Watch That Slang

This post is less about grammar and more about style. 

Remember the 1985 movie Back to the Future? Marty McFly repeatedly says “heavy,” 1980s slang for an intense situation, and Emmett (Doc) doesn’t understand. He questions Marty about problems with weightiness. Great Scott! Heavy as slang in 1955 is anachronistic.

Writers of historical fiction should exercise caution in the use of slang. Readers will catch those anachronisms in a heartbeat, just as Doc did in Back to the Future. Keep in mind you don’t want anything to distract your reader from your story. When it comes to writing dialog, do your research!

Examples I’ve come across:

  • The old west ego. If you’re setting your Western in a time that predates Freud, don’t use the term ego when you mean arrogance. Ego didn’t exist until Freud coined the word in 1920.
  • Eye candy or stud muffin. Those terms are late twentieth century and have no place in earlier settings. I recently read a Word War II era romance that described a soldier as “eye candy.” That’s a no-no.
  • Fashion statement  Too modern to be spoken in most historicals. 
  • Don’t go there!  If your historical character is using the expression “don’t go there” (meaning, that subject is off-limits), he better be living in the 1990s or later. For that matter, off-limits is fairly modern, so be careful. Other expressions that are too modern to appear in historicals include get over it, give me a break, and go figure.
  • Don’t give me any flak (or flack). Flak (also spelled flack) is anti-aircraft artillery. The term now means a critical or hostile reception or reaction, but it evolved from the military term. If your historical story predates military aircraft, don’t give your characters any flak.
  • Life in the fast lane. An expression evolved from motorists using divided, multi-lane highways should not appear in a story predating divided, multi-lane highways. 
  • Stuck in the groove or his needle is stuck. This term originated with the first phonograph record and died with digital recordings and downloads. Use this slang with care.

What other anachronisms have you discovered in historical novels or movies?

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You don’t say!

Welcome to another edition of “You don’t say!” when we examine expressions and sayings often confused or misunderstood. Here are some favorites.

  • If you think that, you have another thing coming.
  • She made a 360 degree change in attitude.
  • We’ll play irregardless of the weather.
  • I could care less.
  • Supposably that’s his real name.
  • He intended to extract revenge if it took every dime he had.

If you write or say any of these, stop! Your meaning is confused or contradicted. Here are the corrected sayings.

  • If you think that, you have another think coming. (As in “think again.”)
  • She made a 180 degree change in attitude. (360 gets her all the way back where she began)
  • We’ll play regardless of the weather. (Irredgardless isn’t a word. Period.)
  • I couldn’t care less. (Otherwise, you care because you could care less)
  • Supposedly that’s his real name. (There’s no such word as supposably.)
  • He intended to exact revenge if it took every dime he had. (I guess one could extract revenge, but it’d be messy.)

What incorrect sayings do you see or hear?