OPINION: Don’t underestimate the value of teen slang

The word "sexting" is just one example of teen slang that was added to the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in 2012. Slang, driven by cultural and technological changes of today, offers insight into language of the future. (Image by Richard Drew/AP)
Caption
The word "sexting" is just one example of teen slang that was added to the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in 2012. Slang, driven by cultural and technological changes of today, offers insight into language of the future. (Image by Richard Drew/AP)

Credit: Richard Drew/AP

Credit: Richard Drew/AP

This is the transcript of a recent conversation between me and my 11-year-old daughter as we drove home from school:

“That’s bussing,” she said.

“Where is it going?” I asked.

“Where is what going?”

“The bus.”

“What bus?”

“You just said that was busing. Where is the bus going?”

“Bwahahaha.”

And just like that I had entered a new phase of parenting — not just mom, but a mom lost in the morass of teen slang. It was the first time I had been caught off my game, unable to hold the line on cool by using context clues or rudimentary lexicology to figure out the meaning of words I didn’t know. In this case, I hadn’t even realized that slang was being used. I actually thought we were talking about a bus instead of the latest word for something good.

I could tell by some of the terms that popped up in slang searches — “what does sksksk and I oop mean?”— that I wasn’t the first parent who was about to miss the last train to street cred. When I was a kid, our main source of exposure to slang was friends at school and television. Every now and again, regional slang would cross state lines and make it to the rest of the country through popular culture, otherwise you just picked up the local stuff when your cousins from down South, up North or out West came to visit.

But of course, with the advent of the internet and social media, the landscape of language has changed.

“Language and culture is evolving rapidly and independently on different platforms. There is language that is used within gaming culture that may or may not meld over into social media culture. Or terms that are regional that might be used in California, and if that translates into an emoji, suddenly kids on the East coast are using it and not understanding the root of it,” said Rick Andreoli, editor of Parentology, a website dedicated to helping parents navigate the digital age.

The top story on the site this year is one titled “New Teen Slang & Acronyms for 2021″ — a story Andreoli said evolved when they saw search traffic in Google (which accounts for 80% of site traffic) like “what does (blank) mean?,” where the blank is everything from “finsta”(a fake Instagram account) to “dragging” (public humiliation but on social media).

“Parents want to ultimately protect their kids and you can do that best with knowledge,”Andreoli said. “You get the information, you decide if this is something I have to worry about and once you come up with your answer you can go from there.”

Knowing what your kids are talking about is a good idea, but understanding slang also helps us understand how the broader culture is evolving.

“When you are doing things in a new way it drives vocabulary development by coming up with words that don’t exist for what you want to talk about,” said Daniel Walter, a linguistics professor at Emory University’s Oxford College.

There is also a sense of community that is important to slang. “It shows you are a member of a community but there is a generational aspect as well,” Walter said. “It builds markers that show you belong or don’t belong to certain groups.”

A recent poll from solitaired.com , a site that hosts more than 500 solitaire games, indicates that a majority of Georgia parents are not well-versed in slang. Less than 32% of Georgia parents were able to understand the meaning of words like lit (yet another word for cool), dope (also means cool and has been used for several decades), thirsty (attention seeking), snatched (looking good), shook (shaken up), and noob (newbie).

Georgia moms knew more of the terms than Georgia dads, but I decided to do my own unofficial poll by sending solitared.com’s online gaming terms quiz to a diverse group of friends.

No one scored below 60% but several parents who scored higher admitted to making educated guesses based on the multiple choice responses. Most were tripped up by bio, which apparently is what gamers say when they need a bathroom break and Zomg, a particularly enthusiastic version of OMG (which means “oh my god” or “oh my goodness”).

In contrast to solitaired.com’s findings, the highest scorer of the bunch was a dad but he also happens to be a teacher so that probably gave him an edge. One mom noted that she hardly considers gaming terminology to be slang. “Slang/street talk...I gotcha,” she said. “No cap.” (which means she is not lying).

Cap as a slang term evolved around the 1940s meaning “to surpass” according to a citation in “Green’s Dictionary of Slang” (more on this book later), but by the 1960s the term was tied to capping (an exchange of insults between African Americans) and has more recently been regionalized and popularized as no cap by Atlanta’s hip-hop/rap culture.

The fact that slang can start in one place only to change and evolve later makes it a hard sell to the more traditional gatekeepers of lexicography. In 2018, the gold standard for dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary, resorted to crowdsourcing in an effort to “record all distinctive words that shape the language, old and new, formal and informal”, according to a story in The Guardian.

Slang is hard for dictionary editors to track, said OED, and it is particularly elusive today because terms change faster and communication platforms like WhatsApp and Snapchat make it harder to monitor changing vocabulary. OED asked young people (and adults in the know) to complete a form submitting any slang terms of note.

Long before that, Jonathan Green, a London-based septuagenarian, had worked diligently to compile the definitive book of slang, “Green’s Dictionary of Slang”. It published in late 2010, was priced well out of range for average individuals and is currently online, free of charge.

The Urban Dictionary, founded in 1999 by college student Aaron Peckham, has been crowdsourcing slang for decades, just without the deep dive on word origins that one might find in a dictionary, noted Andreoli. Because slang created in one group or medium often gets co-opted by other groups, word origins can be a touchy subject anyway.

Words can also pick up slightly different meanings as they drift across social media platforms. Andreoli described a recent interaction when a young intern pitched a story and used the term eboy.

He had to stop and ask what that meant just like I had to stop him and ask what it meant. After he explained, I could relate the term to what we Gen Xers called emo, though eboy is more nuanced to indicate someone with emo-style looking for social media attention.

Most parents will probably never comprehend the full range of slang used by their tweens and teens but they can find common ground in the emotions and attitudes that are being expressed about familiar themes — insults, appearance, drugs or sex.

“Each generation and each group of users gets to redefine how they want to talk about those concepts,” Walter said. “The idea that English has arrived in a final state … is absolutely wrong. If you are not looking at slang then you are not looking at the language of tomorrow.”

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

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