Writing in 40s Vernacular

When a fellow in a book you are reading describes a dame as peachy, you’re reading 1940s vernacular.

One task I set myself in writing Uncle Herb’s World War II saga was to include some of the slang and catch-phrases the soldiers and sailors used in those times. Much of this has faded from common usage now, so it wasn’t an easy task. But if one is trying to really get the feel of what it was like to be with Navy airmen battling the Japanese Imperial Fleet in 1943, it helps to get right in among them and hear how they actually spoke when they were shooting the breeze.

Phrases like, “Say, wise guy! What’s the big idea?” were commonplace. So leaving them out would diminish the story. But how does one go about relearning the lost vernacular of another time? Fortunately, there are ways to do it.

First off, it helps to have some seniority. While I am not old enough to have actually used slang in the 40s, I do harken back to days of crawling around on my mom’s or my grandmother’s carpet while real, honest-to-God speakers of the lingo were rattling off the whole kit and caboodle. I may have been barely old enough to say more than goo-goo but I had ears. And some of their jive stuck in my head.

And where memory can’t provide, there are other great resources. Books and movies of the time are full of useful dope. Books like Michener’s Tales Of The South Pacific, and Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead, written in those times, dish up a boatload of lingo. Movies like Guadalcanal Diary portray soldiers chewing the fat realistically. And let’s not overlook The Three Stooges, whose short features released in those times contained plenty of wiseacre comments.

My only worry is that some brainiac under-assistant editor or sub-agent, will look at what I’ve written and get all worked up about my anachronistic authorial style and voice. They might mistakenly think I always write that way and give my manuscript the old heave-ho. Nosirree. That’s a bunch of hooey. I’m just getting wise to this razzmatazz for one particular novel.

Here’s a scene from The Fallen Eagle where vernacular comes to the fore as Bill asks Herb to read a love letter from home:


“It’s from your girl, right?” Bill pried. “It’s from Betty.”

“Nope,” Herb said. “Return address says it’s from Eve McFarlane, 53rd Avenue South, Rainier Beach, Seattle, Washington.”

“Betty’s best friend Eve, you mean? She’s peachy.”

“Any girl would be peachy to a hard up fellow like you.”

“Come on,” Bill persisted. “What’s it say?”

“Will you jokers can the chitchat?” Joe demanded. “Put that letter away, Herb.”

“Yes, Boss.” Herb put the letter back in its envelope and tucked it into his flight suit’s breast pocket.


Anyway. You get the idea. It’s more interesting to the reader to get a sense of the way

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes medical thrillers, natural disaster novels, and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
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