Slang in a Second Language

Proceed with caution.

I’d like to say I’m fluent in Spanish. I guess it depends on how you define fluent. I can make myself understood. I can usually understand. I couldn’t explain the inner workings of a jet engine to you, but I couldn’t do that in English, either. I’m missing a lot of specialized vocabulary. I would struggle with legal jargon, for example. Over the years, I have gotten lazy and relied on Google Translate a bit more than I probably should. But, yeah, I can read books and watch movies and chit chat, for the most part.

But one thing I have always studiously avoided was learning slang. First of all, there are a lot of Spanish speaking countries out there, and each has its own slang. Second, slang, by it’s very definition, is time sensitive, and there’s nothing cheesier than someone using slang that’s outmoded, Daddy-o. I have no access to that cultural calendar that seems so instinctual in one’s first language, at least if you’re in with the in crowd.

Also, a lot of slang is based on cultural references that I’m not privy to. And slang often has its place in certain groups, but not in others. For example, there are things you’d say to your friends that you’d never say to grandma. Determining the appropriate audience for slang is a challenge in English. I doubt I’d be able to cope in a second language.

So my advice to anyone learning a second language is to avoid slang at all costs. It’s just too risky. You could offend someone without intending to. You may want to look cool, but you have an even better chance of looking like a fool. It never hurts to proceed with caution.

I bet this was out of date even before it got published.

Like the way my weird mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book!


On Being a Hot Mess

A Canadian friend of mine (waving hello to Sim) was telling me of his various health issues, and I replied, “You’re a hot mess!” Every once in a while my Southern comes out of my mouth. I can’t help it. He had never heard the phrase before, and had to look it up. (Which charmed me to the tips of my toes.)

Out of pure curiosity, I decided to look it up, too. I was really surprised at the wide array of definitions, and none of them seemed to fit the true depth of feeling that this phrase evokes. So what follows is my rambling explanation. (I’d probably be able to be more concise if I weren’t such a hot mess myself.)

First of all, hot mess is not, repeat, not an insult. It’s like saying, “You’ve got so much going on, your life is such a mess, that I don’t know how you function, and yet you do, and I admire that like crazy.” It’s like calling someone a “real piece of work” but stripping all the negativity out of it.

If I consider you a hot mess, I appreciate you. I am also commiserating with you, and laughing with you. Make no mistake, I wouldn’t want to be you, and yet I think I’ve got a whole lot to learn from you about your ability to cope.

When this phrase came into being, it was more a physical comment. It usually referred to those lucky few who could be all scruffy and sloppy and yet still look great. It can still mean that, but over time it has also evolved into a more existential statement about being able to live a complicated, disorganized life with a whole lot of style.

So, mad respect for all those hot messes out there! Welcome aboard! It may be a bumpy ride, but it’s an adventure!

hot mess

Our Evolving Language

Unless you’re an editor, you probably don’t think of our language as a living, breathing organism, but it really is. Words come and go. They fall out of fashion. Slang based on cultural references will make absolutely no sense to anyone 50 years from now. And the rules change over time. People who believe you can NEVER end a sentence with a preposition are hopelessly out of touch.

Anyone who thinks English is rigid and inflexible should read Chaucer or Shakespeare. We’ve come a long way, baby! I was reminded of this when I came across an article recently, entitled 18 obsolete words, which never should have gone out of style.

After reading this, I decided to challenge myself to use all 18 words. If you try and read what I’ve written below without first reading that article, it will most likely go right over your head. That alone will prove my point about our evolving language.


I was taking a break from my job as a bookwright, but I can never quite stop being a spermologer, so even though I intended to groak at the local soda fountain, watching the soda-squirt jirble for the local clientele, I spied a snoutfair lunting with his wonder-wench who was obviously with squirrel. Suddenly a California widow came along in quite the pussyvan. It doesn’t take tyromancy to predict that this would be quite an interesting story, so I began to take notes. She called him a beef-witted queerplunger, and told his unfortunate sweetheart that he had not been true to her. Upon hearing the news, she quickly proved that she was not zafty, and appealed to the resistentialism of the nearest chair and used it to knock the man into the nearby fountain. Ah, the curglaff he must have felt! His reaction was barely Englishable.


Chaucer, in the Canterbury Tales, Ellesmere manuscript.