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 more times, it got under my skin worse than a rash of poison ivy. But it also reminds me to check my work and rid it of clichés and reheated metaphors. Slang, idioms and jargon can be used to reflect a person’s personality or occupation, but they should fit naturally to the character and scene and 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 as a match in the dark for only a moment then quickly burn out. So a story containing today’s slang will soon feel dated.
But that’s not always a bad thing. For a story set in the past, our characters should speak as people of that period did. We should also 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; 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 officer who doesn’t fly.
We need also take care not to put American slang in the mouths of foreign speakers (unless it is humorous misuse or otherwise intentional). Idioms and slang used in foreign countries can be found in books and websites. Their meanings may be clear by the tone of the speaker, if not, some 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 character, use the phrase, “Vous avez de araignées au plafond,” which literally 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!”
This reminds me of a story a 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.”