Lesson Plans

Put the VT to work in your classroom

Salinger and the Vocabulary of the Vernacular

Lesson Question:

How can students map the meanings of some of Holden Caulfield's slang words and expressions?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students consider how use of the vernacular was a distinctive element of J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye and how some of the words and expressions Salinger used have been incorporated into mainstream English, and how others have not. Students will use Visual Thesaurus word maps as a model for creating their own semantic displays to map the meanings of some of Holden Caulfield's words and expressions.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • revise Visual Thesaurus word maps to include unconventional meanings of slang terms
  • interpret and analyze slang words and expressions in the context of reading The Catcher in the Rye
  • write a dialogue that incorporates slang words and expressions borrowed from The Catcher in the Rye


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • "Logging Salinger's use of the Vernacular" sheets (one per student) [click here to download]
  • copies of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (one per student)


Revising a Visual Thesaurus word map to include slang usage:

  • On the white board, display the Visual Thesaurus word map for the word mad and scroll over its multiple meanings (i.e.,  "roused to anger," "affected with madness or insanity," "marked by uncontrolled excitement or emotion," "very foolish")
  • Organize the class in partners and ask each pair of students to explore the word map for mad and to determine "what's missing" on the map. Have they heard other usages of mad that are not displayed in the Visual Thesaurus? If so, what are they?
  • Ask partners to briefly draw a sketch of the Visual Thesaurus word map for mad in their notebooks and to revise it to include other definitions and usages of mad. (If students are puzzled by the assignment, they could consult an online slang dictionary to get some ideas for additional meaning bubbles they might add to the existing word map.)


Discussing the nature of slang:

  • Elicit student volunteers to share with the class how they amended the word map for mad to include more current or slang usage of the word.
  • You might want to sketch a revised word map for mad on the board to make sure that students add at least one yellow adjective meaning bubble for the definition that pertains to quantity as in "a lot of" (e.g., "That teacher gives mad homework.") and one purple adverb meaning bubble for the intensifier meaning "extremely" (e.g., "That trip was mad fun.").
  • As a discussion prompt ask students why they think the Visual Thesaurus word map for mad does not include the meanings for mad that they added. (Clarify that dictionaries often do not include current slang words or expressions until they have been incorporated into more mainstream use.)
  • Broaden the discussion to include students' own experiences with slang. What slang do they commonly use and how? Do they think that those words will ever become "mainstream"? Why are teenagers constantly generating new words and expressions?

Introducing the vernacular in The Catcher in the Rye:

  • Read aloud the first sentence of Catcher to establish Holden's casual and ambivalent tone, and to point out his use of words like "lousy" and "crap" to introduce his life story:

    If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

  • Explain to students that J.D. Salinger's use of slang or the vernacular in The Catcher in the Rye is one of the reasons that the novel was considered groundbreaking (and at the same time controversial). Readers identified with Holden Caulfield (the novel's narrator) because they could "hear" his thoughts through his natural voice?a voice ridden with repetitious slang words and expressions that may now seem either commonplace or completely outdated to current readers.
  • Direct students to skip to the opening of Chapter 4 and to identify which words or expressions in the first sentence were probably not contained in a standard English dictionary in 1945 (the year Catcher was published): "I didn't have anything special to do, so I went down to the can and chewed the rag with him while he was shaving."

Logging the use of the vernacular in The Catcher in the Rye:

  • Point out that can (as in bathroom) and chewing the rag (as in casually chatting or "chewing the fat") are just two examples of Salinger's use of slang. Distribute the following chart [click here to download] to students so that they can interpret other slang terms in Catcher as they encounter them in their reading of the novel:

word or expression from The Catcher in the Rye

sample quote and page number

inferences about the word or expression based on reading


"That isn't too far from this crumby place." (1)



"He's got a lot of dough." (1)


for the birds

"Strictly for the birds." (2)


horse manure

"What I liked about her, she didn't give you a lot of horse manure about what a great guy her father was." (3)



"chucking a football" (4)



