Friday, March 9, 2012

Cues from the Coach: Torchbearers in Times of Change

In these days of e-mails, texts, mind-boggling abbreviations, and thoughts that bounce all over the place, we have seen huge changes in our language, especially in its written form. In fact, I can’t even decipher some of the texts I receive from my grandchildren.

How does this affect us as writers? New abbreviations and fragmented sentences are all the rage and fast becoming the present norm. Are we jumping headfirst into the confusion, or are we torchbearers in times of change?

Some years ago, I researched expressions common during the flapper era—the 1920s—for a poem I was writing. Today, a reader would likely have little idea what those terms mean. How many of the following can you define (and these are just a few)?

• Bee’s knees (they don’t buzz)
• Big cheese (not to be confused with a Big Mac)
• Bluenose (not a precursor to frostbite)
• Carry a torch (nothing to do with the Olympics)
• Cat’s pajamas (not necessarily nightwear)
• Cheaters (you’ll be surprised when you see what these are)
• Dogs (neighbors won’t ever complain about their barking)
• Flat tire (won’t slow down your car)
• Giggle water (packs a punch)
• Hooch (sans Turner)
• Lounge lizards (not related to Gila monsters…or maybe they are)
• Pinch (pain of a different kind)
• Sheba (not royalty)
• Sheik (not to be confused with chic - think Valentino)
• Struggle buggy (not where you want your teenager)
• Torpedo (maybe on a ship, but maybe not)
• Whoopee (no, it isn’t a cushion)

These terms and many others from the past, all of which have come and gone, have been preserved so we can chuckle at what seems to us to be their silliness; but even when they abounded in everyday speech, they didn’t impose upon communication the threat of today's changes. Why? They were simply slang, terms created to fit the times. Today, our language is jeopardized at its roots because the changes extend beyond slang into spelling and structure. These are of serious concern.

Assuming that all readers will understand such variations in usage is to assume that all are right on task with the newest innovations in communication. Remember that readers come from all walks of life, different age groups and educational backgrounds, varied experiences, perhaps even different first languages.

Filling our writings with expressions and structures that will be understood by only a few—unless, of course, it’s technical or scientific material intended for a limited readership—may not catapult you into the twenty-first century with the latest and greatest ways to express yourself. In fact, it may have the opposite effect that won't help to market your books. This is not to suggest that appropriate terminology for a given profession in your works—medical, law enforcement, etc.—should not be used. Such expressions are germane to the story. I'm talking mostly about structure here.

Writing and grammar rules exist for a reason—what do you think that reason is? How do you feel about reading material that is hitched to the bandwagon of new trends in word usage and structure? What impact does it have on your reading pleasure when you encounter a lot of terms you don’t understand or sentence structures and punctuation that leave you wondering just what the author means?

Language evolves, no question about that. But it needs to be understandable. Works of the past are a treasure for future generations. Are you willing to be a torchbearer, a light in the dark tunnel of change, a protector of the integrity of our language?

Linda Lane and her team teach writers to write well. Like teaching a man to fish will feed him for a lifetime, teaching a writer to write well will serve him for his entire writing career. Cost effective, time effective, and reader-friendly works come from savvy writers who care about excellence; those are the writers we want to mentor. Visit her at

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  1. I definitely agree. My brother got a job as a call taker, and they had to go through a week course to learn Ebonics. That is not a "valid" language, if you ask me, and it isn't slang, which comes and goes. I find that scary.

    My guesses-
    Bee's Knees: cool, special
    Big Cheese: boss, the guy you need to listen to
    Carry a Torch: Have a crush
    Cat's Pajamas: Like the bee's knees- cool, special
    Dogs: feet
    Giggle Water: liquor?
    Hooch: Whiskey or moonshine?
    Lounge Lizards: lazy people?
    Pinch: in the wallet?

    How did I do?

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  2. Only time will tell, Linda, what contemporary slang and grammatical innovation will last--or even be remembered. I did not live in the '20s but knew nearly all the expressions you listed. They may not have been au courant in the 1950s, but we knew them. And some, like "cool" may wax and wane in popularity, but linger long past currency.

