Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Language, and the Writers Who Use It

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Over the past week or so, I’ve been struck by the changes in language over the past ten years or so…namely, the uptick in allowable profanity on the one hand, and the uptick in allowable “gross slang” on the other.

For example, I doubt that ten years ago I’d have heard the word “pissed” on television, much less on a show like Divorce Court that features a real judge with real people trying to solve difficult relationship problems. Yet I heard it this past week from Judge Lynn Toler, a retired municipal court justice — and no one batted an eye.

Ten years ago, the word wouldn’t have been “pissed” at all. It would’ve been “ticked” (as in, ticked off) or “perturbed” or “displeased” or even “upset.” But not “pissed,” as it was considered vulgar and uncouth.

Another word that’s attained much more acceptance is the word “farted.” Ten years ago, most who now use this word wouldn’t have chosen this particular expression; instead, it would’ve been “passed gas,” “broke wind,” or if you were highfalutin’ (or like me and just liked the sound of the word), you’d say “flatulent” instead.

Finally, ten years ago it was considered at least slightly impolite to say “Hell” or “Damn” while discussing business matters. (Note it wasn’t at all considered impolite while talking with your friends, those who knew you best.) But now, it happens all the time.

What does that mean? Mostly, it means that language changes. And writers need to keep on top of that.

That doesn’t mean your own speaking habits need to change. But it does mean you need to be aware of what your characters are saying, and more to the point, how they’re saying it.

So when you’re writing dialogue, be aware of your setting, your characters, their particular temperaments…and, of course, keep an ear out for slang. Because that way lies verisimilitude (or at least a better reading experience).

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Written by Barb Caffrey

October 20, 2014 at 5:18 am

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