First, they came for Millennial texting habits. Now, they’ve got a bone to pick with Gen Z slang. Will older generations ever stop picking on young people for the way they talk, or is this simply a natural feature of language that’s embedded in the way it evolves?
In this episode of the podcast, senior producer Steph Koyfman chats with producer Thomas Moore Devlin about the linguistics side of language evolution in the Internet Age (and what it means for today’s youth to be native speakers of Internet). Then, she asks a multigenerational panel spanning Generations X through Z what they think about words like “yeet” and “woke.”
Multilinguish: Language Is For The Young
First, Steph and Thomas discuss linguist Gretchen McCulloch’s new book, Because Internet. We talk about how young people have adapted language to express emotions and subtleties in the absence of nonverbal cues, as well as why women (in addition to young people as a whole) seem to be responsible for the majority of language change.
In the second half of the episode, Steph is joined by producer David Doochin, Head of Video Production Ruben Vilas, and special guest Yulia Laricheva, founder of creative agency and podcast Dream Nation Love. We discuss what it was like for each of our respective generations to “ruin” language, and we also have some fun with slang.
This episode was produced by Steph Koyfman and edited by Ruben Vilas. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. Special thanks to Yulia Laricheva for taking the time to speak with us for this episode.
How To Speak Gen Z | Babbel Magazine
Babbel Reviews Gretchen McCulloch’s ‘Because Internet’ | Babbel Magazine
Baby Boomers And Millennials: Are They Even Speaking The Same Language? | Babbel Magazine
How A Tweet Becomes A Word | Babbel Magazine
Teenage Girls Have Led Language Innovation for Centuries | Smithsonian Mag
Why Do Young People Use Commas So Weirdly? | Babbel Magazine
Steph Koyfman: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m senior producer Steph Koyfman.
Millennials have been killing industries and constructs for long enough that we’ve kind of just societally begun to offload some of that blame onto Gen Z. After all, Millennials aren’t even that young anymore. How can we claim that they’re killing language if a good majority of them no longer get the youth either?
If you know anything about the way language evolves, then you know that it’s all moving according to plan. Language is always changing, and young people are the linguistic innovators. It’s just what they do. Boomers were no more an exception to this rule than Gen Z is today. Today’s “lit” was yesterday’s “having a gas,” and if a word like “groovy” seems like a more established and indelible part of our language, it’s only because it’s had more time to fully saturate our speech, which, by the way, is all it really takes for a new term to be added to the dictionary. After that, we all just take for granted that it’s a real word.
In this episode, we’ll get into what it means for young people to change everything about the way we talk, and for older people to consistently hate it. First, my colleague Thomas Moore Devlin is going to join me in a second to discuss linguist Gretchen McCulloch’s new book Because Internet. Then we’ll be joined by a panel spanning Generations X through Z, and they’re going to answer questions about what it was like for their generation to ruin language.
Before we get started, a reminder to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen, and be sure you’re subscribed so you get new episodes as soon as they’re released.
So, we often hear this discussion of like, “Millennials and Gen Z and the internet are simultaneously degrading the English language together.” And it’s kind of interesting that we’ve begun to conceive of young people and technology as almost being in on the plot together. So one of the things that Gretchen points out is that the internet is not actually the first form of technology that completely upended the way we speak. The telephone did that too, because before the telephone, we never used to say “hello” as a conversation opener. So, I guess, what impression did her book leave you with? Are the internet and the telephone equally destructive towards language, or is one more so than the other?
Thomas Devlin: Well, first, I’ll say the word “destructive” is…
Steph: I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek about that.
Thomas: The telephone was an interesting example because, before I read this book, I did not know about that changing, because obviously, I was born in 1995. The phone had been around for awhile. I didn’t think about the fact that why “hello” evolved is just because before, you could say things like, “Good morning,” or, “Good morning, Stephanie,” but when you decontextualize that, there’s just a new thing that you have to adapt to. Also, technically, the first phone greeting was “Ahoy-hoy,” which I find funnier.
Thomas: Yeah, it was… I think Alexander Graham Bell was the one who was trying to make that a thing. And then everyone was like, “We’re not saying that on the phone, Alexander.” So it became “hello.”
