Talking about our generation

It’s Jeremy Michaelson’s fifth period English class: students are perched on desks and tables reenacting the river-crossing scene from William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” There is an analysis of Faulkner’s imagery on the board.  One student volunteers their perspective: Jewel Bundren is “such a baller.”

When Faulkner first put pen to paper to craft this 1930 novel, Jewel the Mississippi farmer would more likely have been “the cat’s pajamas,” or “the real McCoy,” as per the vernacular of the era.
Regardless of what Faulkner intended, hearing literary characters referred to as ballers or beasts does not bother Michaelson.

“As someone who loves language, I’m always interested in the way it’s evolving,” he said.  “Slang reminds you that language is alive.” 

Slang has propelled social groups, defined youth culture and elicited reproach for decades, but the technology of the 21st century has propelled and amplified the reach of this evolution significantly. 

Last year, a Facebook group called “ABBREVS… most def sweeping the H DUB FROSH” emerged on the social networking scene, complete with a list of about 50 abbreviations and their translations for use in everyday English.  Pioneered by current sophomores Natasha Ettensberger, Anna Etra and Nicole Hung, Facebook enabled the girls’ fave abbrevs ranging from the “libes” (library) to “informaysh” (information), to penetrate the vocabularies of at least 93 other group members – and likely many more casual Facebook-addicted browsers just searching out legit new groups.

On a broader scale, websites like urbandictionary.com, a user-edited site dedicated to defining the words of today as they are invented, enables words used by a few kids in one area to circulate to the masses. These attempts to document and translate the burgeoning repertoire of slang reinforce the power of the internet to inflate the time-old tradition of adopting hip jargon to new proportions.

These attempts to document and translate the burgeoning repertoire of slang reinforce the power of the internet to inflate the time-old tradition of inflating hip jargon to new proportions. Jesse Mirman ’10 credits much of the current teen vernacular to instant messaging.

Keyboard abbreviations like “lol,” “ttyl” and “omg” are becoming old news, but the truncation trend is still going strong with “totes,” “most def” and keyboard symbols like “slash” seeping into conversation as well —much to the annoyance of Sarah Tither-Kaplan ’09.

“It’s just laziness,” she said, especially irked by “completely unnecessary” abridgements, such as shortening crucial to “croosh” or unfortunately to “unfortch.” 

Laziness as an inspiration for language reaches an all-time high in the urbandictionary.com definition of “pwnz,” a.k.a. beating or mastering something or someone, pronounced “pones:” “Originated when a lot of computer nerds misspelled ownz.”

Then again, a separate definition for “powns,” pronounced the same way, claims that it is derived from “professionally owning” someone. 

This ambiguity of origin may be surprisingly important in slang’s function. If a word has many nuances, it allows the user to label subtle emotions or actions that he or she perhaps feels is unique to the current generation.

“We’re young and we like to be individual,” Tony Baker ’09 said.  “I think [slang] is a way of building camaraderie amongst other members of our generation and separating ourselves from older generations.” 

Pop culture also feeds the fire with songs like “Thnks fr th Mmrs” by Fall Out Boy, or the “IDK my BFF Jill” Cingular commercial in which a mother and daughter argue in text message lingo.  This commercial spawned over 180 Facebook groups, diffusing the trend’s reach further still. Beyond abbreviations, words from previous generations sometimes make a comeback. Baker said that “psyche!” is recycled from the early ’90s, and school psychologist Dr. Sheila Siegel’s memories of phrases like “from the gitgo,” “bitchin” and “boss,” would not sound too foreign around campus. 

However, Michaelson remembers ’80s jargon like “stoopid fresh” (really cool), “wedge” (to eat voraciously) and “nubs” (a fight), that appears to have faded with time, much like the 20s expression “going pecan,” meaning to go crazy.

Sometimes convenience and what Bookstore Associate Allie Costa described as portmanteu— combining two words into one—also yield new slang.  “For serial” substitutes for “seriously,” “superfly” refers to coolness and “sicknasty” combines the best of two adjectives.  Slang is also regional. In Connecticut, “totes” means totally and “sick” is transformed to “ill.”

Stephanie Maldonado ’11 confirmed that words like legit, ridiculously, literally, casually, beastly, random and awkward are commonly inserted into daily chatter.  These words are striking only in their overuse and exaggerated nature.  Rebecca Contreras ’09 sees the tendency to dramatize descriptions and emphasize the awesomeness or suckiness of something as natural.
“Slang happens. Every culture, every school has their own,” she said.  “Someone says it once and suddenly it becomes part of the vernacular.”

Costa thinks some of these words are flat-out misused: for instance, in sentences like “my head literally exploded.”

“However you’re communicating, you should still express yourself well and fully,” she said.  “I like classy words that roll off your tongue, but any form of communication is fine as long as the lines are open and healthy.” Even though Michaelson is chill with letting unconventional vocab fly, not all teachers are as mellow.

“It depends on the class and the teacher,” Contreras said.  “Some teachers are put off by it, others are amused.” Science teacher Dr. Yanni Vourgourakis fits into the latter category.
“I don’t know where they come from, but those words are usually clever,” he said.  “I think it’s great — some of them are hysterical.”

Michaelson sees slang, whether promulgated by technology or rebounded from the past, as vital.

“Think about it: would you rather live in a world where people speak proper English all the time, or a world where language evolves? I know which one I’d pick.”
Trudat, teach.   

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