I've been Googling 1920s slang for my novel about bootleggers, laughing at a lot of it ("You want to ankle over to the gin joint?" "And how!"), but using very little. It’s made me think, though, about how people talk and what really changes when language changes, and about a writer’s responsibility to the past.
In a review of The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty’s new novel set in New York in 1922, the reviewer notes that the author’s sentences are “pert and plucky, shaped by a contemporary sensibility that can leave an anachronistic aftertaste.” She cites two examples: “I only tell you this because I care” and “Get it all out.”
But how would these sentences have sounded ninety years ago? "I only tell you this because I care awfully"? "You ought to get it all out, doll"?
I’m not sure that Moriarty’s sentences -- or the impulses behind them -- are the exclusive property of our era. “Get it all out so that we can have closure going forward”? Yes, anachronistic in a novel set in the twenties. (And vomitorious, in any decade). But “get it all out” sounds like it could have been thought and said in 1922.
Artificiality is a bigger problem for me than anachronism, which is why I’m wary of those lists of slang. They’re the Kool-Aid (that’s Kool-Ade, from 1927 until 1934, thank you Google) of dialogue. Add some spit and you have instant parody: Scram! The coppers are here! Bugsy’s on the lam, see, and I got all the dough.
Needing to hear the language as it was actually spoken, in full sentences, by people to other people, and being unable to travel back in time (still waiting for my flux-capacitor, Amazon), I've started reading 1920s fiction, beginning with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” published in 1920 in the Saturday Evening Post, looking for language in action (i.e. fluency), and finding this instead:
Marjorie, giving her cousin some advice: Well, you've got to learn to be nice to men who are sad birds. You look as if you'd been insulted whenever you're thrown with any except the most popular boys. Why, Bernice, I'm cut in on every few feet--and who does most of it? Why, those very sad birds.
Bernice: You're a peach to help me.
Is that really how people talked? Maybe. It’s hard to tell with Fitzgerald because his characters are always trying so hard to be arch and clever and wonderful (so that Fitzgerald can show you how brittle they are).
But none of my characters is going to say “sad birds” or “you’re a peach,” no matter how real it makes them sound to a 1920s reader. They have to sound real to me.
Should a writer avoid distracting anachronisms while replicating speech patterns as authentically as possible? Should she notice that people used to start sentences with "say" and "why" and favoured the word "ought"?
Why yes, she should. But she ought also to remember who she is writing for. Her responsibility is to her readers in the present. And therefore, the dialogue should be shaped by a contemporary sensibility.
F.Scott Fitzgerald's story:
Review of The Chaperone: