Popular Phrases Can Date Your Writing

I finished an editing project today, sent it off, and let me client know I had done so. Then, because I would be doing another project for the client tomorrow, while IM-ing with my contact, I typed, “See you tomorrow. Same bat time, same bat channel.” Then it occurred to me that she might have no idea what I was talking about. So I queried. Sure enough, she had no idea. When I told her it was from the days of the “Batman” series on TV, she said she wasn’t sure, but thought that was before she was born. I said mid-1960s. She admitted that she had been born in the late 1980s. Gak.

So, this brought to mind the warning I give to my writing students, and try to follow in my own writing: beware that popular phrases and sayings can date your book more quickly than anything besides putting actual dates in your story. For one generation, “same bat time, same bat channel” has meaning. For another, it’s simply cause for wondering how odd the person on the other end of the conversation actually IS (odd, and old). Think about it. Those of us who know “Here comes the judge,” or “Veeery interesting,” or “Sock it to me” can all recognize one another and have a conversation about those lines, but those who don’t remember Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In probably think we’ve popped a gasket.

Remember “Twenty-three skiddoo”? Well, I know it only from reading, but I know it was a popular saying in the 1920s (or think so). What about Zoot suits or peddle pushers, or spats or saddle shoes? Remember cut-offs in the summer? Well, those are back, so no mystery there.

Talking with my kids a week ago, I found out that they’d both had to look up the term “tight” to know that Hemingway was writing about a man being drunk, whereas the meaning was absolutely clear to me. So, I did some research, and came across a website that lists current and past terms for being drunk: http://freaky_freya.tripod.com/Drunktionary.

My point is, if you’re going to use slang, or phrases from a certain era, know that they will date your work, which can be a good thing if you’re writing a time-period piece, but which can also make your writing seem quickly outdated. If you do need to know what had been created by a certain time period, you’ll want to bookmark sites like this: http://www.localhistories.org/tech48.html, which lists inventions since 1948. Sites like this abound on the Internet, and you’d do well to save those sites for times when you need to check era-specific details.

A fun site for slang from Slappers to Rappers is http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/generation_test.html, the AlphaDictionary. On the site, they have a fun quiz that asks you questions and your answer will determine which era you grew up in for you high school or college years: for example, What did your generation call an awkward, unsophisticated person from the country? Yahoo or rube is from the 1920s, and again from the 90s; bumpkin or hick is from the 40s; clod or clodhopper is from the 50s, particularly down South; klutz was a Yankee word from the 60s; Redneck arose from the Civil Rights movement of the 60s; and Bubba came to popularity in the 80s.

Of course, there will come the day when phrases that were popular in YOUR childhood suddenly become what USED to be said, in the olden days. But, chill, it happens to the best of us. Until then, “Relax, you’re soaking in it.”

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