But I would say that the telephone probably had a more immediate impact on speech, because the internet has less speech aspect, but the internet has now way more just enveloped our lives, because the only real change between talking to someone in person and talking to someone on the phone is you can’t read their body language. I do think that that’s more significant than we realize. Like, part of the reason I don’t like talking on the phone is I really like having someone’s body language to respond to.
But the internet decontextualized almost entirely, and so adapting to the needs of not having tone or anything and just stripping down language towards written form, and still trying to sound conversational rather than making everything sound like an academic paper was a greater challenge. And so it’s had this large impact.
Steph: Yeah. I can’t get over the ahoy-hoy thing.
Thomas: Yeah, I still answer the phone that way sometimes. I think I got it from The Simpsons first.
Steph: So are young people or technology driving more linguistic change, or is it hard to separate the two?
Thomas: It’s hard to separate the two.
Thomas: Because young people tend to adapt to technology faster. If you think about technology as a language, when you are born into a language, you just get better at it than adults, because when you get older you lose the ability to pronounce things exactly right, because your brain stops. And I think like… So when you’re born into having an iPhone, you’re almost like a native speaker of iPhone. So it’s always going to be tied together in that way.
Steph: It’s like the interface that you are using to emit information.
Thomas: Yeah. I actually think about it kind of how pidgins and creoles work, because pidgins and creoles are developments when two people who speak different languages are trying to communicate. And so I think if people who come to the language, the technology, later in life are kind of speaking a pidgin, and a pidgin is just like… It’s not really a full language, it’s just people trying to do their best to communicate. And then a creole is when it’s developed further. And actually develops its own features that are more advanced. And I think when a child is born into technology, they have that, and they’re starting to innovate and build on what we already have.
Steph: Right. Literally just hacking things together, and it kind of works, and then all of a sudden it’s its own thing.
Thomas: Yeah. Gretchen McCulloch talks a lot about how there’s older internet users, and they were just trying to hack what they know onto the internet, whereas younger people, they form together.
Steph: Do you think that’s why older people tend to write in all caps? Is it like…
Thomas: It’s probably something like that. I just think there’s so many things that’s just weird. You don’t expect it, which is why I think it’s always jarring. Part of the all caps is probably like, people just have worse eyesight. Caps are easier. But I also just think people are trying to use these old forms. Have you ever seen… Some people have that handwriting where there are all just capital letters. And I don’t know where they learned that, because I’ve never seen anyone my age…
Steph: You know, I think I went through a phase in high school where all of my Rs were capitalized, because I just liked the way that it looked better. It was a thing that I tried on for a little while.
Thomas: That’s interesting.
Steph: It was an aesthetic choice.
Thomas: Yeah. But then, they just do not build the same association of, “Capital letters means yelling,” that we have.
Steph: Right. This brings to mind a famous picture of a handwritten note that’s been circulating on the news lately.
Thomas: Yes. Well, yeah. Donald Trump is an example of the capital letters, and I’m just like, I don’t know where this came from.
Steph: Big fat Sharpie-like bold print. Yeah.
Thomas: And well, he does yell.
Steph: It’s true. Yeah. So… tell me more about how young people who are native internet speakers have adapted internet language far enough that they can actually convey these really nuanced subtleties and emotions in the absence of nonverbal cues that you would normally get from being in front of a person.
Thomas: Yeah, this is constantly changing, so it’s kind of interesting, because I know anything that I say will sound ancient within a year.
Steph: Yeah. That was like two weeks ago.
Thomas: Yeah. So there is a lot of subtle and non-subtle. An example is the key smash, and it’s just like, “Sksksk.” And I guess there’s disagreement about whether “sksksk” comes from key smashing, because S-K-S-K are both in the home row keys.
Not that I think anyone younger than me still uses home row, but the key smash is… It’s not trying to capture what frustration is, like you’re not doing like, “This is the sounds my mouth would make.”
But you’re able to convey just anger through that, and people know like, “Oh, you’re just mashing your keys.”
Steph: Yeah, I never thought about that, actually. That it’s like… Like when someone does that, I know what they’re trying to say intuitively, but I never thought about the fact that they’re not actually trying to translate mouth sounds.
