have to go to the internet for it.)
  • Did you see that damned fool? He was swerving all over the road.(end quoted text)

And just for fun, let’s see what Wiktionary has to say:

  • damn fool (adjective)
  • damnfool 
  1. (informal) Contemptibly (end quoted text)

He was a damned fool.

How I see it:

  1. He was a damned fool. (I just cursed him to hell.)
  2. He was a damn fool. (He was contemptibly foolish)
  3. He did a damnfool thing. (He was contemptibly foolish, and I will curse him to hell.)

If you absolutely must use that colloquialism, write it the way that seems right to you, and it will be fine.

But when you look at the meanings of the various clichés we use in our daily speech, you can see there are better ways to say what you mean without making your work feel dated.

He was contemptibly foolish would be a good choice, as it isn’t a cliché and it says what you mean.

If we want our work to be meaningful to more than just the reader of today, we must use words that won’t lose their relevance, or fall out of fashion as within a decade. Did I hear you say, “Groovy?” Far out.

We want to write well, and we don’t want our prose to be stale or boring, but we also don’t want it to be annoyingly full of jargon.

Consider The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The slang his characters use in their casual conversation is specific to the nineteen twenties of America, and while it was well understood in that time, using those words in that context has fallen out of favor. This makes understanding that novel difficult for the modern reader, yet the prose of the narrative outside the conversations is truly beautiful.  Some words used in conversation that have lost their relevance today:

  • Mop (indicates a handkerchief)
  • Niffy (great, wonderful)
  • Noodle Juice (tea – a weak drink for weak people)
  • Quilt (indicated a drink meant to warm someone up)

Having the characters use slang stamps a novel with a date, setting it squarely in a known period.

For that reason, I feel it’s best to avoid slang and clichés even though finding the right words to convey those thoughts can be a struggle. When I am reading a new book, originality wins over hackneyed prose any day.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Slang, Colloquialisms, and Clichés #amwriting

  1. I like the colloquialism ‘horrorshow’ from A Clockwork Orange, but I never get a chance to use it in regular conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephen Swartz

    If you’re available, could you teach my classes next semester?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Patty

    Reblogged this on Campbells World and commented:
    I agree with much of what the blogger says here except…
    I think sometimes you have to use words or slang words that help to define the character and the setting in which you’re writing.
    I live in East Tennessee, and if I’m writing a character who lives in my area, or in a fictional area that represents my area then I’m very likely to write like I talk.
    Honestly I don’t think there’s a wrong or right way other than when absolutely correct spelling and grammar are warranted.
    I found this post very interesting as I too love neat words.
    Or as we say it here in the mountains…
    “I found this post plum interesting and I love them big words.”
    LOL!
    Or as my dad would say it…
    “That beats all I ever seen.”
    LOL!

    Like

    • Hello and welcome! I grew up on a rural lake in the deep woods of Washington State. My family was in love with words and mangling them, lol! Grandma would get “into a right twist” when Dad and my uncles came home “on their lips” on Friday night, lol–she was a strict non-drinker.

      Seriously, words and how we use them are great world building tools, but it’s crucial for us to remember that not everyone understands some turns of phrase, while others might be universal. Agatha Christie was a master at taking a walk-on character who only had perhaps a paragraph in that book, and making a caricature of them and using colloquialisms. In only a few words, she made us see them these people as if we knew them.

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  4. One thing I like about colloquialisms is how well they can capture a particular voice and the mood of a time and place. One thing that makes me suspicious of them is how readily they fall into cliche. So, if I feel it necessary to use them, and occasionally I do, I attribute them to a particular character who has a particular need to use them, rather than leave it to the reader to assume that the neutral narrator resorts to unattributed colloquialisms. Now, imagine Huck Finn without colloquialisms. The novel wouldn’t exist.

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    • So true–and many of Huck Finn’s colloquialisms have stood the test of time and are still in use today. I think of certain colloquialisms as “homing words.” They point the reader in the right direction.

      Slang is trickier, as some words are too obscure, popular catch phrases from a certain place and time. For a period piece, slang words that aren’t too far out of use do work as they are intended.

      On re-reading The Great Gatsby this last summer, I was surprised at how many of those slang words I had to look up, even though I had read it in my senior Lit class in 1971. I’m sure I knew what those words meant then, but this time thorough it, I spent a great deal of time on the internet, looking them up.

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