Nine Year Old Son: (Looking quizzically at one of his books) Well, that’s queer!
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 I can’t have my characters use the same vernacular I used at that age, it’s outdated... okay, most of it’s outdated – there are a number of phrases kids think are so cool and original that were really old hat when I was a kid...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?