Thomas: Yeah. It’s almost, I think of like onomatopoeia. Where it’s almost onomatopoeia, but key smashing.
Another example that I really like, and that I’ve started doing more and more, is capital letters are now, more than ever, very… Because we talked about yelling already, but I just mean like, even capitalizing the beginning of sentences can come across as formal. And just using periods.
And I think Tumblr especially is a good example of how this has evolved, and now just to sound chill and relaxed, it’s just… You want to use as little punctuation…
Steph: Right. Otherwise it’s like, “We need to talk.”
Thomas: Yeah. Now, I just can’t stand anything, and my parents still use old texting forms. Like my dad just texted, “Hi.” Capital H with a period. And I was like, “Oh, no, something horrible must have happened.”
Steph: Well, I think if it’s your dad then you know not to read into that, right?
Thomas: I try not to, but you never know.
Steph: That reminds me of when I was in high school, just to date myself a little bit, like this was during the MySpace era. And it was really uncool to capitalize sentences and everyone was like… I never used exclamation points at all at that time. Everything ended in a period, because I was just so detached and cool, and now because of workplace culture, everything has exclamation points all the time, because I don’t want people to think that I might be mad at them.
Thomas: Yeah, explanation point is definitely a good example of one that like… It was very big in early internet days, if you think of leetspeak, when you would spell in like, “haxorz,” and stuff like that. Lots of exclamation points. And then it became very uncool. Especially, I think, that’s tied like… When you’re writing formal writing, you’re told to not use exclamation points.
It’s a rule for journalists that’s like, “You get two exclamation points in your career. Use them wisely.” But then it came back, and it has a very polite thing. When you’re writing an email, you want to be like, “Hello!” “Thanks for reaching out to me!” If you use periods, it’ll come across as menacing.
And then there’s also the more… You can use five exclamation points in a row, and that just gets across excitement in a genuine way. And I’ll be curious if in the coming years, it goes out of fashion again.
Steph: Right, yeah. Because these things tend to come in waves.
Thomas: I think we’re at peak exclamation point right now. And the bubble cannot hold. It’s got to burst.
Steph: Yeah, yeah. So one thing that I think is interesting, that Gretchen has previously written about, is that women are actually consistently responsible for 90% of linguistic changes. I guess, apparently, a bunch of linguists went through thousands of letters, written between the 15th and the 17th centuries, and they basically found that women were faster to drop outdated terms like “doth,” so I think this is really interesting. Is this something that she talks about in Because Internet?
Thomas: She does talk about that in Because Internet, and she dives a little bit deeper, because a lot of times in linguistics, it’s just such an accepted fact that women lead language change that you just don’t even have to think about it. But there’s obviously some phenomenon and understanding that is interesting.
But also, there’s not a definitive answer, I would say. Because we just didn’t know. For example, she mentions one study where they looked at people’s Twitter talking and tried to examine how they used emoji in different things, and if that’s coded by their gender. And also, in this study, they had to guess gender based on the name, which is a little bit like… Not great, because you never know on the internet who anyone is.
But one thing that she noticed is that even though there was a big gender gap, when they divided it by interests… So people who are on Twitter to talk about Shawn Mendes, or people who are on the internet to talk about politics. If you separate it that way, the gender difference actually falls away. So there is still a gender difference, and that obviously means that more women are using it for reasons that would lead them to be more emoji-friendly. But there’s also a lot of other factors.
Steph: It’s more about the in-group that you belong to. Like there’s a separate Twitter for every…
Thomas: Yeah, exactly.
Steph: Right? Apparently, there’s a succulents Twitter.
Thomas: Oh, wow. I mean, I can’t keep them alive, so I should really get on there.
Thomas: We think of Twitter as this place where it’s like, “Everyone’s talking to everyone,” but no, it’s like its own countries developed.
Another important aspect of men versus women that she talked about is weak ties versus strong ties. Because there’s this one study that was looking at Northern Ireland women, and they were trying to find out why they were starting to pronounce the vowel of “car” more like “care.” So it’d be like “get in the care,” instead of “get in the car.” That’s my Irish accent. It’s not phenomenal.
Steph: Pretty good.
