Purple Prose + Writing

Those Tricky Little Idioms

As I pointed out yesterday, one of the things I loved about Perfect Chemistry and Rules of Attraction is how Simone Elkeles used Mexican slangs in the dialogue and inner thoughts.

Because my main character’s best friend is Mexican, I decided to do the same thing as Simone, but not quite to the same degree. For starters, the Spanish used in Perfect Chemistry was predominantly swearing, words that would leave your grandmother blushing, or terms of endearment. Instead, I decided to use only a few words and phrases. Plus, the best friend is only in a handful of scenes.

When you use foreign slangs, you have to be careful. You can’t take a dictionary and translate your English phrase word for word into the other language. You might be creating a sentence that means something different to what you intended. And the results might be very embarrassing.

My two youngest kids are in a Spanish bilingual program at school. I asked my daughter’s kindergartner teacher about some of the phrases I used, to make sure they were correct. One I especially wanted to know was ‘Está muy caliente’, which in English translates to ‘he’s very hot’. Or does it?

My daughter’s teacher said I could use the term, so I was surprised when I read the following in Rules of Attraction by Simone Elkeles:

She flashes me a sexy smile and leans closer. “Estás muy caliente.” I think she just called me hot. That’s not the way we say it in Meh-hee-co, but I get the idea.

Whoa, I thought. Then what does it mean? I spent the next hour, online, pouring through idioms to find out what it meant in Mexico. Okay, so here’s the part where I used the phrase in my novel. The italicized phrase is the proper translation of it

“You should definitely give Aaron a chance. He’s cute. Very horny.” She started counting his attributes on her fingers.

Yep, you can stop laughing now. That’s definitely not what my character wanted to say.

So, when you want to add foreign slangs in your story, make sure you check out a foreign slang dictionary specific to the country your character is from. Remember, idioms used in England can be very different to those used in Canada or the US. The same is true for Spanish idioms spoken in Mexico compared to those spoken in Spain. Also, any time you use a foreign language in your story (whether it’s a word or a phrase), it’s italicized.

Has anyone else used foreign slangs in their stories? Hopefully you didn’t make the same mistake as me.

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Those Tricky Little Idioms + Writing