Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Hopelessly Out of Date!

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 husband John dates himself in his names for everyday objects. He calls computers “machines” when of course they aren’t, because they run on circuit boards not moving parts. When he says “I’ll go and start the machine” his grandchildren look at him blankly.  He talks about “filing” a document rather than “saving” it. Hopelessly behind the times, I know.  And he is still rooted in that post war austerity mentality in that he saves every single glass jar, in case it comes in useful someday. Drives me crazy! I have to sneak them into the garbage when he’s not looking.

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."


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: CHILL. Like Susan, I have the advantage of youth(s) - my two oldest are 23 and 22 and Youngest is fifteen. So I know someone who is doing well is a baller, and that when the Boy dresses up to go out he's pimpin'. Admirable things and events used to be sweet, but now they're sick.

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!


  1. Oh, even with grandchildren I can't begin to keep up with the changes in slang [most of which leave me perplexed and wondering what in the world was just said], but I'm patting myself on the back for knowing what "my bad" means!
    And "sketchy" and "legit" don't really work for me, either . . . .

  2. I love these! When my then thirteen-year-old son started calling me "Dude" I put my foot down. I said, "You don't have to call me Mommy. You can call me Mom, Mother dear, even Edith. But NOT dude."

    And Roberta, I'm stealing that Tennessee phrase for my next southern Indiana book. As for out of date phrases, I think we ought to bring back "groovy," "outta sight, man" and "far out." No? ;^)

  3. I recently began a new job after years of working from home, and I realized that I have become "eccentric" in my style of dress. Rather than "professional" or "fashionable" clothing, I look for outfits that make me smile. So yes, I was that woman on the elevator with the yellow sweater, orange tank top, and orange/yellow/purple infinity scarf. Verbally, I date myself by not doing the slang talk. When I feel tempted I imagine myself as Betty White without her charisma...and decide to embrace my proper southern wording.

  4. Edith, I'm with you on being called 'Dude." And 'pimpin' makes me cringe. But come on, man, can 'cool' ever really go out of style?! My dad would sometimes describe something (rarely someone) as "worthless as tits on a boar hog!" This puzzled me as a little kid, who heard it as "worthless as tits on a bored hog!" Say wha', dude?? Oh and that annoys me, too--dropping off the ends of words. Still can't figure out how 'bae' means 'baby.'

    And, Rhys, still chuckling over the photo--perfect!

  5. Wow, way cool. That should tell you all you need to know. A few days ago "groovy" fell out of my mouth. Even I stared at myself. Susan, talk about a foreign language! I had no idea about 99.9% of the terms you used. Yikes. I try not to use slang too often. A lesson I learned from my Dad who used the slang of his childhood until his death at age 92. There were times I had no idea what he was talking about. I resolved not to get stuck in a verbal time warp. Sometimes, I even succeed.

    Totally (that 80s word) agree about swearing. Especially on television. Don't like hearing it, completely unnecessary, and it shows a lack of creative vocabulary.

  6. Edith, Noel and I also refuse to be called "dude"! Oh, and the one time kiddo tried "dawg" — as Buffy would say, "a world of no."

  7. Nope, no dude.

    But yesterday my grandson Eli read the Declaration of Independence out loud to us…and afterward, he said--wouldn't it have been easier to say: "Yo, King. We out." ?

  8. Even with two teens, by the time I figure out what the slang means, it's out of date. And while The Boy will tolerate his "eccentric" mother, The Girl ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT. "Nobody says that any more, Mom. Stop, Just...stop."

    According to her, cool is still acceptable as is awesome. She does use "sketchy," but not "legit." "Totes" to her is OUT as is "whatev."

    The one thing The Boy insists on (they both do, actually) is proper grammar. The Boy was yelling at the commentators for the Pirates last night. "If one of them DOESN'T go! Not if one of them don't go!"

  9. Ha, Mary, you should use my tactic: I like to confuse everyone and just use slang terms from every era I've ever heard. I've been known to say that something is "the bee's knees", by golly.

    After all, if it was a good way to describe something once, a verbal shorthand at that time, why should it change, right?

    Rhys, John is so charming we would all forgive him.

    Eli sounds like a card, Hank. (See what I did there?)

  10. My bad is a particular dislike of mine. Whatever is John's bete noir, as I have been known to say it sometimes. And I certainly have said awesome, but never totes adorbs. I promise that will never cross my lips. On the whole I can deal with slang but not with bad grammar. Lay instead of lie, which on even hears on TV these days.

    And Karen, whatever slang you use will be charming too!

  11. I love saying "He doesn't know beans from applebutter". The reaction I get is "Huh?"

    My question is: how can you research what the slang was current in, say, 1886?

  12. Same question, Anonymous! I have been perusing newspapers (on microfilm) from 1888, and they sometimes have corny little stories written like a hick was speaking them - but I don't know if that's a caricature or the way some people spoke.

