I Don’t Want to Break Your Crayons, but …

During a “tech talk” yesterday at work, I heard words like “blidget, widget and wiki” being tossed around the room. Some understood what these words meant, but others asked for definitions. Our conversation reminded me of the many discourse communities [PDF] that exist, little language circles of people who speak words known to the limited few within that community. Town officials, for example, often spew off jargon that makes sense to them, but that doesn’t translate well to the written word. When you’re trying to write stories about what happened during a town committee meeting, you want to make it simple enough for readers to understand what you’re talking about; in other words, you want to put it “in plain English.”

But what is plain English nowadays, anyway? There are so many discourse communities that it’s difficult to enter into each of them and try to understand the language their members speak. The languages within these communities doesn’t have to be foreign as we know it, as in Spanish or French. Slang, for instance, is an example of a language that a select few know. The discourse community of people who speak slang is growing, according to a Boston Globe article titled “Talk Amongst Yourselves.” The article noted that modern slang is traveling faster with the help of the Internet and sites like urbandictionary.com. Here is a list of modern slang that accompanied the Globe article. Just for fun, I used all the words in a short story. See if you can understand it:

I’ve got a bad case of the gnar. It’s bunking! It happened when Veronica, an agnorant girl who lives down the street, said, “Listen, I don’t want to break your crayons, but you’re a buster and a butterfaith.” I ignored her and started checking my vitals. Ugh. If she wants to call me those names, she can. She’s just a dandruff anyway. The other day I was earjacking and I heard her say I was an errorist and noob who always flosses and multislacks while pretending to remail. Well, I’ll show her. How dare she pay me out? I’m going federal. Geesh, she doesn’t ever have to worry about me asking her to marinate this weekend. If I confronted her all about it, she’d just spit me back a nonpology. I hate when she swiffs about me. I may not be work hot, but I’ve got presidential tint in my car. Yeah, that’s right. I have presidential tint and I DON’T subwoof like that 100m hottie Veronica.

Chances are, unless you study slang, you don’t know what this story is about. Words can be secret codes. It’s up to authors to determine how much of the code they want to share with readers. Novelists might want to safeguard this code in hopes that readers find their own hidden meaning in the obscurity of the language. Journalists, on the other hand, would hopefully be more inclined to strive for transparency and a lucidity of meaning.

What might make perfect sense to the writer may not make sense to the reader. When you write, are you aware of how other people might interpret the words you use? Do you strive to make everything clear, or do you like leaving some things up for interpretation? What slang words or neologisms do you like to use?

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Poynter.org. Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at mjtenore@gmail.com.

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