Our changing language: Snap. Bam. Awesomesauce.

Very Cool Eyewear sign 4x

I first noticed the communication problem when a woman told me she planned to “hook up”¹ with a man.

“What does ‘hook up’ mean?” I asked, confused while trying to be tactful. “To get together for a cup of coffee, a drink or…?” Does it mean “to date” or “have sex,” I wondered.

The woman didn’t answer, just got a blank look on her face.

Another day, another language barrier. One of the writers I work with turned in an article with the word “piehole”² in it. “Is that an obscene term?” I asked. The publication I edit is “family friendly,” so no obscenities are allowed. The reporter looked at me as if I were crazy.

Around that same time, I sent out an email in which I used the word “cool.” The recipient emailed me back: “I learned that word in 1967 from Donovan. Haha.” So “cool” was no longer cool? Had I made a linguistic blunder?

Everywhere I looked, the English language was changing. I either didn’t understand what was being said or I was being labeled outdated.

It wasn’t just a case of my not being familiar with pop-culture references. True, I’ve been known to say “Star Wars” instead of “Star Trek,” and I’ve confused a basketball team with one that plays football. But what I was experiencing wasn’t just a case of not having watched “Game of Thrones” or of being unfamiliar with the new dance moves, Nae Nae³ and dabbing.⁴

No, the changes were in the language itself. I just didn’t get it.

I signed up for an online class only to have the instructor explain she would be sending the “deets”⁵ to her “peeps.”⁶ Huh? In the local newspaper, a concert was described as a “listening event.” Online, people used “adorbs” instead of “adorable.” Everywhere, “amazing” had morphed into “amazeballs” or “awesomesauce.” “Maybe” and “perhaps” had collapsed into “mayhaps,” “babe” had become “bae,” “bam” was an expression of excitement and “snap” was an expression that meant expression. “Netflix and chill” was a euphemism for sex.

According to Jessica Weiss, author of the article “The Secret Linguistic Life of Girls: Why Girl Speak Gibberish,” teenage girls are the source for much of the change in language. Girls create secret languages, Weiss believes, to create social bonds with each other while excluding other people.

I used to do that. When I was a teen, my friends and I talked pig Latin, which involves taking the initial consonant or consonant group of each word and moving it to the end. That way we could talk in private. “School is boring” became “Oolskay is oringbay” and “dumb parents” became “umbday arentspay.”

Today, as a writer, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring changes in my language. English is my currency. It’s what I use to communicate. So I need to make sure my vocabulary is up-to-date.

Some words, however, do withstand the test of time.

“Is ‘cool’ still cool?” a writer friend recently asked me. Actually, it is. Young people still use the word to mean hip and current. How awesomesauce is that?

Note: Definitions listed below came from urbandictionary.com.

¹A purposely ambiguous, equivocal word to describe almost any sexual action.

²The human mouth.

³A dance from Atlanta where you dance in a way that resembles Sha-Nae-Nae (a character in the 1990s sitcom “Martin”). Typically males participate in this dance, which makes it funny.

⁴To give a sharp nod to your raised forearm. It looks like you are sneezing.

⁵Details, usually details of gossip.

⁶Short for “people.”

Author’s bio: Nancy Woods is an author and writing coach.



Tales from the Hallmark: It’s not a brain tumor

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Hallmark Building

From what they tell me, most non-writers think writers spend their days sitting in a calm, quiet room where they twiddle their pen when they aren’t tapping on their keyboard or staring thoughtfully into distant corners.

My reality isn’t that calm or quiet. In fact, instead of writing the Great American Novel, I spend most of my time dealing with the blown fuses, nonfunctioning furnace and real-life stories of the other inhabitants of the 101-year-old office building in which I try to write.

The other renters of the Hallmark Building include Dani, owner of Black Sheep Salon; Matt, Christopher, Igor and their team of other artists at TigerLily Tattoo; and Katie, owner of Hollywood Lux Boutique, the downstairs shop that specializes in antique, used and vintage household items. Ron, the mild-mannered landlord, can usually be found a few blocks down the street at The Hobby Smith (“Your Source for Model Trains”), which he also owns.

Over the years, the Hallmark has housed everything from a jewelry store and insurance office to a medical marijuana distribution center and a one-room office where a woman sold baby portraits over the phone.

Anyway, one day last month, coffee cup in hand, I took the few steps from my office to Black Sheep across the hall so Dani could do her magic on my hair. When I walked in, Dani was sitting in the hair dryer chair, typing into her phone.

“Just a minute,” she said. “I have a long email to write and want to get it just right.”

I nodded, set my coffee cup on the counter and took a minute to look out the window with its view of the power station, also known as Poo Corner because that’s where dog owners takes their dogs to poop. After donning a black wrap, I took a seat in front of the mirror.