Thomas: But they couldn’t figure out why women were changing, because they were talking to their close friends. Where is this feature coming from? And then they noticed that there’s a difference between strong ties and weak ties. So strong ties are your friends, your family, people you talk to a lot.
But there are also weak ties of just people you encounter for a few moments, even, and just hear that when they speak. So they noticed that women tended to work more in the city center, so they were leaving their home, and they were encountering people talking in a different way.
And while we think of strong ties, those are obviously very important to how we talk. If you just talked to the same five people every day, you’re eventually going to sound pretty similar. But those weak ties, it just takes a moment for you to get that feature where you’re pronouncing things a little differently, and then you bring it back, and then you introduce it to your community. And so that doesn’t exactly answer why women are leading the turn. But that clearly shows that there’s a lot of factors going on in situations where women tend to be more traveling outside of their strong ties zone. That would mean that they’re going to be leading change.
Steph: Interesting. I think that’s kind of similar to how slang used to spread organically, even before the internet, but now the internet… You see a certain verbal tic or a catchphrase that people are repeating on Twitter a lot, and suddenly you start saying it in real life, and it just catches on.
Lately the thing is like, “Oh, love that for us. Love that for me.” I’ve heard that a lot.
Thomas: Yeah, the internet is basically throwing lighter fluid onto the weak ties thing, because now you can see… “On fleek” is a very good example, because “on fleek” is something that was absolutely nothing, and then Vine user Peaches Monroee, RIP Vine, said it and then it spread like wildfire.
And before the internet, that would not happen. Not many people would know who Peaches Monroee is, because there’s just not a way. And now you can spread things all over the world with a tweet.
Steph: Yeah, yeah. The idea of the weak ties is interesting, because I feel like you don’t really need to be beaten over the head with something. You just need to see it once or twice, and it subconsciously seeps into your repertoire.
Thomas: Yeah. And in a way, slang is a meme, if you think about it. Like memes spread, language spreads. If you see someone using a certain phrase some type of way… People say “vibe check” a lot now. And we think of it as a meme, but it’s also slang. Together.
Steph: Exactly. So you’ve had this fixation on the comma ellipsis, which I think is a really good case study of everything that we’ve been discussing here. So tell me about the comma ellipsis. What is it? Why? What would Gretchen McCulloch say?
Thomas: So the comma ellipsis is… The regular ellipsis is dot, dot, dot. It’s used in mainly two different ways, which is either it’s an omission in writing, but that’s the more formal sense, or it’s just a trailing off. Dot, dot, dot.
Steph: Dot, dot, dot…
But I’ve noticed on the internet, a lot more, that people are using commas instead of the dot, dot, dot. So it’ll just be like comma, comma, comma, comma. And I thought it’s funny, but also I thought there must be more to that. Like it can’t just be a joke, even though jokes can affect language sometimes. I thought there must be more, so I wanted to look into it.
So I first looked at the original ellipsis, and there’s this phenomenon, also between generations, where older people tend to use period ellipses a lot.
Steph: They do.
Thomas: Yeah. I had a boss once who would just end all of his emails with dot, dot, dot, and it would just be like, “Excited to see you tomorrow…” Because that’s how I’m reading it.
So Gretchen McCulloch looked into that, and this is a good example of the dot, dot, dot that they’re trying to use. Even though they’ll say it’s trailing off, because if you talk to people who use dot, dot, dot, they were like, “I’m just trailing off.” It’s like, “No, you’re not capturing your actual speech.”
It’s more that older people would tend to use these, even in written correspondence, as they don’t necessarily want to write a whole sentence, but they just want to write a fragment. And they can use dot, dot, dot to connect thoughts without necessarily conforming to a grammar.
Steph: I see.
Thomas: So it’s not so much a trailing off as, “This isn’t a really full complete thought, but it’s there.” But you’re not saying it as I read it, which is just like, “Hello…”
Steph: It’s kind of wistful.
Thomas: Yeah. But then the comma ellipsis comes in, and I think an interesting thing to note, first of all, is that the first ellipsis ever recorded was actually in a play, and it was dashes instead. And you can still see that type of thing, because now if you read a script, it’ll be an em-dash that you use to show that it’s cut off. But first time they ever used cut-off speech, it was dashes. And then later on, someone did periods instead. And that just caught on.