  13. I love the picture! As for slang we don't have any youngsters in the house. My granddaughter lives in Ohio so we see her about twice a year. I don't know what language she speaks with her pals. She uses English with me. British slang from the 20s and 30s cracks me up. It is so charming and so unlikely. Old fruit? I can see Bertie Wooster saying that but not anyone else. I like to use our southern expressions. That dog won't hunt. Try it and see if it flies. Better than a poke in the eye. There are many others but it's too hot to think. As for slang, cool will always be in.

  14. I am always intrigued and amazed by the amount of research and knowledge put into books set in the past concerning language. Knowing that an author is vigilant about the slang and other language used at a particular period is a great comfort to me in reading the book, adding to my enjoyment of it.

    I'm sure that my fifteen-year-old granddaughter must think me terribly out-of-date, but she knows that I'm a little weird, so she seems to accept me as I am. I really should use her more as a resource to at least be in the know about teen slang today. Susan, I had no clue about totes, except as an umbrella. Hank, Eli sounds like he's got a handle on how to cut to the chase. Julia, I, too, love the old phrases (coughs here and points out "cut to the chase"), and I use them just because I think they're deserving of preserving. I do occasionally explain a phrase to my granddaughters, ages 15 and 6, but I think the phrases make language a more colorful, fun experience. And, as a huge fan of British books and authors, I delight in "old bean" and "old girl." Rhys, I'm also a fan of your husband, so I find his adherence to his language style just another endearing aspect of his character. I think he is simply the cat's pajamas.

  15. So all of us adults decided to dap Elijah (age 13) at the Fourth of July parade. He covered his eyes and said I can't watch this I can't watch this just stop!!

  16. And I know I am truly old, because when I try to high five someone, I always miss.

  17. Hi Former librarian here. The only way I can think to get vernacular from 19th, and earlier centuries is to 1. Read the popular mags of the era.. i.e the penny dreadfuls in the 18th century. As you go back further, read the plays of that era that were set in the same era.. ergo people talking to each other. otherwise there are data banks of how people spoke in a given era.. comes under the study of linguistics.
    I hope this might be useful for y'all.

  18. So much of the current stuff comes about as shortenings in text messages. Why type all those extra letters? I disagree, the shortenings just sound silly to me. But at a certain age kids strive for new terms and expressions so they can be admired, in, cool, hip, etc. For me, most of the time it doesn't work as language, but they know what it means to them and they don't care what the rest of us think. Since I was in high school in the Sixties, I gravitate toward those expressions, upmost of which is cool, so I'll always use that.

  19. My dad used ice box for refrigerator and tin foil for aluminum foil until his entire life! I'm writing a book set in Rome, where the characters are (supposedly) speaking Italian. When I want to drop in some English idiom, I look it up on WordReference.com to see if there's something similar in Italian, and if not, I don't use it. That's why I can tell you definitively that there is an analogous phrase for both "in a nutshell" and "needle in a haystack." Not one for clusterf--- though. Quite a loss to the Italian language.

  20. Hank, I would pay money to see you dab.

  21. Coralee, thank you! As one who holds a long-dusty PhD in linguistics earned before the time of online databases, I never thought to look in that direction. But I will forthwith.

  22. So funny Susan--we were all pitiful. Xxx

  23. And yeah, dab. Autocorrect error. Also pitiful.

  24. Seems to me it would be a hundred times easier to write slang of the past, and get it roughly correct, than to write slang of the present moment, which could be totes dated by the time it gets published.

    Because even if you make the egregious mistake of putting 1930s words in 1920s mouths, for example, I suspect you'd mostly get away with it.

    Inadvertantly putting current or recent terms into historical writing (aparently pre-1950, as of this moment, so I squeak by as NOT historical myself) is of course another pitfall to watch for. The worst I ever read was in a circa 1870s western where someone used the term "talking heads".

  25. Since I was my sister-in-law's roommate, a very long time ago, she's been trying to get me to swear in French. I refuse.

    I think my entire vocabulary is out of date.

    When a child my father insisted I not use slang. I tried not to, but when I turned 18 he was less careful with his own speech. I had a lot of self control to let go of, and it's still spilling out.

    For checking time-referenced word usage when writing, I depend on the OED.

  26. Rhys,

    There was a children's tv show called Full House. I remember the toddler would say "No way, Jose" and my then little cousins would quote her.

    I love all of the comments above about slang.

    I learn a lot from use of slang from different time periods. it is part of the fun in reading historical novels.


  27. I love throwing in "Southernisms" from my mother and grandmother. However, the ultimate compliment in our house is "you are the wooliest of baa lambs." I spent much of my formative years reading P. G. Wodehouse. I did tell my husband the other day that he was "the ginchiest," which dates me completely.