One thing I like about Dani’s salon, in addition to our talks about the latest events in the building, is that it’s a one-chair salon, which means when I get my hair done, Dani and I have the space to ourselves.

“I had to be careful,” Dani said that day, after setting down her phone and walking over to me.

Turns out, the email she was so carefully crafting was not only going to her mother-in-law, a ticklish-enough business, but addressed the topic of childcare. Dani is a multi-tasking mother with two jobs and a part-time nanny. She and her husband recently bought a discount grocery store, just about the time she gave birth to their daughter Sloane, now seven months old.

“I had to get the details and the tone of voice right,” Dani explained, while checking out my hair.

Even for non-writers, life involves writing, a search for the right word, a subtle touch or gentle approach. Over the next few minutes, Dani explained how her mother-in-law would offer to help with childcare, only to cancel at the last minute.

“Undependable childcare is worse than no childcare at all,” I said, remembering the days.

A month later, I was once again sitting inside Black Sheep when Dani said, “My nanny quit.”

“What!?” I said, giving Dani a poke.

When Dani was pregnant she’d planned months ahead to make sure she had a nanny. She eventually found a 48-year-old woman, with grown children of her own, who lived in nearby Vancouver, Washington. Things started out okay, but, as Dani explained while cutting my hair, the woman eventually revealed she was afraid of Portland and didn’t like Dani’s two dogs. Then the nanny’s excuses began. Her phone calls started with “I have a doctor’s appointment” and “I don’t feel well” and led up to “I’m getting migraines and can’t sleep” and “I have an appointment with a neurologist” before culminating with “I think I have a brain tumor.”

“Brain tumor?!” I shouted.

Dani and I looked at each other for a minute before bursting into laughter.

“She must have felt bad quitting, to come up with that,” I said.

“Yes,” Dani said. “She felt horrible. She felt like she let us down and she loves us.”
Still, it was funny, so we laughed even more. At which point Dani said

“There’s another story,” Dani said. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Of course.”

Just the other day, Dani said, the nanny asked her “Do you want my 20-year-old daughter to fill in until she moves to Italy?”

“Italy?!” I asked.

We laughed even harder about the bizarre nature of her trying to find dependable daycare. At that very moment, Dani then said, the ex-nanny’s daughter was “sitting in my living room watching TV while pretending she’s taking care of my child.”

So much for reasonable childcare. So much for the Hallmark being a place where I get away from everything in order to write. The next morning I checked my email and found that Dani had send me a link to a YouTube video called “It’s Not a Tumor.” https://youtu.be/Tb5IZ8Mni3I


Panel discussion on how to self-publish an anthology

On February 15, 2015, two of my writing students — Mark Robben and Kathy Eaton — and I took part in a panel discussion hosted by Writers’ Mill, a Portland writing group. Mark, Kathy and I talked about how we, along with several other Kickstart Your Writing students, self-published three anthologies in three years. The anthologies — Journeys to the Edge, Who’s Your Family? and Why in the Road — are available at lulu.com.

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Advice from Ira Glass

Click here to read about the importance of practicing your craft (or read below).

Writing Inspiration: Advice from Ira Glass

How can we make our work live up to our ambitions? As writers, we set the bar high. It may seem that our best writing is always just out of reach. We’re debilitated by writer’s block, plagued by self-doubt, crushed by criticism from others. There’s a lot standing in the way between the story sketch in our heads and the polished, final draft we know we’ve got inside us.

Yet we push onward.

What distinguishes successful writers from the rest is persistence, according to Ira Glass. The Host and Executive Producer of This American Life believes that to go from good to great work, you simply have to do a lot of it. That feeling of inadequacy that gnaws at you after completing a first draft– it’s normal. It’s part of your growth process as a writer, and it proves you have something Glass likes to call “taste.” In other words, you have high standards for the work you produce, and you’re unwilling to settle for less. Hold onto that feeling, and let it drive you to create more.

Glass himself began a career in public radio as a 19 year-old, and over the course of 17 years worked on nearly every NPR news show and on all kind of production jobs. He’s been a tape-cutter, desk assistant, newscast writer, editor, producer, reporter, and substitute host. All that led him to launch This American Life in 1995. Today’s it’s broadcast on 500 public radio stations across the country, with about 1.7 million listeners.

Here’s what Glass wishes he knew at the start of it all:

Ira Glass


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Where do you write?

This is where I write. -- Photo by Nancy Woods

Some writers enjoy writing in busy coffee shops. Others work at a kitchen table or in a spare bedroom. I write in an office near my home.  The space works for me because it’s orderly without being fussy and functional without being too formal. 
Is your work space serving you well? If not, how could you improve it? If you’re not producing as much writing as you would like, take a look at your writing space. Changing it, can make a big difference.