Dialogue: When Local Slang is too Local

Dialogue: When Local Slang is too Local

by Kim Bussey.

As writers, we live in a world that can be transformed by the simple substitution of one word for another. I agonize over these choices — sometimes to the point of wanting to bounce my head off the wall. But for me, it is more tortuous to pick through the garden of slang and colloquialisms necessary for realistic dialogue, than choosing how to describe a scene or emotion. You only need to travel a scant fifty miles before some accepted terminology does an about face. So how do you choose ‘authentic’ words for character conversations while making sure all readers understand the meaning?


I had my first experience with the world of colorful, localized language while at college. My roommate, a native of Idaho, asked me if I would “slough” morning classes with her. Slough? This word was foreign to me; I asked if she meant, “skip”. No, in her world “skip” implied “cutting” into a line. When I informed her that was “ditching” in line, she retorted that a “ditch” was a gutter beside the road. Our confusion in communicating answered the original question. By the time we grasped what the other was saying, morning classes were well under way.

The use of colorful words is not the lone province of the young. Earlier today, I was on Facebook reading a post from a friend about the broken “thingy” on her clothes dryer. The problem sounded similar to one I had faced, so I verified my suspicions by asking if this “thingy” connected to a certain “do-hickey”. We understood each other completely, even though I’m an Ohioan and she’s West Virginian.

So, how far does localized slang spread? I’m pretty sure “thingy” is understood by all Americans. “Do-hickey” may not be national, but my Facebook conversation revealed it had at least crossed state lines. Not all words make it that far, which is why writers must choose their language with care.

Several years ago, my company transferred me to Wisconsin. Right off the bat, I had communication problems with the movers unloading my furniture. I asked them to place a dresser “catty-wampus” in the corner. They responded with raised eyebrows, so I explained the term meant “kitty corner”. I got more silent stares, then one of them asked if I meant “catty corner”. Can this mean Ohio places more emphasis on baby animals while Wisconsin bows to the adults? I didn’t know, but during my first month in Wisconsin I became very familiar with blank stares, lifted eyebrows, and people giggling.

You wouldn’t think a little thing like telling a co-worker you were going to the water fountain to get a drink would reduce a grown man to tears! Water fountains in Ohio are drinking fountains for people. Water fountains in Wisconsin are for birds to drink out of. In Wisconsin, a fountain for people was called a “bubbler”. I never did get used to that one, so I doubt I would consider writing it into a story. However, I’m comfortable being surrounded by folks who use “thing-a-ma-bob”, “do-dad”, and “what-do-you-call-it” as everyday nouns.

As if regional terms aren’t difficult enough, over the years my family developed their own set of words and phrases that I must fight to keep out of my prose. We refer to peanut butter as p-butt, and those wonderful no-bake cookies made with p-butt, oats, and chocolate will forever be called “cow patties” at my house. When my relatives answer the phone, you hear the word “purple” – because everyone else says “yell-o”.

In the past couple of years, I’ve edited more and more manuscripts where characters “swipe” the sweat from they’re foreheads or “swipe” away tears. To readers in my neck-of-the-woods, “swipe” still means to steal something. My guess is this change in the meaning of “swipe” to “wipe” comes from swiping screens on tech devices. But if you’re writing a short story or novel, you want to make sure the reader understands what you mean.

There are so many more words and phrases that are tied to geographic areas that a writer can be inundated with the selections available to his pen. Is it any wonder, then, that we spend hours struggling with a single paragraph? How colorful is too colorful for our meaning to be understood outside our own sphere of influence?

Writers are constantly engaged in the battle between realism in dialogue and worldwide understanding. My hope is that the global connection of the Internet will spread the meaning and use of some regional slang. When that happens, we purveyors of the written word can confidently express our thoughts about the do-dad by the bubbler that we slough.

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