Beware The Slang Monster!
The Slangster is a treacherous creature.
It covertly roils and boils. Everything seems delightfulighty and wordylicious and then—when you least expect it—the Slangster leaps out to derail your writing!
This is important whether you wield the sword-like pen yourself, or others do so on your behalf.
Here now, an example full of light…
Over the weekend, The Fabulous Honey Parker and I were watching a national TV news magazine.
This is a big network show, a legacy program from a legacy network that was once the gold standard in the news biz.
Amid a parade of Christmasy stories, one anchor stepped to the side for a segment on the Jewish Festival Of Lights, better known among the hoi-polloi as Hanukkah.
Among the Hanukkah traditions discussed was the dreidel.
As you know, the dreidel is a little, four-sided spinning top.
It’s used in a children’s game. Kids spin the top in an effort to win chocolate coins from each other.
It’s like a child’s first foray into gambling.
The exact phrasing the host used to describe the spinning top was this:
“The whirling dervish called the dreidel.”
You can imagine the linking of ideas that took the writer to this metaphor.
One plays the dreidel by spinning it.
So, the writer made a connection from spinning to whirling. Then, the idea of whirling led to “whirling dervish.”
This is not the most apt metaphor.
For one, a dervish is a person.
The colloquial definition of the phrase is a person who is energetic, in constant motion, possibly even chaotic, blathering and uncontrolled.
That’s the slang usage.
The literal definition of a whirling dervish is a member of religious order that practices an ecstatic ritual that involves spinning in circles.
That religious order is, specifically, Sufi Muslims.
So, on a notable Jewish holiday, an experienced national news professional comparing a dreidel to a member of Muslim sect is exceptional writing for the wrong reasons.
At best, this kind of writing creates a mental speed bump.
For anyone who’s paying attention, there’s a “What the…” moment that derails focus from the message and onto the writing problem. It certainly took the two of us out of the story.
At worst, Jews (and Muslims) could take offense.
Here There Be Slangsters!
Why does a WASP from Connecticut who lives in predominantly Mormon Utah care about this?
I care because I have great respect for effective, evocative communication.
I also enjoy writing and having fun with words. (You can, too!)
That said, it’s also necessary to know what the words mean.
Writing with purpose and intent matters. Even writing with purposeful, intentional ignorance and offense has its place.
But when using slang, it’s necessary to know what the slang means and that it’s being used correctly.
We know a highly educated, high-level professional in a career where language is imperative.
This person uses mangled clichés like, “I haven’t rested my laurels,” “Shift horses mid-stream,” “It’s a little chicken and the egg,” and “Head ‘em off at the path.”
It’s a little like having a business consultation with Norm Crosby or Slip Mahoney.
As far as the dreidel goes, what might have been the alternative language choices?
For instance, what if the writer had used the phrase “spinning Tasmanian Devil”?
It’s still a weird personification.
But at least that’s not a potential religious offense.
Though, it could be offensive to real Tasmanian devils, who do not in actuality spin like the drooling, frantic and hyperventilating Warner Brothers cartoon character.
And the actual, literal Tasmanian devil is a surly marsupial with a voracious appetite for the raw flesh of other animals.
So maybe that’s the wrong metaphor.
Instead of comparing the top to a living creature, how about just using modifiers like, “revolutionary, gyrating toy top for fun and frolic”?
But that sounds kinda stupid.
We could just call it what it is...
"The dreidel spinning top, a child’s game of chance and chocolate."
It’s not exactly poetic, but it’s clear and definitive and alliterative.
All this to say, in an effort to be an evocative communicator, watch out for The Slangster!
Stock phrases and over-worn clichés do not always mean what we think they mean.
Sometimes, they bite!
And really, why not just make up your own stock phrases? (See the beginning of this missive.)
Being original and surprising and delightful can be far more interesting and useful and profitable.
Shalom and Happy Hanukkah, my friend!
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
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Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.