On Millennial Slang

“That’s literally me af.” “The party is gonna be turnt!” “Sarah Jessica Parker is bae.” “I’m so hungry rn.” “Yaaasss queen!” “LMAO, I’m dying!” “The club is hella lit tonight.” “Netflix and chill?”

If you’ve heard any of these phrases, you have either encountered a millennial or are one.

In every generation, people are primarily defined by the period in which they live. And in each period, a variety of buzzwords define the culture of the moment. They can range from fashion to film, music to art and TV to literature. But perhaps the most significant of them all is language, specifically the slang used by the generation of the time. For millennials — people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — the current slang is notable for its hyper-condensed diction and common usage in social media. In addition to that, millennials have created their own language through texting, and in many cases embedded it into everyday talk. Even regularly used words, such as “literally,” “awkward” and “dying,” have completely new meanings within a millennial context. We don’t often realize it, but millennial slang and texting language play active roles in our daily lives, whether on our phones, on social media or in regular conversation.

Slang

Considering its mass appeal, slang has played an integral part of the culture in each generation. In the 1950s, an age swept up in conservative values, young people used “swell” as their very own colloquialism. “Cool” and “groovy” made their way into the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s, eventually paving the way for words like “wicked” and “sweet” in the lively era of the ’80s and the grunge scene of the ’90s. The early ’00s contained a slew of slang like “redic,” “redonculous,” “whack,” “dope” and “sick” that spewed from the mouths of the youth. These words aimed to go against the traditional vernacular, as well as to give a collective personality to the people who uttered them. Nowadays, slang is just as creative and innovative as before, yet it’s changing at a breakneck speed.

While movies, TV shows and music have become crucial in influencing slang both in the past and in the present, the increasing omnipresence of social media and social networking have provided millennials with platforms onto which we can constantly send and receive written and spoken messages. Through popular sources like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and Vine, millennials have more access not only to new information, but also to the most up-to-date lingo. According to Julie Coleman, author of “The Life of Slang,” words are moving around the world within weeks and months because of social media. “It’s not necessarily that language is changing more quickly,” Coleman writes. “But technologies have developed and they allow the transmission of slang terms to pass from one group to another much more quickly.”

Indeed, several of these technologies have determined the way in which millennials communicate with one another, especially with the invention of Twitter and its distinctive 140-character limit (at least for now). Several news websites, such as MTV.com and Buzzfeed, have adapted millennial slang into their headlines and articles (i.e. “21 Bold AF Hair Colors To Try In 2016”). Through the interconnected environment of the Internet, millennial slang has also been influenced by the reinvention of memes — humorous images, videos, GIFs or texts that are copied and spread online. Since the first well-known meme, the popular “Kilroy was here” graffiti in the 1940s, the “meme” has become a modern worldwide phenomenon on the Internet and other social media platforms. One of 2015’s most pervasive was a man screaming “What are those?!” at a police officer’s shoes. Memes may not necessarily be considered language, or even slang for that matter. However, through the technological advancement of the Internet, they do carry a cultural significance that has shaped the way millennials communicate and understand one another.

In addition to social media and Internet memes, celebrities seem to hold some influence over the way in which language pervades the psyche of the millennial generation. Around 2010, rappers Soulja Boy and Lil B helped popularize the word “swag” in their songs “Pretty Boy Swag” and “Wonton Soup,” respectively. Throwback to middle school. In 2011, hip-hop artist and pop culture icon Drake publicized the acronym “YOLO” (which stands for “you only live once,” for those still living under a rock) in his rap anthem, “The Motto.” This past year, DJ Khaled, the famed music producer behind the ubiquitous pump-up jam “All I Do Is Win” and other hits, became a prominent source of entertainment, when he shared his own catch phrases on his Snapchat story. Whether he was riding on a jet ski in the dark or watering his plants, almost every one of DJ Khaled’s Snapchats had the producer saying, “Bless up,” “The key to success” or “They don’t want you to … ” to whomever was watching. Given his larger-than-life personality, 2.8 million Instagram followers and major popularity on Snapchat, DJ Khaled is among many of today’s celebrities who exude the spirit and mood of the millennial generation.

Millennial slang may as well be a way in which we distinguish ourselves from other generations, but there does seem to be larger social implications within the language itself.

“Young people are interested in expressing themselves in a distinctive way that makes them feel like they’re part of something,” said Communications Prof. Scott Walker Campbell, who is also a mobile communications researcher. “The fact that millennials have a distinctive way of speaking and some distinctive lingo doesn’t make the generation distinctive, because my generation did the same thing.”

As Campbell also points out, slang is simply a cultural trend that every generation has, yet it manifests and looks different within different generations.

“It’s what generations do,” Campbell said. “They come together, have distinctive qualities, distinctive tastes in music, in fashion and also in language.”

Perhaps slang is more than just a reflection of the current culture. Perhaps it’s a subtle rebellious response to our parent’s generation. But more importantly, the slang that’s used today can stem from a desire to be recognized, a drive to become viral and leave a cultural legacy behind.

“There are new ways for individual people to have a voice and participate in a network and system of communication that is kind of unlimited,” Campbell said. “It’s not about money, but about being clever and entertaining and cool.”

This leads to the idea that people who use slang online and on social media are accruing commercial value. In this age of virality, hashtags and instant celebrity, millennials want to be recognized and slang is a way in which they can do that, not just within the realm of social networking, but with the rest of society.

Texting language

In addition to slang, texting has developed into a language of its own for millennials. With the revolution of the modern cell phone in the early 2000s, texting has dramatically affected the communication millennials use in their everyday lives.

“Millennials are certainly using their thumbs as much or more than we’ve seen in past generations,” Campbell said.

Because texting involves quick, rapid-fire responses, a methodical process has been cultivated as a result, where commonly used words and phrases have become abbreviated. Some examples include “to be honest” changing to “tbh,” “very” into “v” and “okay” into the universally abhorred “k.”

“There’s this idea that texting is chaos and that young people don’t know how to use grammar,” said English professor Anne Curzan. “But I think it’s very systematic.”

As an educator and historian in the field of the English language, Curzan understands that older and younger people have very different perceptions on the way language is used today, specifically with changes in punctuation. An example she uses to demonstrate this idea to students and adults is the word “okay.” She writes the word three times — one by itself, one with a period and one with a dot-dot-dot. When shown to younger people, all three words have very different meanings, with “okay.” invoking a sense of seriousness and “okay … ” invoking a feeling of skepticism. For the older individuals observing the three words, they have no idea what the difference is.

“If you actually ask prolific texters under the age of 30 how they are doing this, they can tell how to use the correct punctuation,” Curzan said.

Millennials also pay very close attention to every single detail in our texts, so much in fact that we tend to nitpick at our words out of fear that the person on the other end of the conversation will take the message in the wrong way.

“There’s this idea that younger people in this generation don’t care about language,” Curzan said. “I just don’t think there’s evidence for that. I talk with students, and they are very attentive with details. Spoken and written language is how we present ourselves to the world.”

Curzan also believes that texting is “rapid and very much like a dialogue, but you can’t see the person most of the time.” However, as she mentions, texting has adapted to try to create some form of tone and emotional expression through acronyms like “lol” and, more recently, emojis. By using these shortened forms of written speech, millennials are better able to express themselves in new and interesting ways. Emojis have particularly grown in popularity ever since their international inclusion on the iPhone. They have revolutionized and enhanced textual communication by literally emoting the thoughts and feelings of the person behind the phone. People can choose from a diverse palette of emojis to express emotion, whether it’s using “the heart eyes” emoji to flirt or the “face with tears of joy” emoji to show a hysterical reaction to something.

As CollegeHumor hilariously satirized in a 2014 video, titled “How We’ll All Talk in The Future,” emojis could potentially find their way into colloquial language. The clip depicts two young women having a conversation using emojis instead of words. In the context of the video, the emoji of the “face that looks like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ ” apparently translates to “no way!” This probably won’t be the way people will actually speak in the future, but the video makes a compelling point about how powerful and prevalent emojis, and texting language in general, have become for millennials.

Lingo as a linguistic merit

Like text messaging, it’s easy to dismiss slang as a simple form of primitive speech. But for a while now, slang has been recognized as having linguistic merit, according to Curzan.

“Slang is linguistic creativity at work,” she said. “Part of being human is being creative with language and slang is language at some of its most creative.”

This seems to be the opinion of not only Curzan, but the linguistic community at large. Each year, the people behind Oxford Dictionary, Merriam-Webster and the American Dialect Society, the latter of which Curzan is part of, decide which words are the oddest, most innovative and most popular of the year. For most publications, the word of the year is chosen based on how frequently the word is used or how new the word is. Most recently, Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year technically wasn’t even a word; it was the “face with tears of joy” emoji. For Merriam-Webster, the word of the year was “-ism.” The American Dialect Society chose “they” (referring to the singular gender-neutral pronoun) as their WOTY. Other recent winners for WOTY have included “#blacklivesmatter,” “hashtag,” “app” and “tweet.”

As informal as slang can be, it shapes culture both universally and exclusively. It gives a voice to generations and morphs constantly with the changing of technology and media. But most importantly, as linguist Stephen Pinker once said, language itself “is not so much a creator and shaper of human nature so much as a window onto human nature.”

That’s pretty lit.

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