Recently, I found myself thinking, Am I getting too old to partake in the latest slang? Of course, even having that realization probably means I’m already too old. Luckily, at the moment, I’m spared from worrying about it too much, because I mostly interact with younger people virtually, and it’s difficult to detect cringe through Zoom.
The only real reason I don’t think I’m already too old to use slang is because I’m an avid consumer of slang, which is another way of saying that I’m on TikTok — a lot. I’m always noticing new words or phases pop up in the videos I watch, and without fail, a day or so later my Gen Z coworkers are peppering our Slack conversations with the same terms.
One thing I’ve noticed is how, seemingly overnight, slang seems to explode in popularity before it dies out as quickly as it came. It seems like just a few months ago people were talking about Heathers and simping and being the CEO of whatever. And now we’re on to calling each other besties and reacting to everything with “Not the ____” and talking about how we must have “skipped a few episodes.” Of course, some terms have staying power — the word messy, when used to refer to someone’s state of being, comes to mind. But in general, there’s a tremendous turnover in slang phrases that I don’t think existed in my teen years. I mean, I vividly remember in the early 2000s when everyone started calling everything “awkward.” That stuck around for two years, minimum. But has it really changed?
“Your sense that slang is shifting more quickly now is true in that language is becoming popularized more quickly,” says lexicographer Emily Brewster, a senior editor and editorial ambassador at Merriam-Webster. “We, all of us, in the 21st century, have access to the informal language of millions of people and that was never true before,” she explains.
Brewster is talking about social media. Before social media, we didn’t have that many opportunities to hear others’ informal languages. We talked to people in person or on the phone, we watched TV and movies, or we read books and periodicals. Many of those forms of interaction even had a gatekeeper involved — an editor, say — who would keep out more casual forms of speech. So slang was much slower to catch on than it is now.
Today, we have “much more lightweight contact” with other people than ever before, confirms sociolinguist Jessi Grieser, an assistant professor of English Linguistics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I easily interact with 10 times the number of people, from a much wider set of backgrounds, simply from swiping through TikTok than I ever did in high school, when we were just dipping our toes into MySpace and Xanga.
Social media has also added a visual component to slang, Brewster says. “Slang was traditionally an auditory experience, and now, it’s written. So we have things like ‘periodt,’ which you can not only hear but see, and also the word ‘folx,’ spelled with an x, which is such an interesting word. In conversation, it’s not possible to discriminate that from the ‘ks’ spelling, but you can in print; you can communicate something different because that word does not do the same job that ‘folks’ does,” she explains.
While they agreed that slang becomes popular more quickly these days, Brewster and Grieser were both a little more hesitant to say that popular terms fade away more quickly. That’s because slang doesn’t “die” so much as it reaches an even greater level of popularity, and then becomes entrenched in our common language. Suddenly, you hear your boss or teacher drop it into conversation, with or without a self-conscious little wink-wink, nudge-nudge; your mom goes from asking you what a word means to using it herself; and then there’s the final stage: the brands catch on.
“One of the death knells for slang is when it shows up in corporate social media,” Grieser says. Yes, there are companies that occasionally do social media right; Wendy’s viral Twitter roasts come to mind. “But when they’re saying, ‘Come vibe with our Baconator’ — that’s it,” she says. It’s over.
“Slang is typically an inside language. It’s about a communication between a group of people, and you want it to be cryptic because it’s a way of saying something special,” Brewster explains. “So one thing that can happen is it loses its cool as it gains its broad audience. It doesn’t die, but it can become a regular, ho-hum kind of word.”
Or as Grieser puts it, “What you’re doing with slang is that you’re showing that you’re a participant in a particular type of culture or age group. And as the slang starts to circulate and different social groups use it, it takes on different social meanings. Depending on how admirable those social groups are, that can end up leading to a loss of the slang.”
It’s impossible to talk about slang without also talking about appropriation. Many slang words originate from African American Vernacular English or queer slang. Historically in the U.S., “standard English” has referred to the language spoken by wealthy, highly educated, white men, and anything else — and anyone who spoke anything else — was considered lesser, informal, and fleeting, Grieser says. That AAVE is a rule-governed variety of English just like any other is now widely understood by many, but to this day, Black people are discriminated against for using it. So white people or corporations using slang derived from AAVE to appear “cool” can be appropriative.
When, how, or how much it is “okay” for people who don’t belong to a certain group to use slang that originated in that group isn’t necessarily the right question, though. “Instead, the question is, to what extent do we understand the way that language replicates existing inequities? To what extent does a white speaker who is using AAVE — say, a particular term they found on TikTok — understand what they’re doing? And to what extent are they able to situate that within the history of racism in this country, and the present situation that we’re in?” Grieser asks, explaining that the same questions should be asked about terms that originate in other groups that face discrimination. “The more we spend time talking about those issues, the more people are going to think about how they replicate language differently,” she says. We’ve already seen that happening with gender inclusive language. People are thinking more closely about the potential language has to cause harm, and how they could mitigate that harm.
This comes up in Brewster’s work at Merriam-Webster too. Part of her job is to be “a definer,” i.e., someone who decides which new words to add to the dictionary every year. “We can put a usage note or a paragraph that talks about a word’s etymology and origin, or the controversy of a word, that notes why someone might want to use caution when using a word or just be better informed of a word’s connotations,” she explains. That’s not just for slang: M-W includes notes like this on terms like color-blind, thug, and uppity to “explain beyond what the word means, that there’s another meaning it’s wrapping up in,” she says.
Brewster says words typically don’t make it to the dictionary unless they’ve become established in common language, which she can tell has happened once she sees a word start appearing in published text without being “glossed.” Hangry, for instance: At a certain point, editors believed enough people understood what it meant to be included in an article without an in-text definition. That’s a sign that it’s ready to be added to the dictionary.
When I ask whether slang can be forced or intentionally created, thinking of this TikTok about the word “cheugy” specifically, Grieser says she can only think of one example where that’s worked: santorum, which columnist Dan Savage campaigned to redefine as "the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex” after an interview in which Repubican Rick Santorum made deeply disgusting and offensive homophobic comments. “It was such an amazing moment — we barely had Google at that point. That’s one very clear moment where one person who had a wide enough reach said, I’d like us to redefine this word — and they did it,” Griesler says. “But it’s very, very rare. I can’t think of anything that’s worked quite that way.”
Ultimately, she says, “Language is fun! And it’s always going to be fun. We have to be aware of what it can do that’s negative, but slang is interesting and TikTok language is interesting, and that’s because language is interesting.”