    I deplore some of the contemporary "innovations" in punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and usage, but I also recognize language as a living, vital instrument over which no individual or group exercizes much control or influence. I lament the loss of adverbs and the fading of the -ly ending. I still avoid split infinitives and sentences ending in prepositions--mostly--though I now am told that we were taught incorrectly.

    The most radical constructions of IMs and texting will most likely dim with time and someday seem as fadish as love beads and bell-bottoms.

    However, we don't have to honor or approve dumbed-down or abbreviated language to use these to add contemporary seasoning to our fiction. When one of my young characters "texts" a "bud", he thumbs in "whassup r u kk?" Context conveys the meaning to the clueless and the connected gen knows that I understand whats up. Writing to reach readers and tell the story with authenticity, that's what it's about. In that, it's no different than the dialect in Twain or stylized archaisms of modern medieval fantasies.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

  3. I love this post! I was raised by two depression-era ladies, so I know these expressions. And still use some of them. Except...cheaters - isn't that some sort of clothing?

  4. I pressed a wrong button. The "anonymous" is me.

  5. I agree that these changes threaten a certain structure that exists. I do wonder what it will mean twenty, forty or a hundred years from now. This is an intriguing post.

  6. Tonight I will post the definitions of the flapper terms so everybody can see. Meanwhile, I hope this is fun for those who want to take a stab at their meanings.

  7. Shannon, as mentioned in the post, language does evolve. Whenever I think English isn't all that different from what it used to be, I go online and peruse something by Geoffrey Chaucer, who left us such wonderful literary treasures before he died in 1400.

    I don't know whether I find the evolution of language scary or intimidating, but it does pose some interesting questions for those of us who write and who want our works to be enjoyed by future generations without too many challenges in the reading of them.

  8. I wasn't around in the 20's, but I, too was familiar with most of these slang terms. Maybe it's because I've read a lot of books set in that time period? Or watched television shows?

    There's a line between being "current" and "dating your book." I think using the slang of the day, as long as it's not restricted to a narrow group, and is true to the character, can work. In fact, it's probably "better" than describing characters as looking like celebrities, or referring to musical hits or movies that might disappear.

    I guess I kind of accepted these changes when Google became a verb. I might even have had a character refer to a BFF in one of my books. In context, of course.

    As for grammar--I'm the fragment queen, but since I write in deep POV, it's true to my characters. And my editors and publishers haven't minded.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  9. You nailed it, Larry, Writing with authenticity doesn't need to embrace the current slang, but only to acknowledge it. This welcomes readers of all ages and slang proficiencies into our works rather than antagonizing any of them them with a lack of validation.

    I, too, bemoan the changing grammar and structure rules - or lack thereof. Many of them that are falling by the wayside contributed to the clarity of passages that now I sometimes must read two or three time to discern their meaning.

  10. Here's my take ... for what it's worth ... language is in a continuous state of evolution, and sooner or later it will become unrecognizable to future generations (ever try to read Beowulf?) ... there just ain't no stoppin' it ... so, even if it gives us the heebie geebies, it appears that we'll just have to keep guessing what 2G2B4G means ... sheeesh!

  11. Good point, Terry. We think in fragments, so deep POV - getting inside a character's thoughts - would pull a reader out of a story if it were always done in ever-so-proper English. The key is knowing the rules, obeying the rules, and knowing when to break them to infuse the story with realism.

  12. Ah, Christopher, you always bring a fresh perspective and a smile to topics that can get a bit heavy. I echo your sentiment: sheeesh!

  13. I think what has been done to our language is ridiculous. I see it on Facebook and Twitter all the time - misspelled words, incorrect grammar. It makes me wonder why people bother going to school.

  14. You need to write for your market and time period, that's for sure.

    Morgan Mandel

  15. I just love this, Linda! I work with SO many writers these days with no actual fundamental understanding of grammar, syntax, structure, etc. It really is an epidemic. And when whiney responses come about hampering creativity, my response is always the same: You can break any rule in the book--IF you understand the rule thoroughly, and can justify breaking it, and gain more from doing so than not.
    Everything in language is in service to the characters and the story!

