Monday, August 10, 2009

Fun with slang

Slang and colloquialisms help to define an era. What’s “cool” today was “far out” in the 1950s, “the bee’s knees” in the 1920s, and “swell” in the 1900s. “Cool” actually originated in about 1933, but seems so modern that I wonder if readers would feel that it was an anachronism if it were used in a novel set at that time.

Of course, a lot of slang is in common usage for more than a decade or two.  Although we may think these more contemporary than pre-WW1, expressions such as “not on your life”, “frigging”, “necking”, and “boyfriend” were already in use at that time.

You could have “given someone a piece of your mind” back in 1861, or “pi-jawed” them after 1891. It’s the delightful and mostly obsolete expressions like the latter that add a sense of historical place to novels. Something good is surely more fun when it’s “crackerjack”. A “top-hole” “chap” is the best kind of friend, and can also be called a “stout fellow”, or a “jolly”, “howling”, or “cracking” “good egg”.

“Booze” has been around since about 1325, and you’d be “squiffy”, or “pie-eyed”, or “spifflicated” if you overindulged in the pre-WW1 era, as well as being just “high”, “tight”, or “plastered”.

“You could have knocked me down with a feather” in 1741, but “Boy!” “I’ll be jiggered” if I’d rather not have a character in 1914 say, “Zowie!” instead. If you “talk wet” someone may respond with “Applesauce!” or “Flapdoodle!” and might think that you’re either “tapped”, “dippy”, or “off your onion”.

Words are such fun, aren’t they? I use several sources in my research, but the Oxford Dictionary of Slang is “the cat’s pajamas”!

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