Of course I knew that when my student wrote “huge” he was using the slang of the day to say “very famous” or “very important” or “hugely popular,” or words to that effect. I didn’t use that particular piece of vernacular myself, but I did enjoy hearing students exclaiming that something or other was “HUUUUUUUGE!”
Here’s one reason we discourage students from using slang terms in their writing: in one day, out another; clear one day, confusing another, mystifying the next. Things that in my high school or junior-high days were “hot” became “cool” in college; in high school we said “Oh boy!” and in college it was “Oh man!” I once suggested to a friend that we get out in front of the slang and start saying “close in!” instead of “far out!” (Okay, so that didn’t catch on.) If we write to be read today or tomorrow, slang will work, especially if we’re writing for readers who share our culture and our orientation to it. But if we’re writing to be read next year, or even next week, or for writers who may not be just like us, then we do better to stick with the traditional language.
But how are students to be sure when they’re speaking slang? Still working with, unfortunately, a rudimentary vocabulary (I’m appalled at how many words in their assigned reading my students are, or claim to be, completely unfamiliar with), they may not easily discriminate between a new word that is a “real” word and a new word that’s the new slang. And if they hear a slang word often enough, they may lose all the words they do know that that slang is replacing. That certainly happens to me with trendy phrases and professional jargon. Hear colleagues refer to a chart or matrix as a “rubric” often enough, for example, and the word you know means “title” or “category” (from the chapter headings in medieval manuscripts, which scribes often distinguished from the actual text by using red ink) becomes the only word you can think of when you look at a chart (or matrix) presenting grading criteria. Hear them talk about “prompts” often enough and you feel strange referring to “writing assignments,” “questions,” “interesting quotations,” “case studies,” “topics,” “ideas,” and the like. A student told me yesterday he had read “George F. Will’s prompt.” He was referring to an essay on reality television I had assigned for class discussion. Next we’ll be going to see that great prompt, Hamlet. Sorry. I’m in theater. When we say “prompt,” it’s either an adjective (“You have to be very prompt on that entrance”) or a verb (“You have to be more solid on your lines. Once we open, there won’t be anyone to prompt you”).
And quick: how else could you express the meaning of the currently hot phrase “at the end of the day”? At the end of the day, how often will you or those around you have said it?
All right, enough about my pet peeves. But it’s true that people can find themselves using slang or jargon because it has so pervaded their aural world that they can no longer retrieve the word—usually a much more specific word—they mean. And it’s also true that students who write slang are usually not choosing to do it: they don’t know they’re doing it.
Still! The picture the student creates here cries out for an actual illustration. Alice in the Wonderland house, head and limbs sticking out of chimney and doors because she’s grown so huge, is nothing to the picture of this huge football player, so big he can’t even fit into the small town. Good writing does make mental pictures for the reader, but so does bad writing. This student meant “famous,” not “enormous.” And if he had written “famous,” the sentence would have passed quietly by the reader, which would have been a good thing since it’s just a description of a person involved in the case study about which the class had to write (don’t call it a prompt!). The writer moved on to discuss the case. Yes, he did speculate at one point that this man’s football fame had been a factor in his getting a very light sentence for a serious crime, but he considered other factors as well. Meanwhile, poor I carried all through the essay the picture of the enormous football player filling his little town to its limits, head and limbs extending onto the highway maybe; and everything that followed the initial description therefore struck me as funny. When the student wrote that the judge “thought jail was not the place for him,” I squeezed the huge man into a tiny prison cell and had to put my dreaded red pen down to wipe my eyes.
Write what you mean; but then please, for the love of all that’s holy, consider your reader and read what you wrote!