RHYS BOWEN: I write books set in the past and one of the things that is important about recreating the time and place is to get the slang right. I only realized how quickly slang changes when it came to me that cool is not cool any more. Those of us who wanted to be hip in the seventies and eighties declared everything to be cool.
My grandkids, however, describe things as sweet, legit, awesome. I know I date and place myself by declaring things to be fabulous, brilliant and even super. All adjectives from another place, another time. (now there is a movie of Absolutely Fabulous coming out, maybe I’ll be cool again when I use them?)
I suppose we all date ourselves by using the vocabulary of the most important or formative part of our lives. I write about England in the 1930s. When I was a child the adults around me still used the slang of the Thirties. People still called each other Old Bean, Old Fruit or Old Thing. They were terms of endearment. People still said “spiffing” and “smashing” and even “You are a brick.”
Swearing of any kind was frowned upon. So people said “jolly well or bally well” instead of “bloody well.” They said “dashed” instead of “damned.” “It was bally well impossible to get the dashed thing started.” So it is easy for me to use this vernacular when I write. I’ve noticed this is a mistake other writers make when writing about the pre-war period. I’ve just read a book where a character said the F word. Civilized people simply would not have said that. I remember when I was first with the BBC in London and I came home on a visit. I was recounting a story to the family when I said, “It was a bloody nuisance.” There was a horrified silence and one of my great aunts said in cold voice, “So, you’ve taken to swearing now, have you?”
My father referred to the car he drove as “the motor”.
In America it was the “automobile.”
In Thirties slang it was the “banger.” Or people drove “roadsters.”
So I’m curious, Reds. What do you do or say that dates you?
LUCY BURDETTE: I love the idea of calling people Old Bean and Old Fruit! I'm writing a book with a kind of tough 16 year old girl as one of the two main protagonists--I know I don't have her language down right. I'm hoping I can fix that after I write the darn book. Maybe I could get some tips from your grandchildren Rhys?
I lived in Tennessee for four years in the late 70's and talk about a different language! (Though I loved TN and felt very comfortable there.) Our landlord came over one day and was talking about something he found perplexing. "That makes a man scratch his head where it don't itch," he said. I knew exactly what he meant!
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, Rhys, I am so aware of that! When I call something "awesome," which often slips out, I feel like a twelve-year-old. So inappropriate for me! So it works both ways. My editor, who is 35, once howled with laughter when I had Jane say something was "dandy" I mean, Jane was being sarcastic, but my editor says "dandy is for old people." FINE.
I talk about "dialing the phone." Do people say that now? And I vividly remember being yelled at. when i was 8 or so, for saying "crap." I was sent away from the table! Now they say that on TV, which always kills me.
Slang I don't understand: describing someone is "sketchy." That doesn't work for me. I get it ,sure. But a background can be sketchy, a person can't. "Legit" annoys me, too, unless it truly means legitimate. Oh, also, that something was "chill." As in, "We had a great time, it was really chill." I feel like such a fogey, but that's ineffective.
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Well, we have an eleven-year-old NYC kid, so we hear all the new slang. Everything right now is "totes," meaning totally, absolutely, completely, or yes. I recently texted Kiddo a picture of a friend's new kittens and he wrote back: "Totes adorbs!" (Totally adorable.) "Do you want dinner now?" Totes."
What else are the kids saying? Let's see — "my bad"is "oops, sorry" and "give the bat signal" is to let someone know when you're ready to leave (either verbally or by text). "On fleek" is SO OVER NOW, PEOPLE! NO ONE SAYS THAT. "Whatever" or "whatevs" is still in, but we don't allow it in our house.
And the "in" gesture is "dabbin'" — Urban Dictionary defines it as "a level of confidence to your swag . (verb) one can be seen raising his left elbow to express it ." Made popular by professional athletes and rappers. Kiddo's graduating fifth-grade class all dabbed in unison after they got their diplomas. (See video of dabbin' here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uf1D3Y7MWgc)
Personally, I like slang by Joss Whedon, used in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "A world of no" (no way), "five by five" (everything's all right), Gene and Roger (unsolicited criticism), "hootenanny" (type of party that is chock full of hoot, just a little bit of nanny), "Joan Collins 'tude" (attitude of someone bitchy, referencing to the Dynasty diva), and "the wacky" (as in "love makes you do the wacky").
I try not to say any of these things during conferences and also try not to refer to anyone on a panel as "Dude."
YO, SUSAN OUT! RESPECT, PEEPS.
As for me, I LOVE old slang and phrases. He doesn't have the sense God gave geese. I haven't seen her in dog's years. You took your sweet Sally Mae getting here. And I fell in love with 1930s British slang when reading Wodehouse as a youngster. I think we should all make a concerted attempt to return to those amazing verbal contortions. Who wouldn't want to be able to say, "I say, old girl, I think the bish has gotten skiffy on the G and Ts."
RHYS: Sorry, I couldn't resist that last picture, since it's Fourth of July week! So how do you date yourselves? Come on, 'fess up!