Should You Use Slang In A Novel?

In my formative years everything was lush. This was not a description of my environment, although the word would have summed up the fertile, green hills of Devon quite well. Lush was how my contemporaries and I described anything that pleased our senses. Granted we were a tad indiscriminate with the word, bandying it about for everything from a nice pair of boots to a night out, but hey, such is the world of a provincial teenager.

I now listen with fascination to the new interpretation of our language by the next generation. Predictably much of my children’s speech is punctuated by repeating text message shorthand as the spoken word. Pretty much anything can be LOL, or inexplicably LOL-fish, should extra emphasis be required. There is also the oh-so-familiar reliance on existing words used for an entirely different purpose. Thus ‘sick’ has nothing to do with feeling queasy any more. In today’s world sick is a good thing. In fact, it is the equivalent of lush. Lush sick? Go figure.

There is still a definite relish in using words which leave the older generation dumbfounded and ‘total pwnage’ is a case in point. I never shy away from asking what these unfamiliar phrases could possibly mean. Then, after being batted away for the old fart I have clearly become, I always look them up. (If you are interested total pwnage appears to be shorthand for something that has been smashed to bits violently, according to

Other words to regularly (and often infuriatingly) grace the shores chez Lyons include treasures such as ‘freakin’, ‘awkward’, and my personal pet hate ‘throwin’ a spaz’.

Not that long ago, I worked on a book with a teenage client, a bright, interesting girl who is clearly destined for bigger things. Early on in the project, I gave some serious reflection to whether I should be improving my knowledge, and possibly use, of teenage slang. After all, the lot of a ghost is to ensure the end product sounds like it was written by the named author and I am big enough to admit my teenage years are a little way behind me now.

After some brief consideration, I decided to steer well clear from teen speak. The first and perhaps most important reason is these fashionable words come and go so quickly, the book probably wouldn’t have even been printed before the slang was hopelessly out of date. Nothing can age a book faster than using slang.

It is also so hard to get these words in exactly the right context. Perhaps it is because they are not part of my day-to-day vocabulary, but it just seems that however you try to use slang the phrases always seem to come out awkward and clunky. They just don’t seem cool.

If you really were wedded to using slang, it might just work in short passages of dialogue to place a character in context and define their influences. Thus if a person talked about about ‘dudes’ or ‘getting smashed’ with the ‘guys’ they’d clearly define themselves as an aging hippy, whose sphere of influence stopped in the late 80s. It is a risky strategy though, because it is a bit of an indefinite science and massively open to misinterpretation. It can also get quite irritating.

The last thing you want is for the reader to stop short and start getting anxious over the language. (What does this mean? Am I not cool enough to read this book?). Even worse would be a scenario where they had to look up what the slang meant. By then you’ll have completely lost the flow, not to mention the attention of your hard-won reader.

So, I’d like to say chill it with the slang, but I won’t because that would probably date me more than I’d like.