But now we use commas, because I think we have too strong association of the dot, dot, dot with a certain kind of trailing-off, an ominousness. But also, there’s a sense in which it’s the formal norm. And when you use it… Like if you just tweet dot, dot, dot, it’s like, “Okay.” But if you tweet comma, comma, comma, then someone’s like, “Oh, something’s going on here.”
So sometimes language change happens just because people want to jar people out of what they know and expect. So the comma ellipsis, even though it’s very hard to trace exactly where it comes from, because Twitter does not allow you to search for specific punctuation, does seem to come from this desire to convey a stronger emotion than just the regular dot, dot, dot. And also, from what I’ve seen, it does seem to come from queer communities, which… A lot of language change does seem to come from queer communities and also black communities. Because there’s a thing where, when things start there, it’s perceived as cool, and then other people start to copy it, or they claim they invented it, and that’s a whole other issue.
But in sum, the comma ellipsis is just a way that when you’re reading, it just calls your attention, and you’re like, “Oh.” So when someone tweets something, like, “My mom just texted me to say that…” Oh, I have no example here. I should’ve come up with one.
Steph: That’s okay. My mom just texted me to say, “Dinner’s almost ready…”
Thomas: So with that, old people, that’s just like… You read that, and that’s fine. But if you ended that with comma, comma, comma, you’d be like, “Oh, what’s going on there really?”
Thomas: It’s weird. Who knows how it caught on, exactly? But sometimes things just become useful.
Steph: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because I feel like there’s a certain emotional flavor or texture that I… When I see that, it reads differently to me in my mind. It’s less like dot, dot, dot trailing off, and more just like, the comma suggests that the sentence is about to continue, and so it feels almost like a record that’s skipping a little bit. Does that make sense? It’s a little bit like…
Thomas: Yeah, I get that. Sometimes people will put spaces between the commas and it causes your brain to have pauses, but it’s also… There aren’t words there.
I’ve also compared it in my head towards a kind of vocal fry approximation. So when you end a sentence with like, “Oh…” People hate vocal fry, so I’m looking forward to emails on that impression.
But there is a sound that’s hard to define in actual speech that’s created. It’s fascinating. Language, internet. Internet language.
Steph: Vocal fry is the future. You heard it here first.
Steph: So, okay. Well, thanks for joining me today.
Thomas: Thanks for having me.
Ruben Vilas: Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. So another round of quick language-learning lightning round. Yes, because it’s lightning, so it’s quick. So you can snap your fingers, and you can be fluent in any language. So which language and why? Jen?
Jen Jordan: I’ve mentioned this in previous panels, but I’ve studied French. I wish I could just snap my fingers and be fluent in it, and it’d be done, so I can move on to other things in my life. I realize it’s basic, but I’m just, I’m owning it.
Ruben: That’s good. Ally?
Ally Zhao: So I would definitely pick Spanish, because I have lived in Brooklyn for a long time. I plan on living in Brooklyn for awhile, and the Spanish-speaking population of Brooklyn is approximately 25%. I feel like that’s a pretty useful skill to have in the place that you live.
Ruben: That’s true. Stephanie?
Steph: I don’t know. I’m okay at Russian and Spanish, like I can sort of get my point across, but I think it would be cool to be super fluent in either one of them. Yeah, that’s my answer.
Ruben: Yeah. I would not be fluent in Spanish though, because I feel like I’m so close. I’m very close. So I would probably snap my fingers, be fluent in German, and then snap my fingers again, travel back in time and just own Germany when I lived there. Be very successful.
Jen: Really taking a lot of license with this very basic prompt.
Ruben: I’m very sorry about this. We are sci-fi.
Steph: It involves time travel, yes.
Ruben: So yeah. So if you want to learn a language, you can just use Babbel. You can choose from 14 different languages, including Spanish, French, and German. Babbel’s teaching method has been proven to be effective across multiple studies, and yeah, we’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50% off a three months’ subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting babbel.com/podcast. That’s B-A-B-B-E-L.com/podcast. Thanks for listening.
Steph: So I’m sitting here with a multi-generational panel. We’ve got my colleagues, producer David Doochin, head of video production Ruben Vilas, and we’ve also got Yulia Laricheva with us. She has a creative agency and a podcast called Dream Nation Love. How are you guys?
