This month, Genre Chick Alethea Kontis gets past the nerd gate of subculture slang and learns to grok everything from Basic Faire Accent to Ciazarn. Our professor today is Luc Reid, award-winning author of the chunky, entertaining reference book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures.
Alethea Kontis: How long did it take to write Talk the Talk?
Luc Reid: I spent a very busy 10 months writing Talk the Talk. Some days, I lived, breathed, ate, and dreamed subculture slang, and since I worked on only one subculture at a time, it was a strange kind of immersion in one fresh take on one world after another. I think my friends noticed mostly that I started using weird words and phrases, excitedly pointing out social nerd gates and telling them to keep the shiny side up.
AK: How did you write it?
LR: I wrote the book the same way I do everything: with a database. I have to say I love to find ways to organize information. Of course, I knew I’d need to eventually alphabetize and note synonyms and cross-reference and index the book, so I decided to take the most organized approach I could and built myself a database system for it. I built up the terms one at a time on one computer screen, working from reams of electronic notes on another computer screen. I think without the database, I would have been buried in information. Actually, even with the database, I was buried in information. In terms of gathering the information, I read books and talked with people in the different subcultures I was covering, but the real whoosh generator was the Internet. Web sites for different subcultures, discussion groups… 10 years ago– even five years ago–it wouldn’t have been possible to write this book in such a short amount of time.
AK: Why did you write it?
LR: I wrote Talk the Talk for primarily selfish reasons. I love experiencing things that are new or strange or that give me a different perspective. Digging into these subcultures, I got to experience 65 different vantage points on life, or at least parts of life. And of course as I learned about these things, I wanted to share the information, because when I really get interested in something, the only way to shut me up is to put me at a keyboard. These are the reasons I was so enthusiastic about writing the book in the first place.
In practical terms, it happened this way: my agent, the lovely and talented Nadia Cornier, was having lunch with an editor from Writer’s Digest Books. The editor mentioned that they were looking for “weird reference books” for writers, and the phrase “weird reference books” seems to have immediately brought me to Nadia’s mind. For those who know me, this won’t be surprising.
She asked me if I had an idea to pitch, and the next thing I knew, I was on the show.
AK: Are you, or have you ever been, a member of any of these subcultures?
LR: Oh, absolutely: I’m a coder (meaning a programmer), and I webify things for a living when I’m not writing books. Although I don’t have much experience with cons (science fiction conventions), I’ve loved Science Fiction and Fantasy for years, so I grok fen. I’ve bagged a few peaks (hiking), ridden some hydraulics (rafting), hacked and slashed through dungeon crawls (in role-playing games), gone dry while off book (acting), celebrated the odd Sabbat (with witches and pagans), and once helped found a consensus-based intentional community (with other sustainability advocates). Actually, now that I look at it, I’m surprised by how many of these subcultures I really belong to–and I’ve probably missed a couple.
AK: Did you go undercover for any of these sections?
LR: Well, there was this one incident when I was trying to finish up the skydivers section and the beekeepers section at the same time and …
Actually, no. The research was fascinating in terms of information, but not in terms of methods. Even for sections like the one on prostitution, it was largely conducted through e-mail (thanks, Norma Jean!) and on the Web. Most of the subcultures couldn’t be researched well in books because their slang isn’t often written, but I did find some key pieces of the puzzle for both the con artists section and the politicos section at the library.
AK: As a writer, what are your favorite/most used reference books?
LR: Well, I have a great thesaurus that’s organized dictionary-style, called The Synonym Finder, by J.I. Rodale. Even with the online thesauruses that are available, I’m much more likely to find the exact right word in that book than anywhere else. I have a 40-year-old rhyming dictionary that begins with some awful advice about writing poetry and then provides a tremendous means of getting verse to work. I don’t need it often, but when I do, it’s a major boon. I also have a deep and abiding love for the Oxford English DIctionary although I don’t yet own it, so in a pinch I rely on my local library.
Apart from that, most of my reference books have been replaced by the Internet, especially by Google Earth, Wikipedia, and Google’s “define:” feature. As an information addict, the Internet satisfies a deeply felt need for me, which is to know absolutely everything, right now. I’m doing my best to add to the amount of information on the Web, too. I’ve started populating the Talk the Talk Web site, www.subculturetalk.com, with information that didn’t fit into the book, and am launching a set of subculture forums there.
AK: What were some of the most interesting things you found? Surprising? Scariest?
LR: I was surprised at how much more interesting language was in smaller subcultures than in larger ones. The larger subcultures had a huge number of terms, but those terms tended to be for more usual concepts, sometimes a lot of them for the same idea. For instance, drug users may be hopped up, wasted, blasted, loaded; however, smaller, quirkier subcultures had terms for concepts I’d never thought of before. I’ve already mentioned one of my favorites, “nerd gate,” which is an obstacle just difficult enough to filter out people who aren’t serious about what they’re doing. In professional wrestling, there’s the word “smark,” which can either mean someone who thinks they know what’s real in pro wrestling but doesn’t, or someone who does know what’s real in pro wrestling, but pretends not to.
And then there are the terms that help convey the mindset of the subculture with great economy. For instance, puppeteers talk about “wiggling the dollies,” which is so uncomplimentary that it immediately gave me a feeling of what it’s like to work in an art form that often gets lumped in the same category as making balloon animals. Model rocketeers have great, evocative terms for rocket malfunctions, like “power prang” and “land shark,” that convey a sense of being able to take joy even when things go wrong–especially if they go spectacularly wrong. Well, that list goes on and on. Actually, despite the fact that my editor had to go to bat for me to get approval for the book to be longer than immediately planned, I cut back mercilessly on the material I had developed for the book, just to squeeze it into the available space. The up side of this was that I was able to concentrate on only the most compelling terms.