Sunday, July 27, 2014

American Slang

by Linda Farmer Harris

Slang and clichés fascinate me. My dad's advice was, "Say what you mean and mean what you say." Slang drove him crazy.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, clichés are words and phrases that are used so often that they are no longer original or interesting. For example, over the hill, the calm before the storm, or back against the wall. As writers, we avoid them like the plague.

What's your favorite cliché? What phrase(s) do you find yourself relying on to communicate with friends and family?

Slang "are words that are not considered part of the standard vocabulary of a language and that are used very informally in speech especially by a particular group of people." Not to be confused with idioms, jargon, and euphemisms.

Slang words show the attitudes of folks who use them. They can appear as a new word, new meaning for an existing word, word that are said a particular way, but are not dialect based, and/or compounded words. The words are not dialect, graffiti, secret codes, or catch phrases.

It has been reported that by the 18th century that the differences between English speaking countries and America prompted the evolution of slang. Writers began using slang in the 1900s. Slang was originally thought to be the language of the uneducated, criminals, and foreigners.

Sit in a large bookstore, or stand in a long grocery line for very long and you'll probably hear a lot contemporary slang or regional clichés in quite a few conversations.

The first time I was asked if I wanted a "pop" I said I had one, but would really like a Coke. My aunt still kids me about that one.

What slang word threw you for a loop the first time you heard it? Was it old slang or new?

Writing historical fiction adds its own need for making sure word and phrase usage is authentic, true to the period. A few years back, I read a novel set in 1850. The premise was intriguing, the characters likable from the first page. However, the promise of a great read was shattered when the villain used 1940 gangster movie lingo.

I recently completed content editing for a local writer. Her novel is set in 1977, Archuleta County, Colorado. One of her characters, Star, is a gum-smacking rebellious teenager. Star's vocabulary is spiked with contemporary lingo. Since I remember that decade, I marked, but didn't immediately check the slang Star used.

Before the editing was finished, I double-checked the slang. Several were in the online 1970's lists, but closer investigation revealed that they were not in use before 1977. Star couldn't use them. So the writer opted for "older than dirt; diddly-squat; head honcho; get so hyper; get on your pony and ride; all show and no go; lock, stock, and barrel.

One online website I visited was the Historical Dictionary of American Slang at

When I have some free time, I'm going back to explore A Glossary of Quaint Southernisms at

Well, I was staying on task, focused on 1977 slang, foregoing electronic forays into Southernisms, Yankees vs. Rebels, Cowboys vs. Dudes, when I came upon - - Slinging Slang from the Flappers to the Rappers: The alphaDictionary Slang Generation Checkup

The twenty multiple-choice questions didn't take but a few minutes, but the results were enlightening. I'm definitely a slang product of my high school era, four-plus decades later!

As we know, never hitch your research on one source - online or in print. It was time to pull out the big guns.
• Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English edited by Paul Beale; 
• Bring Home the Bacon & Cutting the Mustard by Castle Books; 
• Heavens to Betsy & Other Curious Savings by Charles Earle Funk;
• Dunces, Gourmand & Petticoats by Adrian Room;
• The Cat's Pajamas: A Fabulous Fictionary of Familiar Phrases

I came across a few interesting nuggets — 
• since 1897 "bad" has been used to mean "good"
• "dude" to mean "guy" first appeared in the 1870's.

Texting is changing our current slang, too. We've abbreviated words and phrases, and even speak the letters. For example: YSVW—You're So Very Welcome; DBA—Don't Bother Asking; VBD—Very Big Deal; CUL—See You Later; PAW—Parents are Watching.

It won't be long before our computer keyboards will have text shortcuts built in.

In the novel you're currently reading, what slang or clichés has the author used?


I was introduced to CB slang by my brother, Jonathan. He became interested in the CB radio culture in high school. He had his "handle" and we'd listen for hours to the trucker transmissions. It was an easy slip over into being fascinated with slang and use cowboy slang in my Western novels.

Lin and her husband, Jerry, live on a hay and cattle ranch in Chimney Rock, Colorado.



  1. Lin, When I was young, using slang got me in trouble with my parents. I remember one time in particular when my dad was driving, and I was sitting between Mom and Dad. I said something I'd recently heard others say, and Daddy slammed on the breaks and Mom gasped. Needless to say, I didn't use that word in front of them again. Now it's quite common but 45 years ago, it wasn't something good to say. I tried to argue that it didn't mean what my folks thought it did, but that didn't work too well.

    1. We must have been in the same car! I remember trying out slang and getting a finger thump on the back of the head. I'm hearing "cool" coming around again.

  2. Good question. I'm reading Shadows of the Nile by Kate Furnivall; it's an English book and there are many words I don't know the meaning of, but I will have to look for slang in the book. I'm 3/4 way through! Thanks for your post. sharon wileygreen1ATyahooDOTcom

    1. Hi, Sharon. Thanks for stopping by. Sundays are hard for me to get to the computer. I'm reading Betty Neels with her 134 books of English & Scottish heroines/heros. I have to go to the dictionary with a lot of the terms. I'm thinking about making my own directory of her terms. Some of them are very old usage. She wrote from 1969 until she was 90 years old.