Dog Eared

Books we love

American Slang, by the Book

We recently interviewed Orin Hargraves about his new book, Slang Rules!: A Practical Guide for English Learners. Orin consulted a wide range of sources to build his guide to American slang, including works of fiction. We asked Orin to recommend books by writers with a keen ear for the American vernacular.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
This is the great American novel by the great American writer who was the first to have his ear to the ground and write down what he heard in local dialects. Huckleberry Finn may be the first title that gave respectability to varieties of slang and dialect. It gets better with every reading, and seems to grow more resolutely politically incorrect as it ages.

JR by William Gaddis
This challenging novel from the 1970s is told almost entirely in dialog, one of the speakers being an 11-year-old boy. It captures the rhythms and nuances of American speech from that time (which is not much changed today) and allows the idiom to seep thoroughly into your head ? if you can get all the way through its 700+ pages.

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
All of Tom Wolfe's novels do an admirable job of documenting contemporary society through its own language. I like this one especially for its jarring juxtapositions of various levels of New York society in the 1980s, all revealed through the characters' carefully captured speech.

Jackie Brown, a Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino
Perhaps it's cheating to count a screenplay as a book, but you've got to hand it to this guy: he's the master of capturing modern American slang. If you don't want to read the screenplay, just see the movie. I excerpted the dialog from one scene in Jackie Brown for a lesson in my book about slang. I should probably note that this film is inspired by a novel of Elmore Leonard, another great capturer of slang dialog.


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Wednesday October 29th 2008, 10:28 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
Another book that I recommend the The Outsiders. Though it takes place in the 1960s, students in middle school love it because they can still relate to the social struggles that occur in the book.

Also, it really exemplifies the fungibility of language, because they recognize that the slang that's used in the book can be so different from the slang they use now. It makes them wonder which slang words they use may be dated in twenty years.
Wednesday October 29th 2008, 10:50 AM
Comment by: David D.
A case may be made that there are two kinds of slang. The books you have listed speak in a "slanguage" that is enduring (although some meanings take on greater strength, hence the controversy over the "n" word), but there is also a more ethereal slang that often does not endure. A few years ago, students at Berkeley, CA High School, put together a little dictionary for the edification of parents and sometimes each other. It was a serious effort, not tongue-in-cheek, but contained the caveat that none of the words would mean the same thing next year. Both slang and ordinary language change over time depending on usage, but some youthful slang changes overnight. It is great fun to try to keep up.
Wednesday October 29th 2008, 3:39 PM
Comment by: paul C. (nashville, TN)
I was in a medical waiting room recently seated next to two black men in their 60's or 70's. i started hearing them say things I wanted to remember so i had a piece of paper and started writing down everything that caught my ear...which was just about everything. It was a language all its own and I kept scribbling away until i was called in to see the doctor. If you're a writer, as I am, you can't do much better than that. I've still got the piece of paper, entered into my notebooks.
Wednesday October 29th 2008, 5:24 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
This is such a great topic!
So very many words and idioms are simply not understood by the non-native speaker.
Example: a fellow physician from China, schooled only ten years in the USA, had no idea what it means to "throw in the towel".
It is the same with slang, but where is the boundary crossed from "formal" English to slang?

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Orin tells us about his new book, a guide to American slang for learners of English.
Nasty, Brutish and... Long
Lexicographer Jonathon Green on the joys of collecting slang.
Suggested readings from Erin McKean, dictionary editor and author of "Weird and Wonderful Words."