Steph: So we’re kind of gathered here today, dearly beloved, to talk about all of the ways that our multiple generations have, in their own ways, ruined language. So if you can recall, what was the word or phrase that made adults older than you start complaining about the way you talk?
David Doochin: I think one comes to mind for me… It might not be necessarily a slang word, but it’s the filler word “like.” And I think one of the first articles I wrote for Babbel was about these words. They’re fillers, they’re interjections that mark place in a conversation. So if it’s still my turn and I’m talking, and I want to emphasize that I’m not done talking, then I could say “um” or “uh,” and a lot of people in my generation have started saying “like,” and I think that’s a huge divide that separates my cohort and the people, my peers, those who are within the same range as me, from much older adults.
Like I said, I don’t know that that has… I think most adults know what “like” means and how it’s used, but very few of them use it in the same context. So it’s not like there’s a gap in understanding, necessarily. It’s more just like, this is a… I just used it subconsciously. But it’s kind of, “like, verbal marker,” that indicates that you come from a generation that’s a little fresher or that’s been around a little bit less.
Steph: Well, that’s interesting too, because… So to everyone listening, I should have clarified, David is our Gen Z representative. Yulia is here repping Gen X, and Ruben is our token Millennial.
Ruben: I thought you were going to call me a boomer or something.
Steph: No. “Okay, yoomer,” because it’s Generation Y. But I’m a Millennial, and I feel like the “like” thing goes back way longer than that. What do you guys think?
Ruben: We also say it in Portugal. Of course, the word is different, but I feel like that’s not even something that older people get upset about. It’s just like… Hard to make a point, so you just start filling your arguments with these words over and over again.
Yulia Laricheva: I would say it’s “like” for me too, because I moved here in fourth grade and I spoke Russian, and then by sixth grade I was speaking English fluently, and “like” permeated my language. It was just everywhere. And my teacher pulled me aside, and she said that I have to make a conscious effort to not use the word “like.” She’s like, “I’m glad you’re American now, but try not to use that word, and try to use something else to express your feelings.”
David: That’s weird, though. It’s not even like she could be like, “Oh, it’s because you’re American now, and now that you are, no one uses this so you should stop.” It’s, I think, a key element of your American identity. It was probably tied to what you said, what you picked up on from your environment, and that must’ve been “like,” because I imagine your friends were using it all the time too.
Yulia: I think it was an unconscious effort, and partially, I think it was TV-influenced, because I was watching a lot of TV, and I learned English through the TV. I watched Growing Pains, I watched Full House, and I think everyone was using the term “like,” and it just permeates your brain. It’s like a worm. It just gets in and it just roots itself in there. I still have a hard time getting rid of it.
Steph: Me too.
Yulia: Like years later, it just pops up.
Ruben: Especially when you get like self-conscious about it.
Yulia: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Like.
Ruben: Like it gets worse and worse and worse.
Steph: I was actually on a friend’s podcast a while ago, and someone took the time to direct message me and be like, “I just want you to know that I really liked everything you had to say, but I couldn’t listen to more than six minutes of it, because you kept saying like. Love and light! Like…”
David: Why is that even necessary to say?
Ruben: Why would you send that message?
Steph: I don’t know. Anyway.
David: I’m sorry, Steph. I’ve never actually noticed how much you say “like.”
Steph: I think I say it a lot.
David: But you don’t say it… I don’t think you say it an extraordinary amount at all, and I’ve never… I remember you saying that comment that someone had told you a couple of months ago, and even since then, I have not… It’s never been an issue at all. Everyone does it. Everyone does it.
Steph: I know it does. I wonder when that started.
Ruben: I don’t know.
Steph: Do you remember… I guess for some of us, well, slang is always permeating the culture. It’s not like you stop picking up slang just because you’re no longer a teenager anymore. But do you remember, for your generation, what influenced the way people your age spoke the most? How do you remember picking up the code of your peers?
Ruben: I don’t know. School is where you get all of it, all your friends. Someone comes up with something new, and there it is, spreading like a virus real quickly. And yeah, I think all the words that meant “cool” were the ones that annoyed my parents the most.
