The Little Things: Slang

One of the things I love is when a book does slang and idioms–whether real-world or made-up–very well. I can’t say I see it done well all that often, and I can’t say that I always do it as well as I would like. It’s a work in progress, but I think it’s one of those little things that go a long, long way.
I think we don’t often realize how much even something as simple as word choice influences our understanding of people, culture, and character. It goes from something absolutely tedious and silly (such as the disagreement I had with my husband regarding the range of numbers represented by the word “several”: he says that can be as little as three, I feel like it’s got to be six or seven. Not a big deal until one asks the other to get “several” apples at the store, expecting seven and getting three!) to the fact that in Quebec French, certain religious words, like Tabernacle and Chalice are used as cuss words, often with more offense carried in them than our most aggressive four-letter mud-slingers.
Personally, I find this fascinating. Then again, I’ve worked as a translator before, and that’s kind of my thing.
Every sub-culture has its own vocabulary, and some of it makes sense, and some of it makes nonsense. And then you have your sub-sub-culture slang too! For instance, I was in the Marine Corps for five years. My husband is in a different branch of service. You would think that “military slang” would just about cover it, right? Nope.
For a forced march? He says ruck, I say hump (I know…I know.)
For a bathroom? He says latrine, I say head.
For that mysterious unofficial grapevine through which all information is disseminated before its actually disseminated? He says Joe Network, I say Lance Corporal Underground.
And do you want to know something else? (probably not, but I’m going to tell you anyway) The Marine Corps has a couple of terms that are still used to this day, which originated from the Navajo Codetalkers of WWII! Running shoes are called both tenny-runners (? so weird, now that I think about it) and go-fasters, the latter of which has its origins in the Navajo Marine terminology. Ink-stick, for pens, is also one of those.
Just a couple of random bits of military slang and you could draw a whole, rich history lesson.
Anyhow, this is something that can be hard to do because if you don’t get it right, it can be tedious and distracting, but if you do get it right it can bring the world to life in a subtle, but very root-growing sort of way.
On that note, here is the NYT quiz based on the Harvard Dialect Survey. It asks questions about which words you use for commonly known things (or in some cases, obscure regional things that I had never heard of) and it was accurate down to my hometown (although that level of specificity is probably not going to happen if you’ve lived in twenty places growing up). It can be fun to see how small word choices show your culture/background.
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