Monday, March 29, 2010


Nine Year Old Son: (Looking quizzically at one of his books) Well, that’s queer!

Me: What?!!!

Son: (blink, blink) what?

Me: What does ‘queer’ mean?

Son: Weird or strange (pause) kind of like you asking me what ‘queer’ means.

Apparently my nine year old uses, you know, the actual definition for the word, rather than the skewed reference I’ve heard bandied about by dunderheaded nitwits. Funny, because I don’t normally consider myself one of the politically correct people – you know, sooo concerned with people getting offended by non-issues. But I think I’m overly sensitive to what terms my kids learn and use, and what they’re picking up from the world... because the world can suck on occasion.

And I can get into whole discussions on what wrongheaded idiocy the world might teach your kid if you’re not paying good enough attention and opening the conversation... but really that’s not what this post is about. It’s about words.

If you ever need proof that words and their meanings change over short spans of time, just hang out with a kid. Apparently, my kids and their friends do use the word ‘queer’, but for the actual definition, not the ignorant one. I know this because they say it in front of adults... when they know they’re saying something wrong, they take great pains not to get caught.

For someone writing middle grade or YA, this information is imperative. I can’t have my characters use the same vernacular I used at that age, it’s outdated... okay, most of it’s outdated – there are a number of phrases kids think are so cool and original that were really old hat when I was a kid... but sometimes, they don’t mean the same thing.

My kid might say, “tricked” and what she means is updated or fresh. Like, “Her room is all tricked out.” - which basically means one of her friends redecorated her room. Not really a new phrase, either, we used to use it the same way to refer to cars...

But when I was a kid, ‘tricked’ or ‘trick’ usually meant to snitch. “Don’t be a trick” meant don’t run and tell your mom, or don’t whine. Depending on the situation, because really it started as a gang reference for someone who “tricked you out” to the cops. Kids pick it up and use it for their own purpose, though... and in fiction I think this phrase might only work in certain neighborhoods. Kids in upper middle class neighborhoods probably aren’t all that familiar with “tricks”.

Now, in fiction, I love a good voice. And a unique voice often means that they use phrases and words in a way you haven’t heard before, so I don’t think all phrases are out the window if they don’t exactly match real life – real life isn’t fiction, fiction is like real life on great drugs – it’s more fun with higher stakes. But I think, being wordsmiths, we have to be up on exactly what these words and phrases mean today or in the time frame we’re working with.

How about you? Have you used any words or phrases in your fiction and then looked back at it and though, “okay, this kid would never say this; my grandmother would’ve said it, maybe...”? Have you read a published book that used outdated phrasing? And what are your favorite current or past sayings?


Natasha Fondren said...

The teens are also up on queer theory. Which is heartening. :-)

I'm more with the YA school of thought that desires longevity. Today's words will be out tomorrow, and if your book is full of them, it'll be out tomorrow, too.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Natasha,

That's very good advice, too. Making anything too trendy can make it quickly outdated - it also usually comes off as trying too hard.

WordVixen said...

Not commenting on the other stuff (or I'd never shut up), but I so remember using "queer" for the actual meaning when I was a kid. My brother taught it to me, and when we went to my grandmother's, my brother did or said something odd and out of my mouth came "he's so queer". *lol* I remember thinking how weird my grandmother was acting over my calling my brother weird... after all, it's hardly swearing! :-D

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm completely bogged down in words with SCAR! It's future and there are different cultures, one of which doesn't read, so I've had to work hard at their voices!

As an aside, my son and I had the "gay" talk not too long ago. Yup. The whole talk. And he hasn't even had sex ed, LOL. But he knows, he knows...

Colleen_Katana said...

Oh man...I never used its real definition or for it's sexual implications.

I'm having trouble remembering my phrases..."tricks" was used to call a girl slutty. Like, "She's such a trick." Our cars weren't tricked out....but they were 'pimped out' or ghetto fabulous. But I think those are all pretty common too. Ummm, I used to (and still say) "Balls" a lot. Like in place of damn or other expletives.

I dunno...I guess I'm just as unoriginal as the rest of them!

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey wordvixen,

The word 'queer' was definitely derogatory when I was a kid. We even played a game called, "Smear the Queer" which basically amounted to pummeling the guy with the ball who was 'the queer'... and I can remember not exactly getting what it meant except that it was bad or gross or something you should make fun of... then I grew up, and met people and had a lot of friends that were gay or bi or lesbian... and looking back on the use of those words when I was a kid and didn't really understand where they came from or what the deal was - I have to wonder who started that bit of stupidity in the first place. It wasn't us kids, we were just repeating the sentiment.

Maybe you outgrow that stuff, but I think a lot of people might not outgrow it, if they don't ever get out there and actually meet and make friends with people who aren't just like them in whatever way... and then, too, I know a few people who are gay, who played the same kinds of games and used the same kinds of words when they were kids, and I wonder how damaging that must've been to their self-esteem, to play that game knowing they were tearing down themself.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi SS@S,

That must be a challenge, to come up with your own phrasing and make it stick and sound natural for a time that only exists in your fiction. But when it's done well, it can be awesome! Can't wait to read it, after hearing you talk about it at your place and Erica's, I'm really looking forward to seeing it on the shelves.

And, good for you! I've had the same talk with mine. I don't really get why people hide these things.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey Colleen,

We used some of the same terms... Except 'balls' and 'tits' were good terms, like saying, "cool" or "awesome"....

I'm still rather fond of C U Next Tuesday... and there are still people who don't get it when you say it outloud.

My daughter and her friends use the word, "jank" (not sure if that's how you spell it) all the time... and it means something like stupid, as in "Man, that teacher's so jank"... they thought they were real slick using it in class, until her English teacher started handing out demerits... they forget the man's been listening to them talk all year and he can figure out what they mean :-)

Gary Corby said...

Back in Victorian days, a guy might have whispered to his girlfriend, "I want to search and destroy you." And it would not have meant a naval exercise.

Things do change!

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Gary

Wow, and I thought we were risque... what's the proper response to that proposition?

You do have the coolest information - I swear, your blog is quickly becoming my happy place :-)

Angela Williams Duea said...

Merry, didn't notice you were back to posting again. Glad I checked back!

I hate the way words like queer and gay are used by teens today. But at the same time they are a lot kinder to queers and gays than teens in my day!

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Angela,

Yes, I'm back - I think a lot of the people I regularly blogged with a year or two ago haven't really noticed, because so many of them aren't blogging or are in different corners of the blog-o-sphere... and it probably doesn't help that I'm a very sporatic poster.

My kids use 'queer' in the literal definition - they don't seem to realize the sexual connotation at all... but 'gay', the kids throw that one around as an insult all the time and it drives me nuts. It's the reason I had the talk with my daughter last year...

Nice to 'see' you, too!!! How is everything?