Slang: The Secret Handshake that Separates “Us” from “Them”

Shalom Salam by Sally Wiener GrottaOkay, I admit it, I’m acrynomically challenged. It seems that new abbreviations appear daily on my twitter feed, in emails, even in articles of magazines that I think of as mainstream (i.e. written in “commonly accepted” English). And I’m sent scurrying to Google to try to find the newest definitions for acronyms that didn’t exist or meant something entirely different the last time I looked.

Language has always been the dividing line between “insiders” and “outsiders.” In one story in the Bible, how a person pronounced the word “shibboleth” determined whether a sentry would kill him or let him pass. So it has been through the centuries. Words and accents have determined what tribe will accept you, whether it’s social class, professional standing or “belonging” to a certain group, gang or tribe. But it seems to me that it’s gotten worse in this digital age.

Of course, language is a living, malleable thing, always changing. The slang of the 1920s is now considered either passé or has been integrated into college curriculum for English Lit 101. As an author, I enjoy this fact, sometimes choosing to invent a word, or using an old, outmoded word to evoke a certain mood or sense of place and time.

All this came to mind today, when a business associate sent me a link to The Urban Dictionary Of Design Slang, which offers definitions for “all the designer terms you need to know, as well as quite a few most designers would love to never hear again.”

I believe I’m rather savvy when it comes to art and design. In fact, Daniel and I wrote one of the earliest digital imaging dictionaries. But some of the terms in that article threw me for a loop. Does that mean I’m an outsider in a field that I was (until this morning) considered an expert? Or is lingo getting out of hand? Or is it simply an opportunity for me to learn new phrases and slang? Of course, I’ll choose the latter, and will keep the website open for the next few weeks, dipping in periodically to read through it.

Yes, I love learning new words and alternative meanings. But I don’t like dividing lines between people. I try to not use language to separate myself from others, but to communicate, and maybe even reach across artificial borders. So you won’t see me using too many of the new phrases in that Urban Dictionary of Design Slang – unless it’s to flavor the dialog in the mouth of a fictional character who likes to show off how “in” he or she is. And then I’ll make sure that the meaning is made clear by the context within the story.

4 comments on “Slang: The Secret Handshake that Separates “Us” from “Them”

    • Sally Wiener Grotta says:

      Yes, of course. But have you noticed how quickly the vernacular changes? What was an innocent comment only a few months ago can now be quite vulgar. Susan and Gardner often laughed at my inadvertent “innocence” regarding such slang.

  • A risk of using transitory slang in the mouths of your characters, also, is to make them hopelessly out of date long before the story ages. I have a hard time reading some books out of the 60s where everything is always “groovy” and people are hanging out in each others’ “pad.” May have made sense at the time, but honestly, it jerks me right out of the story!

    • Sally Wiener Grotta says:

      Yet to not have language represent the language of the novel’s time period can also be jarring. I suppose it has to do with making sure the voices are authentic rather than having the slang “pasted” onto the dialog, as a waving flag that’s supposed to say “See I’m ‘groovy’ too!” Yet another fine line the author has to walk.

      And there’s the problem of never knowing until it’s over whether the new use of a word is going to pass the test of time or disappear like dust within a season.


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