  16. An interesting topic to consider, Linda: the only constant is change. Was thinking of a tangential issue today when editing out a reference to a "Dukes of Hazard-style" leap over a counter included in a client's modern-day thriller. The only thing this reference clarified for me was the author's age and/or TV watching habits, neither of which was relevant to said leap in said thriller. It's amazing how many ways we reveal our own age as authors, not even thinking that our readers might not have our same...ahem…"life experience."

  17. Good post, Linda, and the comments have been so interesting. I think we pretty much have a consensus that using particular slang can work if done in context and sparingly. I remember a number of years ago an editor at a major NY house told me not to use the current teen slang in my YA novel because it would change over the years. True, but it also adds to characterization, so I had to carefully pick a few slang words and hope they wouldn't get dated. In rewriting that book for current publication, I did change some of my slang words such as "cool." A more modern term is "sweet" to mean the same thing.

  18. Brianna, you are right on. (Ooops, I think that's current [?] slang.) I also think the reason our language seems to be heading down the tube (ooops again) goes beyond the students to the teachers.

    Some years ago, I worked as a theme reader in a school district just outside Seattle. When I returned a set papers I had corrected to the middle school teachers and explained that the students obviously didn't understand the use of either adjectives or adverbs and then brazenly suggested that perhaps they should learn to diagram sentences, I was told they (the students) couldn't understand the concept. Unable (unwilling?) to keep my big mouth shut, I replied that I had understood them when I was in school. After an awkward silence, I realized that the TEACHERS didn't understand the concept.

    Think about the powerful lesson in this for all of us. Our students will never learn what our teachers cannot teach.

  19. You're right, Morgan. We also have to write somewhat generically for future generations - just not so generically that our stories lose flavor and our words become boring. Seems a bit of a tightrope, doesn't it?

  20. I share your position on breaking the rules, Susan. When you know them and show that you know them, you can break them in the right place at the right time with impunity.

    Your last line is a treasure: Everything in language is in service to the characters and the story!

  21. Yes, Kathryn, life experiences definitely date us. They also give us depth and insight and . . . gray hair. :-)

    Maryann, you've touched on a dilemma most writers face: that fine line between characterization and formal language. (We do still have some semblance of a formal language, right?) Dialogue, in particular, becomes stilted and unrealistic when it's properly grammatical. Who really talks that way? As Larry mentioned, we sometimes must rely on context to convey meaning when we choose words that allow our characters to be true to themselves.

  22. Interesting thing about "cool". It's as cool today as it was way back when.

    But I agree that we have to watch our language and I often write about avoiding insular terminology unless you are writing specifically to an industry or other small groups. Too often, you'll just some like a big fish in a little pond, instead of an influencer in the greater world. I mean face it, "cool" language is for kids, and it rapidly changes. I can always tell an old person has written a book for children by the dated expressions they use - like "none of your beeswax". Puh-leeze!

  23. This reminds me of several mystery series I read set in the eighties - both of the more recent titles have started sounding way too modern through the inclusion of more modern slang expressions which became popular via TV. Editors really do have to check etymology all the time. Expressions like "you go girl" and "my bad" are not from the eighties, just as an example.

  24. Oh, and if you want your book to be a perennial fave for generations. Do. Not. Write. Like. This. Just sayin'. Oops, there's another one. Can you tell I do this for a living? :D

  25. Dani, whoever said that writing was simple - or editing, for that matter? Good points, all of them!

  26. Shannon, here are the definitions as promised —
    Bee's knees: anything extraordinary
    Big cheese: head honcho
    Bluenose: prude
    Carry a torch: have a crush on
    Cat's pajamas: best, greatest
    Cheaters: eyeglasses
    Dogs: feet
    Flat tire: dull date
    Giggle water: liquor
    Hooch: bootleg liquor
    Lounge lizard: sexually active guy
    Pinch: arrest
    Sheba: sexy woman
    Sheik: sexy man
    Struggle buggy: back seat of car
    Torpedo: hired gun
    Whoopee: have a good time

  27. I actually knew quite a few of those. Never used them, though. I don't remember my parents' ever using any either. So I must have absorbed them via osmosis. (Yes, that makes no sense, but it's all I got.)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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