Struggling to communicate with your teen? Suzanne Harrington masters the latest adolescent buzzwords with forensic linguist Allan Metcalfe, author of a new book on the history of slang.
From flapper to hipster, each generation has its own tribes and the buzzwords to describe them.
These words, initially impenetrable to exclude the squares and the olds, quickly become absorbed into the mainstream lexicon – and our dictionaries – so that very soon we are all on the same slangy page.
Except we’re not, because the purpose of slang is to continually mutate and evolve, as kids invent new terminology to keep the rest of us at arms’ length. You hip to the jive, daddy-o? Sick, bruv.
A new book, From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations by US academic Allan Metcalfe, looks not just at how some words go from slang to dictionary staple, but also at their generational context.
This is Professor Metcalfe’s pet subject – a forensic linguist, he has also written an entire book on the origins of ‘ok’ (it first appeared in the Boston Morning Post on March 23 1839, as a jokey misspelled abbreviation for ‘all correct’ – so now you know).
But what about YOLO, FOMO, LOL, ROFL, NSFW, friend / unfriend, Netflix and chill, meh, sexting, flashmob, occupy, hashtag, and the rest of Millennial-speak?
Remember how naff David Cameron looked when he admitted he’d thought LOL stood for ‘lots of love’?
This is the entire mission of slang – to create an in crowd and an out crowd. And most of us are part of the latter. Don’t worry, there’s a glossary at the end.
Millennials are the generation born between 1982 and 2004. But many oldies – Generation X, born between 1961 and 1981 – tend to know what the more high profile of these words mean, thanks to the internet and the fact that many of us share our households with teenagers, and have been forced to learn how to speak basic Millennial if we want to communicate with them, particularly with those under the age of 18. (Older Millennials tend to make more of an effort to communicate in standard English, especially when they want something).
So when your 12 year old says that his link was taxed for bare p on the way home from school and it was well peak, what on earth is he talking about?
In the absence of Google Translate, allow me: the object of the 12 year old’s prepubescent desire was involuntarily relieved by a third party of all their bus money on the way home from school, which was terribly bad form.
You’re welcome. Do not, however, assume that you now speak Millennial – this is a local dialect, and most likely differs from the dialects where you live.
That’s the thing. Not only does slang evolve and morph from day to day, but also from place to place, as any plukey radge who has ever picked up an Irvine Welsh novel will attest.
This means that the current slang listed in Skedaddle to Selfie is already dated, even though the book was only published five minutes ago. But we won’t know the slang of the generation which started in 2005 for another few years, because half of them are still in kindergarten; Metcalfe calls this upcoming lot the Homeland Generation, born post 9/11, and three years after the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in the US.
An alternative name for the upcoming generation could be Post-Millennials, for the millions born outside the US after 2005 – Metcalfe’s book is entirely Americentric. (Such is the dominance of American film and TV culture in the UK, British youth refer to police as ‘feds’.)
What’s interesting is how slang reflects change in cultural attitudes.
Sex, for instance. From going steady and necking and petting (is it just me, or does that last term have worrying zoological connotations?) to hook-ups and booty-calls, our unofficial language reflects the relaxing of puritanical attitudes to sex over the generations, particularly highlighted by the mainstreaming of the F word.
Pre Boom Generation - those born 1943 to 1960 - the word fuck was taboo, even though it was first officially noted in the English language in 1568 (it’s thought to predate that, but nobody seems quite sure by how long).
Anyway, the Boomers reclaimed the word as a straightforward sexual term, and also via the literature of the era – like Abbie Hoffman’s 1967 book Fuck The System. The word finally made its way into the dictionary in 1969, but remained banned from the pages of The New Yorker until 1985.
By the time it reached Sex & The City, it was risque but normalised.
Many ordinary words in common usage today began life as slang – deadline, transcendental, scallywag, hot dog, fan, sweatshop, adolescent, sexy, jazz, hip, slacker, boyfriend, girlfriend, doggie bag, senior citizen, babysitter, teenager, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, tooth fairy, hippie, groovy, streaking, lifestyle, self-esteem, gay, single parent, fast food, junk food, helicopter parent.
That’s before you ever consider the Generation X slang, which gave the world terms like McJob, slacker, hacker, geek, nerd, dork, grunge, road trip, and like, whatever. We know all of these.
Many modern sounding words are far older than we think, yet remain in daily use, having been absorbed from American English into the wider language. Like dude.
Dude comes from the Progressive Generation, born between 1843 and 1859 – specifically from a dude called Robert Sale Hill, an Irish-born poet living in New York, who overnight in 1883 gave America a new term for ‘foppish young man’. The term stuck.
The Lost Generation – born between 1883 and 1900 – gave us adolescents. The term, like the F word, existed long before this (you could find it in 15th century dictionaries) but until the very early 20th century, it was not a well known concept. The idea of a stage between childhood and adulthood was novel – the word (and idea of) teenager would not arrive for another two generations.
By the time the beatniks and hipsters of the Silent Generation (born 1925 to 1942) had developed into teenyboppers and hippies of the Boomers, youth culture was firmly embedded.
Ironically, Millennials have been revisiting the hipster idea via extravagant facial topiary, man buns and flat whites, although the original hipsters and beatniks would not have been caught dead on a skateboard. They were too busy doing heroin and writing angry poetry.
If you go back as far as the generation born between 1742 and 1766, you get words like gerrymander and inalienable.
The generation after that, born between 1767 and 1791, gave us pioneer and wilderness. As a writer, I want to know where deadline came from; turns out it’s a bit gruesome.
“It was an actual line in the ground at a prison camp,” writes Metcalfe. “A prisoner who crossed the line would be shot dead.”
This was in the mid 1800s – but by the 1920s, it had been appropriated by newspaper editors to denote a time limit, “perhaps in hope of intimidating reporters with dire consequences for failing to meet those deadlines.” Yikes.
From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations by Allan Metcalfe, Oxford University Press €17.70
Your guide to millennial slang
Brónz - I’m sad
Soz - Sorry
on fleek- perfect
BAE- before anyone else
prinks - pre going-out drinks
YOLO -You only live once
FOMO - Fear of missing out – especially if YOLO
LOL Laughing out loud, formerly ‘ha ha’
ROFL Rolling on floor laughing, formerly ‘HA HA’
AF - as f**k
squad - friends
basic - average, run of the mill eg she is SO basic
bible - God’s honest truth
ship - relationship
OOTD - outfit of the day
OOTM - outfit of the night
NSFW -Not suitable for work – don’t open it, there’s sex
Friend/unfriend- A verb invented by Facebook
Netflix and chill -Sex
Sexting - Netflix and chill on your phone
Occupy - A group of activists in a public place
Meh - As it sounds
Hashtag - A Twitter thing
SNAFU - Situations normal all fucked up
FUBAR - Fucked up beyond all recognition
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