Steph: Were those in Portuguese?
Steph: What were they?
Ruben: Lots of them, like baril was… I mean, they all mean “cool.” So all of these mean “cool.” Radical, which… It’s also “radical,” but we used it to signify it was cool. But I think back then in the 90s, I think it was because X Games was really popular. Everyone was into skateboarding. So it was kind of this mix of skateboarding slang with surf slang at the same time, like an evolution of surf slang, I guess.
Steph: That’s kind of funny, because I feel like “radical” was such a 60s term in the US.
Ruben: Yeah, it comes from surf slang, except for skateboarders, I guess.
Yulia: Well, I think my generation, Gen X, we were really influenced by music. So I floated in different groups, as I always in my life have. And we had the stoner kids, the Grateful Dead kids. We had the punk rock kids, and then we had the hip hop kids, like Wu-Tang just came out. There was a lot of hip hop coming out, and a lot of the kids still spoke, I guess, in the usual style that they usually speak. But every once in a while, different groups would sprinkle a bit of, I guess, different words in. I remember the word “dope” being everything. Like that’s dope. That’s 10 times dope. That’s super dope. I still use the word “dope.”
Steph: I do too.
Yulia: I think “dope” is amazing. And that’s the best word to describe something that’s super dope. And it’s still stuck with me, but there are a lot of little terms, and switching between cultures, like hanging out with different friends on different weekends, you tend to culture-shift a little bit. Even in the tone of your voice, sometimes. My tone hanging out with my hip hop friends changes a little bit versus when I’m hanging out at like… “At, like, a punk rock show, whenever I go to punk rock shows, my voice gets, like, super different.”
David: That’s dope, Yulia. That’s so dope.
Steph: I feel like that was the MTV generation.
Yulia: Yeah, it really was. My generation is the MTV generation.
Steph: Yeah, there was no social media back then.
Yulia: My friend launched MTV, actually.
Steph: Oh, yeah. Cool flex.
David: You should get your friend to come and be interviewed on this podcast.
Yulia: He’ll probably do it. I can ask him.
David: One very, I think, regionally and temporally-specific term that means cool… I’m so curious to see if you’ve ever heard of it. It might just be where I’m from, and it had a two-year window, and it completely died off. It’s “beast.” Have you ever heard of someone refer to something as beast?
David: I actually don’t think I ever used it in a not-ironic way, and a lot of my speech… I start out using it ironically. “Ha ha, it’s a joke,” and then it actually gets integrated into my vocabulary. I don’t think “beast” ever reached that point, but that was a short-lived but very, very powerful, very poignant term that permeated my middle-school years.
David: Did you have a “beast” equivalent in Portuguese?
Ruben: I don’t think we had the “beast,” but I remember hearing it. I never heard someone say it in person, actually.
Steph: In New Jersey, when I went to high school, everything was “mad cool.” Or like…
David: Wicked smart.
Steph: No, that’s Boston.
David: I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
Steph: Or like, “There’s mad heads at that party.”
David: What about “hella?” I feel like that was…
Steph: That was a little California, but yeah, I think it was all…
David: I had a brief flirtation with “hella” ironically, and then it was starting to become real, and I was like, “I got to put a stop to this.”
I think in college it… Some of my peers thought it was funny, but some people used it. One of my best friends and former roommates would say, “Hella this, hella that.” It would be for adjectives. So hella would be an adverb because it modifies an adjective. Like, “This party was hella fun.” Or you can use it to describe nouns, like, “There were hella people there.” That is one that I think is totally just like… I think it’s hilarious. I think it’s so, so funny, and I use it. I find myself using it accidentally sometimes, but it always makes my friends laugh when I do.
Steph: Yeah. Obviously, none of us are exactly in high school anymore, but do you personally feel like you’re at the point where current youth culture is making you feel old?
Ruben: I have a niece. She just started college. She’s still very young, in my eyes, but she’s not young, of course.
And yeah, when we go to Portugal, or she actually came here last Christmas, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. I ask her, “Please…” Because I am the young, cool uncle, so I’m like, “Please explain this to me. I want to know.” I don’t know what the kids say in Portugal now.
