The Language of Writing: Why and How You Should Use Idioms and Slang to Craft Engaging Prose

magical library

This post is designed to inspire you to be a fearless writer. To embolden you to create something fresh and exciting and never-before-seen; basically to throw caution signs into the wind and take linguistic risks.

Many great classics continue to remain in the social consciousness because their authors refused to follow standard writerly language rules. Let us shoot straight here: Your book doesn’t necessarily need a unique literary vernacular to succeed. But unique engaging prose always helps to generate and keep interest.

Just look at Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange with its Nadsat. It is deeply fascinating to read, and despite the lack of a translation within the book, you begin to comprehend the strange slang as you read on. Consider Orwell’s Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Or Finnegans Wake, the most profoundly nonstandard and experimental novel in history, employing: English lexical terms, Literary allusions, stream of consciousness, dream associations, portmaneaus, made-up words and puns in multiple languages, all in a non-linear order!

(Finnegans is the most respectful novel in history, in that it never once speaks down to its readers, never once explains anything. It expects that if you are intelligent enough to read it, you must be smart enough to comprehend it, which is a relevant point considering the book still inspires conversation and argument 80 years after its publication.)

The point is to remember that good novelists understand language, but groundbreaking novelists manipulate it to suit their book’s needs.

For my utopian creation MANKIND (first draft completed, currently fermenting on a flash drive), I insert Archaic Depraved slang into the gangspeak language of mankind, and delete many of their modifiers, while filling Wolf (the female) language with rhetoric and pomposity.

When trying to nail down how the language of each gender should sound, I asked ‘How would men speak if they spent years without women?’ The answer was clear: ‘With a disintegration of language.’ Orwell called it a ‘Linguistic decline.’

Being around women helps we men keep our language sounding somewhat intelligent. If we no longer enjoyed the privilege of their intellectual company, our mode of speaking would degenerate. We would resort to basic speech, simple binary language with a dependence on cusses and modifiers with a simultaneous relinquishing of definite articles. But I also wanted to avoid employing extremist dependence on cussing, a la The Wire.

swear chart

Every fifth word in that show is an f-bomb. It only serves to distract. Personally I never swear; it is a bad, lazy habit, a poor example to little ones. It is the same in writing. But I also wished to have my gangsters sound foul and vicious with their degeneration of English.

So I employ a few of my own conjured cuss words, some of which I created for Kana in the Mythcorp Archives. In place of the ‘S’ word, she says ‘krit’, and its outliers, such as kritbag and holy krit. On occasion they say ‘fack’ and ‘facking’, in lieu of the obscene ‘f’ bomb.

Obviously in a book about a gender war, men would be highly insulting toward women. But as I had no desire to write them using the dehumanizing ‘B’ word or ‘Slut’ every other page, I employ the still-foul sounding and dehumanizing (but tolerable) term ‘slit’ for when they wish to insult a woman.

To me, that sounds even fouler, plus, I’m not using a cliché. One of the advantages of using these words is they are not cliché; we don’t hear them 50 times a day and yet they carry weight, heft when voiced. With the aid of a fantastic little dictionary, Depraved and Insulting English: Words to Offend and Amuse, I also included fantastic insults.

Here I picked up some great archaic words, like sharny and fireship (a diseased prostitute), shilpit, gink, and fustilug. Great words all and that capture the attention of the reader without distracting from the story.

In sum you’d be wise to think on how you wish your characters to speak.

Consider their:

  • Gender
  • Class
  • Psychological and Intellectual capability
  • Origins

Don’t be afraid. Think of the Rules of Writing more as guidelines than actual commandments. Make up your words, create engaging portmanteau, or study up idioms and slang. Watch documentaries on gangs or foreign films, and requisition words from other languages and include them. The sound of your dialogue has the power to shape the sound of your manuscript. Make something new.

The average writer depends entirely on his own vocabulary to write. Be better than that, be smarter. I keep 5 unique dictionaries and encyclopedias in the right hand drawer of my oak writing desk: Webster’s New World, Depraved and Insulting English, Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, Writer’s Digest Fantasy Reference, and a Latin/English Dictionary.

What’s in your drawers?

(That was totally not innuendo, by the way)

lingerie drawer