Tag Archives: slang

Slanguage: A Look Backwards Guides the Path Forward.


Writers mainly use a Standard English that we can assume everyone literately educated learns, when it isn’t still their native tongue. Richelieu’s French Academy guards their tradition. In English, it’s quite enough to say that if Jane Austen didn’t use it, it’s suspect.

Use Standard rather than hip, now, TV slanguage because by the time it’s in print, it’s looking so five minutes ago. (Professional publication usually takes two years from deadline to book, not to menton all the time you’ll take to sell it). By the time return dates fill the inside pages of library copies, it looks definitely dated and, if you’re not careful, starting to become incomprehensible. Too soon the last check-out date is years ago.

One of the perils of writing mainstream YA fiction is you want kids to sound normal and today, which means in ten years the new YAs need a translation. On the other hand, good YA specfi, like Heinlein and Norton, avoided actual slanguage of their time for Standard with invented slang. Many YA publishers’ guidelines say “No science fiction or fantasy”: libraries don’t buy it because the old stuff is as popular as ever. But they always need new contemporary YA because kids can’t understand any longer a story where the protagonist doesn’t have a cellphone that takes pictures for evidence, or where they talk like 1995 did.

Adults are more forgiving of detail, but the story that’s now a period piece of dress and technology becomes foggy if you also used the slanguage and cliches of your time or, worse, your youth. Take Necromancer by Gordon Dickson. Someone says of the focus character, “He always could put the Indian sign on me.” Indian from India or redskins? Control or confusion or paralysis or adoration? Most of you have as little idea what that means as I do. This is played as a key character point, from one of the few to have known the person from youth, but it’s now totally lost to readers because the author used a (Western? rural?) slang phrase from his youth and put it in the future world.

Think how funny and opaque hippy slang stories can be, if you’re under forty. That’s any work stuffed with fashionable phraseology and cliches forty years later. If you want your grandchildren to collect royalty checks based on your work, think twice about not bothering to master Standard English, etc. It can be the difference between a short burst of sales and appreciation followed by limbo, and a long haul of royalties and reputation.

About Those Dead Rabbits …


(Did you notice I had a “history” section? It’s not all about writing. Except that I tend to write historical fiction …)

Nowadays, women pee on a stick. It used to be that they had to go to a doctor with a urine sample, and it was sent to a lab, and some rabbit was mysteriously killed or saved. So the phrase, up through the 1970s at least, was “the rabbit died,” meaning someone was pregnant. (And thus the title of the 1978 movie, The Rabbit Test)

Having just received my copy of The Modern Home Physician, A New Encyclopedia of Medical Knowledge, Illustrated with Two Hundred and Thirty-Two Photographs and Nearly Seven Hundred Drawings Made Expressly for This Work, edited by Victor Robinson (Wm. H. Wise & Co., 1938), I went cruising.

In checking the pages on this big puppy (781), I found the Zondek-Aschheim Reaction test, devised in 1927 to give women an accurate and fairly early idea if they were pregnant or not. Before then, it was all symptoms and guesswork. False pregnancies happened out of stress.

The original test was done on immature mice, but a more convenient variation worked out some time between 1927 and 1938 used a female rabbit, inject intravenously with the urine. (You’d think that would kill right there, but the hCG hormone is only in pregnant woman’s urine).

Actually, the test didn’t kill anything. That’s popular misunderstanding of how the test worked.

[Bunny lovers, go away now.]

But to see the changes in the rabbit’s ovaries brought on by the hCG, the lab techs had to go inside. Since anesthesia and post-op on a big rodent seemed silly to the labs, all the rabbits died before being examined.

[Bunny people, you can come back now.]

A little time on Wikipedia turned up a bit more on the phrase “rabbit test,” which doesn’t seem to have been used until 1949, however popular it became. I would guess that “the rabbit died” idea is no earlier than the 1950s. Before then, rather than being cutesy about it, a woman just said the test was positive or negative. It seems right for the neo-Victorian Fifties love of euphemism.

Just an odd bit of everyday life that’s been mostly forgotten, and often displaced in anachronism by writers (no test in 1912, and no phrase in 1943). It’s the sort of thing I love discovering.