"They [the Spencers] got a bang out of things." (6)


hit the ceiling

"I mean he didn't hit the ceiling or anything." (8)


booze hound

"Her mother was married again to some booze hound." (32)



"boy, was she lousy with rocks." (55)



"Sensitive. That killed me." (55)



"I felt like giving somebody a buzz." (59)


get wise with

"I asked her, on the way, if Mr. Cudahy?that was the booze hound's name?had ever tried to get wise with her." (79)



"You're trying to chisel me." (101)



"I'd go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride?." (198)



Mapping the vernacular:

  • As a post-reading activity, have students meet in small groups to share their interpretations of the slang terms from Catcher. Students may define some of the words or expressions by using the Visual Thesaurus, while they may have to interpret others by contextual clues or by using a slang dictionary.
  • Once group members have agreed upon common definitions, have students collaborate in creating word maps for a few of the slang words or expressions that cannot be found in the Visual Thesaurus. Students should define the words in color-coded meaning bubbles and supply example sentences from Catcher. Then, they should also supply synonyms for the words or expressions that cluster around the appropriate meaning bubbles.

Extending the Lesson:

  • As a creative writing assignment, students could write dialogues between Holden and another person that incorporate slang words and expressions defined in this lesson. Students might create a fictional character for the dialogue with Holden or they could have Holden talk with another famous character from literature (e.g., Holden meets Prince Hamlet, Hester Prynne, or Jay Gatsby).


  • Check students' revised word maps for mad to see if they added additional meanings for slang interpretation.
  • Assess students' completed slang logs and original word maps to see if students correctly interpreted slang words and expressions from The Catcher in the Rye.

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 5.     Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level III (Grades 6-8)

3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)
4. Uses specific strategies to clear up confusing parts of a text (e.g., pauses, rereads the text, consults another source, represents abstract information as mental pictures, draws upon background knowledge, asks for help)
5. Understands specific devices an author uses to accomplish his or her purpose (e.g., persuasive techniques, style, word choice, language structure) 
6. Reflects on what has been learned after reading and formulates ideas, opinions, and personal responses to texts 

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Uses context to understand figurative, idiomatic, and technical meanings of terms
3. Uses a range of automatic monitoring and self-correction methods (e.g., rereading, slowing down, sub-vocalizing, consulting resources, questioning)
4. Understands writing techniques used to influence the reader and accomplish an author's purpose (e.g., organizational patterns, figures of speech, tone, literary and technical language, formal and informal language, narrative perspective)

Standard 6.     Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

Level III (Grades 6-8)

1. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary passages and texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fantasies, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, drama)
2. Knows the defining characteristics of a variety of literary forms and genres (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fantasies, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, drama)
6. Understands the use of language in literary works to convey mood, images, and meaning (e.g., dialect; dialogue; symbolism; irony; rhyme; voice; tone; sound; alliteration; assonance; consonance; onomatopoeia; figurative language such as similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, allusion; sentence structure; punctuation)
7. Understands the effects of an author's style (e.g., word choice, speaker, imagery, genre, perspective) on the reader
8. Understands point of view in a literary text (e.g., first and third person, limited and omniscient, subjective and objective)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, supernatural tales, satires, parodies, plays, American literature, British literature, world and ancient literature)
2. Knows the defining characteristics of a variety of literary forms and genres (e.g.,fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, supernatural tales, satires, parodies, plays, drama, American literature, British literature, world and ancient literature, the Bible)
7. Understands the effects of author's style and complex literary devices and techniques on the overall quality of a work (e.g., tone; irony; mood; figurative language; allusion; diction; dialogue; symbolism; point of view; voice; understatement and overstatement; time and sequence; narrator; poetic elements, such as sound, imagery, personification)
8. Understands relationships between literature and its historical period, culture, and society (e.g., influence of historical context on form, style, and point of view; influence of literature on political events; social influences on author's description of characters, plot, and setting; how writer's represent and reveal their cultures and traditions)

Click here to read more articles from Lesson Plans.