Readers, myself included, love dialogue that seems genuine. We want it to ring true, to reflect character, to be appropriate for place, time and conversational partners.
In other words, we want it to feel legit.
Which brings me to slang.
Evidently, it’s not cool to say legit any more. (It’s probably not cool to say cool, either, but I’ll leave that there.) The new legit is lit, cracked or vibe. In fact, vibe is so vibin’ that my teenage son has entire conversations using it as a noun, verb and pronoun, as in “I’m vibin’ on this vibe, viber.”
Lit has similar range. Add a “y” and it becomes a super-adjective. I would imagine adding an “ly” would make it an adverb, but it seems that young people (bros? bruhs?) aren’t big on modifying verbs. (And, yes, I’m aware that saying things like “young people” means I’m not one of them.)
I would say this makes me cheesy or, to use an 80s term, Joanie, but I guess those words went out with fingerless lace gloves and antenna bangs. Cringe is the new cheese, but even that has layers, and you have to know when to use cringe versus cringe-y, just as you have to understand the subtleties of cray versus cray-cray.
Then there’s the issue of punctuation.
The period, which has always seemed fairly innocuous to me, is now a sign of derision or aggression. Answering “Okay.” to a text is the equivalent of tossing a drink in someone’s face.
Even an exclamation point may not be enough to indicate good will. (And you know I have a deep and abiding love for that mark). Digital communications now have to include emojis.
Unfortunately, even this is rife with danger. My teenage daughter informed me that using a grinning emoji may mean that you’re very sad or upset. I would respond with a face-palm emoji, but that probably indicates that I’m riding a bicycle or enjoy ham sandwiches for lunch.
All of this makes writing younger characters in 2021 fraught with the possibility of error. The eponymous protagonist of my Maggie O’Malley Mysteries is young-ish. As a twentysomething, it’s more than a little possible that she, or her bestie Constantine, would pepper dialogue with slang.
However, it’s hard for me to imagine Maggie describing a new medication as baller, suggesting that someone is capping to the police or believing that someone is sus based on a lack of alibi. So I have to thread the needle between Maggie’s youth, the heart of who she really is, and the fact that people will be reading well after the year I wrote.
It’s no mean feat, but I’ve seen others do it with aplomb because they’ve got game. Or maybe they are game? In either case, I’m inspired to keep learning, keep writing and keep my ear to the ground for not just what’s new in language, but what’s true for my characters.
Pretty sick, right?
How about you, dear friends? Do you like slang, either to read or write? Are you hip to all the cool terms or are you a square like me?
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