Slinging Slang

One essential to writing an entertaining work of fiction is to create a complete and realistic setting. A part of that which is often overlooked is the differences in the language used by characters both for dialogue and narrative. This is especially true in speculative fiction where one is dealing with past or future settings, time travelers, aliens, elves and other non-humans, people from parallel universes, etc. These linguistic differences reflect the POVs culture and education, influences of their social status and occupation, as well as the general shift in language over the passage of time.

One important element of this is the use of slang, which may be common terms used by the population at large, or technical language of a particular group. Slang will evove over time and in different places, so that its careful use will add a local flavor to conversation. Whether your characters babble GeekSpeak, mumble crude, expletive-laiden street jive, or lace their conversation with cultural terms and bits of their native language, it will do wonders to clarify the character, and thus the setting and situation.

The trick, of course, is to use slang which is easily recognizable by the reader. You still need to express some essential story element even with the slang. If the reader has to stop to puzzle over an arbitrarily made up word, it will disrupt the story flow. Slang terms should be easy for the reader to assign meaning to, preferably as an outgrowth of the common slang terms of today.

Here are some examples of slang terms I developed for various stories:

MacKenna 1

Apes - Local police.
Blubber - Nonsense, a useless thing or person.
Bonged * - Stamped, approved, sealed.
Bucket (the) - Restroom, toilet.
Cooked * - In the know, part of the group.
Crank - Crazy.
Goy - Guy.
Jack (around with) - Get involved with something, get in trouble with the law.
NINS * - Now If Not Sooner
Out-freakin' - Disturbing, amazing, frightening.
Slammed - Put in jail.

In this instance, many of the slang terms revolve around two low-life types: Andrew, a street people in the prologue, and the unnamed alter-ego, a gutter-mouthed sociopath, whose body Mac inhabits in the main story. The rest, marked with a *, are standard vocabulary shift over the twenty years since the POV's death.

MacKenna 2

This story revolves around a political crisis on earth brought on by the rise of a fanatical race-purist movement. Use of these terms by the Bad Guys emphasizes their malevolent character.

Creepers - Opponents of the government.
Puking, Pukers - Protesting, protestors.
Sausages - Mixed race people.
Stepping in it - Hearing rumors.
Ugly (the) - Truth, facts, hard information.
Worms - People not supporting the racial theories of the regime.

In this instance, most of the terms have radical political and/or racist undertones, reflecting the violent, bigoted, intolerant culture on earth during the story.


This story takes place on a train in the 1870s, and the slang terms used are common among railroad workers then and now.

Big hole - Emergency air brakes come on.
Car toad - Rolling stock repairman.
Gandy dancer - Track repairman.
In the hole - Go onto a side track to let another train pass.
Semiphore - A trackside signal controlling traffic movement.
Yard bull - Railroad police.

The main purpose in including these terms was to give the story a railroad-culture feel, which helped build the general Wild West cultural atmosphere of the story.

The Diplomacy Trilogy

This series demonstrates an unusual situation: language terms of an alien species, which I used to keep reminding the readers that the POVs are aliens. The premise is that the Ic'nichi language doesn't translate exactly, so the translator had to include these terms phonetically, and hope for the best.

er'trxxda - Insane, rediculous.
l'cc'vn - A mild obscenity.
t'pithm'ig - A show-off, an immature dandy, a vain person.
tra'taj - A prostitute, a slut, an irresponsible person.
V'liz - A beverage similar to coffee.
V'rima - Stealing, black marketeering, forging invoices.

In this case, the relatively few commonly used terms didn't need to be familiar so much as easily identifiable. Steady repetition in context soon assigns meaning to them. Additional terms were used on a one-off basis where an alien accent would help the atmosphere. Since these were throwaways, familiarity was not an issue.

Everyone uses slang, either from the general culture or their particular occupation. So one important task for the author is to develop the story slang early on, and use it effectively.

Ethnic Linguistic Variations (Accents)

Another area where language adaptation is especially useful is providing characters with accents so that they become more readily distinguishable, and fit into their cultural setting more completely.

A thing to be wary of in doing accents is not to overdo it: we have all read stories where a character yammers in an accent so thick that it is unreadable. When doing accents, keep them simple and low key. Never try to imitate an accent sound by sound; you'll wind up with gibberish. Instead, use a few simple hints to set the flavor of the accent. This will be far more effective in expressing the culture you want to achieve, and will be easier to read as well. Never leave your readers guessing: it disrupts the flow of the story, and breaks their concentration on the plot line.

Here are some examples of the use of accents from my works:

"There is a big revival of interest in the mid Twentieth Century these days. Those old shows are 'toute la passion'. Why, I cannot imagine."

(Agent Roubidoux - French) Agent Roubidoux is a reserved, soft-spoken, polite individual. His speech pattern is formal, without the use of contractions (cannot, instead of can't), and he lapses occasionaly into French; all of which give him a refined, contemplative air.

"Shuttle with your people landed at airport minutes ago."

(Commander Rostokovich - Ukrainian) The Commander is a rough, boisterous man-of-action. I approximated a Russian accent by occasionally omitting connective words like 'the', 'a', 'it', and so on, and by throwing in an occasional 'Da' or 'Nyet'; all of which tie him to his cultural background, and give him a rough-hewn image.

"They ain't nice folks, not like folks 'round heah."

(J J Ballas - Dreamsinger) The Dreamsingers communicate with the humans through the projected mental image of an old Blues Musician. Thus, I gave him a rough Southern accent, which helped to 'humanize' him. Note that the accent is only hinted at, mostly by the use of simple, coarse wording.

"And those two tra'taj are at it again!"

(T'virDoma - Ic'nichi) This is an example of the use of alien terms in conversation, as mentioned earlier, which serves to accent the excitable nature of this character.


(The Gendered - No'remni) I made the speech pattern of the alien No'remni into something just plain wierd by stringing the words together into one continuous hyphenated sentence. Note that they do not use any slang or cultural terms, which alone distinguishes them from normal speech. This accented their alienness, which hightened their menace; the opposite of the effect given to J J Ballas.

A thing to be wary of when writing dialogue and narrative is to keep in character. The natural tendency is to write at your own cultural level, which can muddy the distinction between characters, and leave them painfully out of synch with their environment. This is especially true when doing simple characters with limited language skills, as it is a constant struggle to "Down-Speak" them to stay in personna.

The great strength of any story is the strength of its characters: their personalities, histories, attitudes, etc. Giving them accents and slang terms helps round them out, distinguish each more clearly, and set the scene, all of which will improve the players, and thus the story.

Related Topics:

The Writers' Worksheet
The Virtuous Villain
Info-Dumpster Diving
Character Matters
Slinging Slang
Getting It Write
Setting The Pace
Hitting The Atmosphere

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