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Help with Contemporary American Slang

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I am going out on a limb and trying something I have never done before. I have begun outlining a story that doesn't take place forty years ago, in the antediluvian era before personal computers, the Internet, and smart phones, but <gasp> today. I have never tried this before because I am such a dinosaur and have little contact with contemporary youth culture. The youngest gay person I know in real life is my 48 year-old lesbian sister, so if it doesn't involve softball and woodworking, she's not much help. So...

I need some help with contemporary slang. I know slang changes overnight and that once something becomes ubiquitous, it is no longer cool--is "cool" still used? I can't, much as I try, watch MTV for more than ten seconds, so...

What are the terms for "cool?" I am sure no one says "righteous" or "radical" anymore. :-)

What is the contemporary term for uncool, bogus?

And, though I am writing a very sexually-sanitized story with no actual scenes described in blood-curdling detail, I am sure that certain things will come up in conversation among twelve and thirteen year-old boys. What terms today would be used instead of-- excuse me-- boners, jacking off, and dicks? I hesitate to rely on the more graphic stories on other sites as references as I am not entirely convinced about their veracity.

Is there anything else that I might need for veracity, anything that I should avoid?

Oh, and my protagonist desperately tries to emulate in his styles Chris Colfer on Glee (the gay geek look) . Is this accurate for a boy at a relatively progressive school in the Midwest?

Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

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You really are a masochist, FT. Delving into the world of slang used by the youth of today is a minefield for anyone over 30.


This site has a religious base, but they do have an incredible list of words. In my generation we would call much of this language "ghetto speak" as it seems more appropriate to inner city teenagers. But today we also have "text speak" which mangles the language beyond my ability to understand.

I suppose if you must use slang terms that a lot of reading and study is in order to get it right. "Cool" is still allowed it seems, and for all I write that is about as slang as I get with my characters. Good Luck!

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If you want the real low-down, EleCivil is the one to talk to, but the slang his kids use tends to be black slang and none of us would understand it.

Which of course is the problem with getting too current with your slang. Most of the people reading your story won't understand current kid-speak. I get involved somewhat with teens and pre-teens, and when they're speaking to each other, it's very easy to know little of what they're saying.

Some slang retains relevance for years. 'Cool' is one such word, though you often see it as 'kewl' these days. I'm not sure they mean exactly the same thing. But your boners, jacking off, and dicks, they certainly still work. There may be other terms as well, but I can't imagine anyone not relating to any of those.

As well as Chris's suggestion for an information source, don't forget the Urban Dictionary. Though I don't entirely trust that.


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I'm wondering why you are that committed to making the effort to be so up-to-date. Lord knows none of us have any trouble reading what you wrote, and set, in the past, which is clearly the period where you are very comfortable (and skilled) as a chronicaller. Why the push to achieve authenticity within the modern era where by your own admission you are seriously out-of-touch with youth culture, particularly the early teens? You know going in that no matter how skilled your fact-checking and slang-seeking, sooner or later you are going to blow it and reveal the fogey behind the curtain. Why not just use language you are already comfortable with and leave the calendar era of the setting ambiguous?

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I was just wondering if younger readers would relate to my stories. Kids are so much freer now and more worldly than when I was a kid. I can imagine a 13 year-old in 1970 having no clue about sex. I can't imagine that in 2012, even if the kid lives in Utah! I was afraid that younger readers would be turned off by the tremendous cultural differences. Its one thing to be exposed to another country's culture, but different to be exposed to another time. I don't mean to say that I am aiming my story to readers born in the Twenty-first Century, but I have often wondered if readers born in the eighties might be bored or turned off by a story that takes place before they were born, whether they might find it relevant to their lives and experiences. But, you have a point, Merkin. I could easily be exposed as a poser. There are writers here, Cole for example, who can write about contemporary life and, at least to my mind, bring it off perfectly.

