Word Nerdery: The Continuing Evolution of Slang

Slang is, frankly, one of the most consistent—and confusing—ways of acknowledging that life is changing all around us. The 2022 Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year was “Goblin Mode,” which only goes to prove that a) I’m seriously out of touch with the state of modern English and; b) language is evolving to keep up with the rapid pace of change.

In general, slang tends to be adopted by the youth of the world, who come up with new ways of talking about things, new ways of thinking, or new technologies. However, slang can be created and talked about by everyone. Youth tend to be the instigators, which makes generational cross-communication especially difficult. As those people who use terms popular in the 90s versus those who use popular terms of today. 

Texting language—such as lol or brb—is an example of slang, one that is used by a particular set and largely ignored by the rest of the world. Until, that is, it becomes popular enough that it is widely adopted. Then, it is no longer slang and instead a true part of the language. As, apparently, “Goblin Mode” is. Even so, you will find that slang largely exists between a single generation, and that people outside of that generation who use the slang are considered uncool. They’re trying to fit in, trying to keep up, and yet it sounds strange to hear an octogenarian utter the word, “lol” in any form. Slang comes and it goes, a transient form of language that exists in a particular time or place, and is largely forgotten with the march of time. 

(My use of slang, by the way, is non-standard even for my generation. I read far too much nineteenth century English literature when I was in my formative school years, so adopted a style of speaking that was more in line with a time long past. Since then, it has adapted. Marginally. I’m still considered strangely formal in my writing, and when people comment on it, they’re shocked to learn that, yes, I talk like that, too. Yes, I’m weird. My brain is just widely baffled by slang in general, so I tend to avoid it.)

Slang is also cultural, with different terms belonging to different cultures and languages. You wouldn’t necessarily find an Australian English speaker using the same slang as someone who was an Indian English speaker. (By the way, I recently learned what  “budgie smuggler” was, and I am supremely confused by Australian English. Fascinated, but confused.) 

Regardless of all these things, there is one place where slang should be largely avoided: fiction writing.

Wait a minute, you may say, shouldn’t you absolutely use slang in fiction writing if you’re trying to convey a particular time or place or people?

Yes, you should. If you want to convey the exact image of 1980s Moscow, use the slang of the people there. If you want to tell us a story in 1930s Louisiana, the particular slang of those people will take care of the majority of your worldbuilding. You won’t need to tell us all about the factory on the river, or the plantlife, because with a few well-written slang terms, we will be right there.

Particular places and times notwithstanding, slang should generally be avoided in fiction writing. Why? Because it references particular places and times and people.

If I’m writing a space opera novel about people from the 24th century who are in the middle of being hijacked by space pirates, if I use the term, “Golly gee!” then suddenly we’re in a pantomime from the early twentieth century, not in space a few hundred years from now. Talking about phones and texting and such can easily date a novel to this time and place, no matter how timeless the story. 

Tolkien, for example, did not use slang in his books, at least none that is easily recognisable as being stuck in his time. He used more descriptive language than otherwise, certainly (a topic I shall discuss at a future date), but his books can be read in any time and still be considered classics. As with Isaac Asimov, and Anne McCaffrey, the books could be set in any time and still be understandable.

Now, if you’re writing contemporary romance, murder mysteries, or thrillers, there is a certain amount of language dating that you will have to do. The evolution of technology makes the Robert Ludlum novels very clearly set in the 1970s and 80s, despite the lack of slang. Or the various Star Trek series an obvious product of their times. That’s just what happens when technology and political, economic and social circumstances change; we cannot easily predict these changes, so have to stick with what we know.

However, the more you can avoid slang in fiction writing, the less likely you are to have a story that is perfectly popular and relatable at the time of publication, only to fall behind when times—and language—changes.

Now, I could also get into the argument of linguistic prescriptivism (language in a proper form) versus descriptivism (language as it is naturally), and which is more correct or problematic or anything, but then we’d get into a discussion on why we don’t all talk like Shakespeare anymore, and frankly, I can’t be bothered to tell people how to speak. What fun would that be?

So, write your stories, use your language, but know that language will change, and your story may be exactly where you left it in the interminable march of time: an immortal, unchangeable thing. Or, perhaps, the stories will evolve with us and become what we need them to be. Representatives of a different time, into which we can lose ourselves for a grand adventure.