Teen slang: Enter at your own risk

I no longer a teen, I am over 30 and I am old. I found myself I couldn’t keep up with the new slangs. (Did I ever keep up with the slangs?) I might not use the new slangs, but its comforting to know there is a way to decode it.

by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun
Best to hold your tongue or risk sounding utterly ‘ridonkulous’ if you’re older than 30

If your kids are slangin’ with as much delight as scat singers running up and down a new vocabulary of sounds, don’t even think of joining in.

It blows chunks when parents try to talk like kids, and there’s a good reason for that. We’re too old.

Slang vocabulary, like musical tastes, or physical height, may be one of those things that is more or less fully formed before we exit our teens.

Last week, when I asked my eight-year-old son how his last day at summer camp went, he casually dropped the word “random” into his reply — as in “Mommy, that question was so random.”

There were more random acts of vocabulary to come.

Summer camp had apparently involved a lot of time within earshot of some very sick teenage counsellors. That’s sick as in cool, dope, sweet or bomb.

Suddenly things my son didn’t want to do were “lame.” Things that made him happy were “sweet” or “fresh.” He had also mastered an accomplished new lexicon of swear words. (Which he’s filed away, no doubt for later use.)

Learning teen slang — not to mention the so-called “bad” words — this summer was like getting the keys to a secret kingdom. I could tell he was pleased with himself.

With each new word, the door of understanding, both social and linguistic, cracked opened a little more.

Pamela Munro, a linguist and editor of U.C.L.A Slang 6, defines slang as “language whose use serves to mark the user as belonging to some distinct group within society.”

In other words, when your kid is slangin,’ he’s really saying he is different than you — and he likes it that way.

“Anthropologically, kids form themselves,” said Munro. “Slang is a kind of code or password if people are trying to show that they are a member of your group.”

“Most people start using active slang when they are in junior high,” said Munro.

By the age of 17 or 18, they have a fully developed slang vocabulary that is particular to their unique demographic.

Adults rarely add much that’s new to the slang vocabulary, said Munro.

“You just can’t do it if you’re over 40. Even 30 is too late,” she said.

It is in high school and college that people formulate the vocabulary they will use for the rest of their lives. “We will always feel those words are absolutely right and appropriate for a given situation even as younger groups coin their own terms,” said Munro.

The way we use slang therefore becomes a dead giveaway to our age. We may dye our hair, have babies later in life, and keep our bodies intact but if we try and talk like someone 20 years younger, we won’t be able to pull it off.

It won’t feel right, it won’t sound right, and it will be clear we’re just TTH. (Trying too hard.)

Adults can’t pull it off

Jasmine Lattimore, a 17-year-old Richmond student going into Grade 12, said it backfires when adults try to “be hip.”

“My Spanish teacher used to say pwn, as in owning somebody. People laughed out of courtesy, but it was painful to hear. She was fortysomething.”

(Pwn, pronounced “pown” according to urbandictionary.

com, is an act of dominating an opponent … as in “I pwn these guys on Battle.net.”)

The fortysomething teacher, probably should have stuck to, say, “I totally rocked it.”

Anna Ward, 18, who recently graduated from Vancouver’s Lord Byng high school, said she’d laugh if her parents used her age group’s slang.

Ward feels slang is good harmless fun.

“I’d curb it if I went to a job interview, or in certain situations. Mostly we just mock our own age group and mock ourselves.”

Ward said abbreviating is common — Obvs for obvious, for example, vis for visit.

“We add “skis” to the back of anything,” she said. Whatevskis for whatever, whenskis for when drinkskis for drink.

Munro said slang comes from sources that include standard words, abbreviations, “acronymy” (DILF and MILF), initialism (LOL, OMG, WTF) and African American culture.

According to Munro, swear words are less taboo among her students than they have been for previous generations.

“I didn’t even know of the existence of certain words until I was in my 20s,” said Munro. Among her students now, swear words are used almost colloquially.

