I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
The first time I heard that phrase, I thought it was pretty clever. After a couple hundred times, it got under my skin worse than poison ivy.
It reminds me how golden age television comedians used to zing “Uncle Miltie” (aka Milton Berle, aka “Mr. Television”) for stealing their jokes.
But it also reminds me to search my work for clichés and reused metaphors.
Slang, idioms and jargon can be used effectively to reflect a person’s personality or occupation as long as they naturally fit the person’s character. They should never be forced into the story just to show off what you know.
We use clichés, slang and idioms all the time. It’s part of who we are. It shows we’re in sync with the latest trends. After all, as social creatures no one wants to feel old and left behind. Some phrases are used so commonly, they’ve become as natural as breathing. But an expression that’s trending today, will flare bright for only a moment then quickly burn out. So a story containing today’s slang will soon feel dated.
That’s not always a bad thing. For a story set in the past, dialog should reflect how people spoke at that time, but we must be mindful that the meaning of certain words and phrases have changed over the years. Being gay in the 1890s is different than being gay in the 1990s. Calling someone a penguin today might refer to someone in a tuxedo or a dancing bird in Mary Poppins, but to a WWII pilot, a penguin who flies a mahogany plane is a derogatory term for an air force officer who sits behind a desk.
Sometimes a foreign idiom used in a book may be clear by the tone of the speaker, but sometimes an explanation may be necessary. Consider two examples from Night and Fog: One scene contains the phrase black as Newgate’s knocker. As Americans we might not be familiar with the British expression, but in the context in which it is used, we know it must be bad so we need not explain it.
Another scene has Virginia, my American heroine, using the phrase, “Vous avez de araignées au plafond,” which roughly translates to you’ve got spiders on the ceiling. But since the literal translation doesn’t help us, Virginia adds, “What? Did I say it wrong? Maybe you’d rather hear the American translation. You’re nuts!”
We must also take care not to put American slang in the mouths of foreign speakers (unless it is humorous misuse or otherwise intentional). Some phrases are used so often, they’ve become part of everyday speech. This makes them harder to find and eliminate from our novels. A battlefield nurse in WWII who experiences her first bloody battle might tell herself to get a grip, but a person tending the wounded at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 wouldn’t know that term and therefore wouldn’t even think it.
That reminds me of a story our Italian tour guide in Rome told us when asked how she had come to learn to speak English so well. “I lived in London for about seven years,” she replied. “I do all right except for some of the slang phrases. One time a couple in an American tour group hadn’t shown up at the appointed time, so I told the others that I would go ‘round and knock them up. I didn’t know why the Americans were laughing until they explained that in the U.S. that meant that I was going to get them pregnant!”
While idioms and slang can flavor our novels, we must strive to create our own fresh prose. During editing, we should keep Uncle Miltie in mind so our writing doesn’t become worn out like an old joke.