When I was a kid, I was a science fiction junkie and I always looked forward to the future. But, now that I'm in the future, I'm not so sure I feel comfortable here. I feel comfortable writing about the sixties and seventies, but despite my fears and trepidation about life today, there are things about the present that I envy. I wish I could have had the freedom and the technology when I was 13 in 1971 that kids have today. I suppose I am just wanting to dabble a little bit with the present.

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Aiming for a specific target audience - especially one a generation or two removed - is the way to sleepless nights (in my ever so humble opinion - and what the hell do I know, anyway?). Write what you write: you do it very well. :icon_thumleft:

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Another question- is it true that middle school kids no longer shower after gym class? Is fear trumping hygiene?

From what I've seen, that's correct.

In the case of smaller schools, they often lack the facilities. My school doesn't have showers or even a locker room - the kids don't change for gym, they just run around in their uniforms.

My high school had a shower, but no one ever used it.

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My tuppence worth...that's two pennies.

The story's the thing. The setting, time and place, can be left to the reader. Think of the readers as being perfectly capable of transposing the story situations to their own experience, much as we do when we read a novel from an author who lived ten years ago, or even hundreds of years ago. The human experience remains constant, despite the language, even in revelatory tales.

We are bound only by language. We have to be able to communicate with our readers, and that generally means a common language; in our case English, or what passes as English in your suburb.

Consider Clockwork Orange with its invented language, yet using derivatives of common English corrupted by the author for the sake of exposing the rebellious sub-culture of the youthful characters, but also paralleled by the aversion therapy used to make the protagonist conform to cultural custom and language. Whilst this is an extreme example, I would contend that this is what we do when we intersperse our currently accepted 'modern' English with current slang which, may or may not become common over time.

What is understood as modern slang in one place or time, may be completely misconstrued in others, as nonsense.

-think of the phrase 'Shut up!' having different meanings over 400 years; from 'locking someone up' in the 16th century, to its modern usage as an exclamation of ironic surprise. This one has been particularly perplexing to the older generations.

Much modern usage can be gleamed (Gleemed) from TV shows and using a phrase or an emphasis may be all that is needed to convey the nature of a modern character.

I find sitting in a mall or just keeping my ears open when walking past kids in the street can be a source of how they use words to communicate with each other.

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I'm wondering why you are that committed to making the effort to be so up-to-date. Lord knows none of us have any trouble reading what you wrote, and set, in the past, which is clearly the period where you are very comfortable (and skilled) as a chronicaller. Why the push to achieve authenticity within the modern era where by your own admission you are seriously out-of-touch with youth culture, particularly the early teens?

Not always. I got about 4000-4500 emails on Jagged Angel some years back, and I'd say several hundred of them just assumed I was a high school student (like my main character). I think I bluffed my way through those dialogue scenes OK, just by not doing much more than having kids occasionally curse, say "that's cool" or "that totally sucks," and a few "dudes" here and there. You want authentic/fake Hollywood teen dialogue, watch the current shows on Disney XD, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network (particularly Adult Swim), Comedy Central, and ABC Family.

I'd agree that teenage dialogue is different in different parts of the country; teenagers in Florida, Kansas, California, New York, and Hawaii are all different to some degree, just as cultures are different. But "that's cool" and "that sucks" still works. Certain sub-cultures, like surfers or geeks, would have an entirely different vocabulary, but nothing that any decent writer couldn't handle.

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I try to avoid too much slang in my stories. Partly because I'm aware that I probably wouldn't be able to make it sound genuine and partly because it really does vary a LOT with geographical area, and I don't really want to pigeon hole my stories too much.

However, certain slang words become ubiquitous enough that I'm pretty comfortable having my characters use them, including the never-out-of-style "cool" and more casual slang. The more "out there" the slang, the quicker it seems to go out of style and the smaller the geographical area it seems to be popular.

As long as the dialogue fits the age, I think that's more important than trying real hard to squeeze in a lot of slang words.

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