My teenage boys love to play with words, to dissect them and subvert them.
They seem to create a litany of corrupted words and phrases at an alarming rate that they alone know the meaning of.
Often, the words or word variations will spring from the pop culture that they consume avidly: from YouTube videos, movies, memes, video games and clips.
At other times, they’re inspired by funny or silly things that happen at school or at home. Tongue-tied, blurting, stuttering, embarrassing, or frustrating situations that have caused someone to accidentally say a word that never was – and this is the ‘new’ word they hang on to for months and months as they play with it and repeat it like a mantra until it evolves into something with meaning and portent that goes far beyond the original intent.
My father, God love him, with four kids to discipline got so frustrated with one of my sisters one day that he couldn’t say her name properly What resulted was a twisted version of several of our names put together that sounded like, ‘Mah-blur’. We never let him live that one down and repeated that for years afterwards.
When I was a teenager, one of our slang words was ‘blood’. Okay, this is a normal word, it’s in the dictionary, and we all know what it is and what it means. But as teenagers we subverted and changed the meaning. Blood = Good/Great/Awesome in our books.
So, if someone had created a beautiful artwork, we’d say, ‘That’s blood’, which meant that it was fantastic. It was one of the highest compliments you could give anyone.
If you’d just won a race at the athletics carnival and beaten your PB and someone said to you, ‘Well done, that’s blood’ you would have known that they were impressed. ‘Blood good’ was almost like a clarifier and it meant that something was very, very good.
This confused teachers and adults no-end and only inspired us to use it more. The meaning could be changed slightly, too.
‘I’m blood going swimming’ meant that you were definitely going swimming.
Weird, yes, but we thought we were so clever. We were forming our own language that adults weren’t a part of. And there’s nothing better as a teenager than excluding adults from the Club of Youth.
You’ve heard stories of babies, and often twins, developing their own language. I think the need and desire to develop our own language extends beyond babyhood. Words are regularly being added to the dictionary, especially those that relate to the technology field.
My eldest, Blake, loves to make new words and to play with words and phrases. He loves sounds and tones. He seems obsessed with word play and uses much of his word subversions to create humour. I only wish he’d use this cleverness with words more often in his writing assignments!
Blake can recite the LEGO Ninjago and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme songs (and others) at a rapid rate in an incredibly funny voice. Our youngest, three-year-old Finn, watches these shows ad nauseum and even though Blake doesn’t sit in the room watching or listening to the shows with Finn, the theme songs have clearly gone into his brain somehow … only to come out in a rapid-fire repeat at multiple times throughout the day.
One of the many, many slang words the kids have come up with in the last few months is ‘Yeet’. I think that’s how it’s spelt. I have no dictionary entry or definition to help me as I can’t find it anywhere.
Have you heard your children use it? Please let me know if you’re aware of other usages, definitions or spellings!
In essence, yeet means to throw or hurl something, usually with great force and in quite a humorous way.
The boys have used it so much within their own peer circles that everyone now knows what it means and on occasion my husband will use the word too. It’s entered popular vernacular, at least in our household.
Teenage boys are a delight, a challenge and an inspiration.
The other slang/subverted usage of a word we've seen enter the house lately is 'potato'. This term can apply to anyone who is uncoordinated or a little ungainly, or to the action of being uncoordinated or ungainly. Such as 'that was a potato throw'. So, next time you trip over or throw an off curve-ball, you'll be able to tell yourself that you're a potato.
Interestingly, the other usage of 'potato' is a little more obscure and relates to film-making. If someone shoots an iPhone or iPad video that's shaky, moving around a lot and generally of poor quality, it's referred to as 'potato quality filming'. This is not a compliment! Go figure. I'm laughing as I write this by the way, because the entire concept is quite ridiculous and of course only makes sense to the young. And typing that makes me feel so old!
If nothing else, my boys do make me laugh...
The question is, to get the YA voice right, do we use popular vernacular, colloquialisms and slang? It’s tempting, isn’t it? It feels right to do this at times, too. We’re trying to nail the modern teenager’s voice in our novel, why wouldn’t we use the actual words that they’re likely to use?
Popular (and publisher) opinion usually tells us to steer clear of using slang, however. Words like ‘cool’ have been around for years and authors sometimes do include these. They’re a little bit more classic and have longevity, although, at times they sound and feel dated, too. Not many teenagers say ‘cool’ these days, but adults writing YA books still like to slip them in now and then.
The problem with slang is that it can be very localised (although with the advent of YouTube and social media platforms for young children, I have also slang words spread like wildfire across Australia) and they don’t stick around for long. They become replaced, dated and forgotten quickly as children move onto the next entertainingly subversive word.
Children and teenagers are nothing if not fickle!
As it takes a long time to write, edit, submit then get your manuscript accepted, printed and on the shelves, by the time that book’s out one or two years after the inclusion of your little slang gem, it’s likely that word has been long forgotten and is now so dated that it’s become – sadly – ‘uncool’ to use it any longer. The shame!
So, for the longevity and widespread popularity of your book, best to avoid most slang words. Cling onto a few pearls if you feel you must, or if they truly add to your story or characterisation, or if you’re writing a novel or screenplay where one of the character invents their own language (aka Nell by Jodie Foster).
For the most part, though, if you want your readers to understand the true meaning of your words and to think that you’re a cool, hip, blood good author, then you’ll stick to the standard, regular, everyday words that we all know.