The Origin of Slang

I recently turned in the latest revision (Rev 14!) of my middle grade fantasy manuscript to a prospective editor.  Keep your fingers and toes crossed in hopes that she likes it.

For me, revising is hard work.  I tackle it much the way I do my day job, with endless analysis, lists, action items, and self-imposed deadlines to keep moving forward.  Millions of post it notes, and every ounce of my writing discipline, are sapped in each revision.  The moment I’ve hit send on my submission e-mail, I’m ready for something new.  No deadline. No critique notes.  I crave fun . . . imagination . . . uncharted worlds to explore . . . a shiny new idea screaming to come to life.  My revision chaser is always working on a first draft of a secret new project.  I’ve already dove back into that exciting endeavor:  first person young adult.  Yikes!

The most important aspect of young adult literature, in my opinion, is an authentic voice – a story teenagers will think was written by their peer, not a grown-up.  And a key component of that voice is slang, used both in the narrative and the dialog.  Must admit I almost scratched the whole project after that revelation.  I didn’t grasp popular slang as a kid, and I’m probably still abusing those same phrases now.  Aside from secretly recording teenage conversations when they’re not around adults (which is obviously not ethical – no stalking, guys), how can an adult create a fresh teenage voice?  What is the origin of slang?

The answer came to me when my daughter discovered Disney Channel sitcoms.  She’d watch a new show, like Shake it Up Chicago, one time and then immediately start using their jargon: dance crews, clump nuggets, and phrases like “Sisters Before Misters.”  Often I’m convinced she doesn’t even understand the phrases she adopts, especially that last one.  But I recognized it from the movie White Christmas.  A classic phrase that only an adult would recognize and only a teenager would find fresh and new.  Brilliant.

At that moment  it occurred to me that kids pick up their slang from movies, tv shows, and literature written by adults.  Suddenly the impossible seemed possible.  My young adult novel reading could go neck and neck with any teenager, and I’m ashamed to admit I watch plenty of movies and tv shows targeted more for the teenage age bracket than my own.  The hot, new slang has been right in front of me this whole time, I just don’t feel the same teenage need to adopt those phases as my own.  If I keep my eyes and ears open, I should be all set for modern slang.

But just in case I still need help, don’t be shy about sharing your favorite / least favorite slang expressions.  My favorite phrase right now is “hold on, spider monkey.”  And I hate when my daughter calls people “clump nuggets.”  What does that even mean?

About Jennifer Kay

Jennifer Kay is a KidLit author and Structural Engineer. She has a VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is an SCBWI Rockford Network Rep, edits the SCBWI IL Prairie Wind, and belongs to Mystery Writers of America. Jennifer works as a writer, freelance editor, literary agency reader, and creative writing teacher.
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