I’m often asked by my colleagues, of certain funny or strange words, “Is this a real word?” Of course it is – you just used it. It was crafted using characters that create a sound we both recognise and a meaning we both understand. It is not a hologram; we can write it on a piece of paper and hold it close to us for as long as we’d like. It will not dissolve into thin air. We are simply never going to live in a world in which new words aren’t regularly emerging and shifting in use.
And if you prefer to live in such a stagnant, miserable world, I’m sure there are plenty of open positions for Latin and ancient Greek language teachers for which you can immerse yourself in years-long study to be qualified.
In Internet Linguistics, in fact, David Crystal introduces the possibility that English spelling will shift to rid itself of unnecessary letters: “It may well be that Internet users, voting (as it were) with their fingers, will introduce simplifications of the kind the reform movement has so long desired, such as the dropping of silent letters” – for instance, “mnemonic” eventually being spelled acceptably as “nemonic”. And I am here for it. I mean, doesn’t “phlem” just look so much more pleasant?
As American lexicographer Erin McKean, in her TEDYouth TED Talk, said, “My job is not to decide what a word is; that is your job. Everybody who speaks English decides together what’s a word and what’s not a word. Every language is just a group of people who are trying to understand each other...Words in English are like Lego: If you use enough force, you can put any two of them together.”
McKean tells a roomful of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed kids to “make words because every word is a chance to express your idea and get your meaning across. And new words grab people’s attention.” What a beautiful world we live in – one in which our youth are being encouraged to celebrate the creation of as many new words as they see it! Your middle-school English teachers could never. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got some work left to do.
It’s part of the reason why Urban Dictionary (gasp) is quite often a helpful resource. The crowdsourced site keeps up with new slang almost instantaneously – in a way a “real” dictionary doesn’t have the functionality to, by inviting the people driving language trends (aka teens) to submit entries for these words and phrases and users to up-vote the ones they agree with.
And so if you’re not sure what that “savage AF” meme is all about, there’s a seventeen-year-old from Nebraska who’s got you covered.
“Vogue words tend to irritate people who aren’t in the group that the vogue words are meant to signal inclusion with, possibly because part of the whole point is to exclude people who aren’t in that group,” says Wallace in Quack This Way. (See: swarms of teens and twenty-somethings leaving Facebook for Snapchat as soon as their parents and grandparents found out about the former and started slinging – and misusing – things like “lol,” “tbt,” and maybe even “bae”.) Basically? Don’t be a hater just because you’re old and uncool. Every generation has their own set of trendy words or phrases. To write off new terms that you wouldn’t ordinarily use or that you’re wholly unfamiliar with as being ridiculous or as proof that our language is slowly but surely breaking down is to ignore the fundamental fact that language always evolves. And that teenagers will always find a way to distance themselves linguistically from their parents, and then slightly older people will catch on to all the cool new words, after which the teens will recoil in secondhand embarrassment upon hearing the olds use their words and immediately pick up new words the twenty- and thirty-somethings aren’t yet hip to. And the cycle will continue, forever and ever. Or until we’re communicating exclusively in emojis (but probably even then).
Life is short; let everyone speak the way they want to speak. I’m sure adults weren’t too thrilled when bee’s knees hit the scene either, but much like not having a cow, if these phrases don’t stick around for the long run – or devolve into silly, ironic-only use over time – they at the very least are a marker of the spirit of the time. See also: a Prohibition-era newsman smoking a cigar, talking about a Jane who’s simply the cat’s pajamas. Words can be artefacts as well, and their study is fascinating.
There was once a time when “party pooper” and “hauling ass” were new on the scene too, so let “yaaass queen” be to the 2010s what “totally tubular” was in the 1980s.
Either the post-ironic use of squads getting “turnt AF” will become limited to an older, kinda losery niche group trying to hang on to relevancy as they find themselves wandering about, lost and scared, trying to stay afloat among the newest wave of slang words, or these terms will live on, tolerable in moderation, in our everyday lexicon. (Bet the parents of the 1920s never thought scram and baloney would have staying power, but here we are.) Or they’ll fade quickly – “Eat my shorts,” anyone? – and we’ll all shudder at the thought of once using them in earnest. Wait it out for a minute, and in the meanwhile, let us live.
Excerpted with permission from A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the Buzfeed Age, Emmy J Favilla, Bloomsbury.