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Word is no longer the word

Posted by lpearle on 20 August 2013

The other day I had a conversation with two colleagues about pop cultural references and slang.  I’d just finished reading the ARC of Trollope’s update on Sense and Sensibility and was underwhelmed, in part because of the use of modern slang.   Austen’s use of language feels very dated now, and, oddly, in some ways Trollope’s version already feels slightly dated.

Three years ago a student was doing research for a report on an oldies girl group.  My mind immediately went to The Supremes… The Ronnettes… Martha and the Vandellas… but no, she was researching the Spice Girls.  Talk about a jolt!  For her, they were old (she was six when they broke up, younger when their hits were on MTV and the radio) but for me, they were a group that existed in my 30s.  Every now and then (ok, so not so “then” as much as “now”) I get hit with that problem: things that seem so close to me in terms of timing are completely outside my students’ ken.

My colleagues laughed and empathized.  Then the conversation turned to slang, and how horrible it feels to students to hear us use it – even worse, when we think it’s still phat to say word.  Or something like that.  There are some slang phrases that are still around, like “wicked” (which appears to be somewhat regional) and “gnarly” (which I could have sworn was no longer in use!), but the ephemeral nature of slang means that by the time it’s trickled up the age ladder it’s probably already out (example? when a bunch of 65+ Jewish women are using that hip new word “bling” [in 2005] it’s well past its use-by date).

I’ve always semi-cringed when I read tweets or FB updates from colleagues my age that are slang-filled – not when they’re using it to illustrate what those crazy kids are saying now but when they’re using it to say “hey, I’m still totes cool!” Hella neat it ain’t.  Hella embarrassing?  You bet.  And maybe that’s why the S&S update felt weird to me: the language the author was using didn’t feel authentic.  The author is in her late 60s, and  slang au fait with the 20somethings is not using her native language (as opposed to Austen, who I’m sure was writing the way people in her world actually spoke).

So that’s another reminder to me when I’m communicating with my students: watch the cultural references, and watch the slang.   Why give them more fodder for eye-rolling?

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