Thursday, May 2, 2013


by Allison Pang

In the interest of NOT repeating some of the fabulous advice put forth by my fellow word-whores, I'm going to concentrate on looking at some resources that might be helpful to writers who are looking for some new words with which to flavor their writing.

That being said, I couldn't resist throwing in this little scene from the last Austin Powers movie - which is a perfect example of how not to write your slang. (Tho it depends on your audience and what you're going for - it's obviously a joke here.)

As a bit of history - writing/reading accents doesn't bother me much - though I think it sometimes depends on the book. Anyone who's read a lot of the SF/F genre is probably pretty familiar with the mega epics with their own dictionaries in the back. (Everything from Pern to Wheel of Time, yo. Though it always amuses me when it comes to swear words. "Shards!" or "Blood and bloody ashes!" While I get that it's meant to immerse us more fully in the world and make swearing more palatable for some readers, I also sometimes really think a regular old "fuck" would work just as well. )

My earliest memory of reading an accented dialogue would have been The Secret Garden - which if anyone recalls Dickon - I believe he and his sister spoke with a Yorkshire dialect. And whereas that might have been confusing to a 10-year-old, it was handled beautifully because they explained the meaning of those words and phrases to Mary, who couldn't understand them. Thus, the readers learned as she did, and it felt a little more like we were all sharing in the secret of the story.

Sometimes that approach can come off a bit contrived, though - hence the dictionaries mentioned above.

At any rate - I've got two books that I've found immensely useful for my current project - I've got a main character who's a bit of a street rat in an alternate universe, so I was looking for a way to work in some terminology that sounded authentic. (But again, as noted in previous posts - slang is a spice - use it with caution.)

The first book is Slang Down the Ages.  I wrote a post about this book on my own blog a couple of years ago, but it's worth talking about here again.

There’s the usual suspects dealing with sex, male and female body parts, bodily functions and insults – but there’s also some great stuff about different types of food, speech, clothing, death and some of the more common types of jobs (including prostitution).

Now, a small word of warning – there are several chapters dealing with different ethnic groups and sexual orientations. A lot of it is offensive to the more modern day sensibilities – although I suppose that’s pretty much the point when it comes to slang. On the other hand, the author doesn’t really skip anyone, so it’s not like anyone is getting singled out for mockery.

The author is also good enough to put down what century a particular word or phrase may have originated from, which is perfect if you are doing a historical novel and you don’t want to get dinged for accuracy.

The other book I use is the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. It's set up a little differently than the slang book, simply because it *is* a dictionary.

Essentially it’s a compilation of slang used back in the day – circa 1790 to 1820. You’ll find bits of peasant cant, Romany and just the conversational words used by the average everyday Joe of the moment.

And yes, some of the words *are* vulgar, but it’s interesting to see the history of the English language and how much of it is still used today (and with the same connotations.)

You can find it over at the Gutenberg Project for a quick look through electronically, or buy one of the many versions out at Amazon. (If you click the link you’ll find it in both hard cover and paper back, and I think it’s also out for the Kindle, as well.)


  1. Dear Lord, you've found books I have to buy. Thou art evil, woman.

  2. The 1811 book is free for the kindle I think. The slang book just looks like a fun read. Thanks!