Slang phrases may have helped the expletives devolve in power. While not technically slang words, they are a common part of many slang expressions.

“I swear like a sailor,” said Lattimore. “You get used to it and it loses meaning.”

When Lattimore and her friends go out, it could just be for “shits and nipples,” for example, which means to have a good time. (While they’re at it they might hook up with some pimp guys, rickroll a buddy, ditch the crunk hoodrats, and stay out troubs with the po-po.)

Lattimore likes to keep up with what’s in and what’s out (lame, for example is out). If she hears new slang, she won’t ask what it means — that might expose her as being out of the loop. She jumps online and looks it up on urbandictionary.com.

The website has become the go-to decoder for both kids and parents. But is a word still cool if everyone knows what it means, including grown-ups?

Linguist Robert Leonard recently argued in the New York Times that the Internet is stripping slang of its “exclusionary power.”

Munro rejects the notion that accessibility lessens slang’s cool factor. “The Internet can’t make control of slang available to all groups … your grandmother won’t be talking like L’il Wayne even if she knows the words.”

Aaron Peckham, the founder of urbandictionary.com said his website is really just about “helping people understand each other better.”

Urbandictionary.com, where words both “fularious” and “ridonkulous” are explained, draws 15.5 million unique visitors a month.

Anyone can submit words and phrases, contribute to and vote on definitions.

Peckham doesn’t believe that a posting on his website automatically robs a slang word of its street cred.

“It is interesting,” Peckham said, “that something that is exclusionary, people also like to share.”

Peckham, 28, started urbandictionary.com as a lark when he was a college student in 1999. He recently left his job as Google software engineer to run his website full-time.

Eighty per cent of Urbandictionary.com’s users are under 25. The other 20 per cent Peckham figures includes parents trying to decode what their kids are saying, texting and coining.

Staying current isn’t easy simply because language among the under-20 set morphs so rapidly. Peckham and a group of volunteers sort through about 1,000 submissions a day, and discard about 50 per cent of them.

“My editors reject words that don’t make sense, and especially words that refer to anything that’s really violent,” said Peckham.

Site ‘of value’ to kids

The site gained notoriety as part of the ACLU’s successful 2006 fight against the American Child Online Protection Act — COPA would have effectively put urban dictionary out of business by requiring filters to keep minors off the site.

When Peckham was asked on the witness stand whether his site offered sexually explicit words, he admitted that 18 of the top 20 most popular words on the site were sexually explicit in nature. But he argued that the site provided a service that was of value, even to minors.

Peckham said, “I remember being a third-grader… there was a vocabulary I wanted to understand but the dictionary simply denied the word existed.”

When the prosecutor asked for a clarification of the website’s definition system, he brandished a list of sexually explicit slang culled from the site and insisted Peckham explain, using the word “teabagging.”

(I’d explain the word here but it is NSFW: Not Safe For Work.)

Peckham managed a modest explanation, and the ACLU won the case. The website stayed up, and teabagging stayed on it.

In an ironic twist that perfectly demonstrates just why a site like urbandictionary.com is of sociolinguistic importance, the term “teabagging” made headlines again recently when U.S. conservatives used it as part of a populist tax protest.

Citizens were urged to send teabags to the White House in an apparent reference to the Boston Tea Party tax protest of 1773. “Teabagging” events were enthusiastically promoted by Republicans, conservative pundits, and the FOX network.

What the tax teabaggers didn’t know was that the term has some very unique — and overtly sexual — connotations in contemporary pop culture.

Had the Republicans looked up “teabagging” on urbandictionary.com, they might have avoided the gleeful public skewering that followed in the media.

For those who do want to keep up, Urbandictionary.com also picks a word of the day. A recent one was “after clap.” It means “That last person/people who keep[s] clapping after everyone else has stopped. Normally, parents.”

So, even if you are an after-clapper (or simply over 30), the teabagging incident is a good example of why it’s so important to keep up with pop culture by learning its lingo, even if your kids don’t want you use it.

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