Steph: Right. I think when I learned… Someone had to explain to me what a VSCO girl was, and that was the definitive moment for me, where I was just like, “You lost me.”
David: Well, I think that gets into a good point about TikTok. And we have social media, which has been a trend for a decade now, and completely shaping the way that youth speak. Even some adults, but TikTok has completely transformed, and I think will continue to transform, the vocabulary that young people are using to describe themselves, their identities, their peers. Like VSCO girl, I feel like that was a huge meme, a huge trend that blew up on… I saw it on Twitter because I don’t use TikTok. I’m really tempted to use TikTok. It seems like that’s where I’m going to get such a huge stash of new linguistic information, and I’m going to be able to be young and cool again. But I think VSCO girls were a tipping point or a pivot where I felt, like you said, Steph, just really lost. I was like, “What is this?”
And when you have someone have to explain it to you, then you feel… You just feel so removed.
Ruben: Even older.
Yulia: Well, as Gen X, I have to say that I just turned 40 this year, and I’ve never really felt old until this year. But what’s interesting is I’m looking at the new generation, like the Gen Y and then the younger generations that are coming up, and they’re reminding me of when I was young. So it’s super trippy because everybody’s wearing the raver pants, and everybody’s wearing chokers, and everybody has purple hair, where my generation had purple hair and there were a bunch of us, and we were alternative, and it was not the mainstream. And my friends were LGBTQ, and all of it seems like there is this hyper-resurgence of what was subculture in my generation. But now it’s just totally normally acceptable, which is…
Steph: Kind of spiraling upward, in a way.
Yulia: Yeah. So for me, it’s super exciting, but then at the same time… I spent three hours on TikTok just decompressing on Friday night, trying to catch up on what people are doing, because I work in advertising, and like, “I should be on…” And I was like, “Oh, dance monkey is trending now. Okay, cool. There’s somebody named…” Okay, okay. All these things… And then I’m watching old people try to use TikTok. I’m like, “Aw.”
But as a creative, I feel like this generation is just so, so super creative because all the kids have all the time in the world to create content, where we have to have day jobs and we have to have… It’s so hard to do that when you’re an adult and you have a family.
Steph: Okay, so I’m going to bring up some words, and I’m going to have you all just try to react to them. Let me know if you know what it means, when you think it first became a slang term. Does it make you feel weird? I don’t know.
Okay, so… “Yeet.”
David: I love “yeet.” “Yeet” is kind of like a catchall. I know that it has a more nuanced and specific definition than how I use it, but I just use it as a… Anytime you need a good yeet, you just throw in a yeet. Yeeting is, I think, technically, like, “Yeet!” Like you just yeet something away from yourself, or… I think it comes from… Maybe it doesn’t come from, but it was popularized by that one Vine where she has the water bottle and she gives it to her friend and her friend’s like, “This bitch empty. Yeet!” So it’s…
Ruben: Is that the origin?
David: I don’t know.
Ruben: I thought it was from this kid dancing on the track fields in school. That’s where I remember it. I don’t know how to use it. I never use it, I think, though I like it.
David: I use yeet as yes sometimes. One of my best friends, actually, because…
David: Because yeet started out as a negative. It was like, “Oh, do you want to go to the movies with me? Yeet!” Like, “No, hell no.”
Ruben: It was like you were blocking it, like…
David: Yeah, like, “Yeet that idea away from me.” But I use it sometimes as yes now. Someone will be like, “Hey, do you want to go to the movies?” And I’m like, “Yeet, let’s go.”
Steph: Yes, well, you’re Gen Z, so…
Ruben: I think people should use their yeets sparingly, because I think it’s a nice conversation unblock, unblocker? Is that how I say it? No, probably not. But yeah, if you just throw in a yeet once in a while, people will be like, “Ah, this guy’s kind of cool.”
David: I think instead of using yeet as like a, “This is bad. I want to be away from it.” I use “skrrt-skrrt,” like to skrrt away from something.
Ruben: I do skrrt a lot too at home.
Yulia: I don’t use the word “yeet” at all, nor do any of my friends.
Steph: Yeah, I think that’s probably where the divide is, right?
Yulia: bThat’s the divide right there.
Steph: Though people would say that’s a Gen Z term. According to Google trends data, it definitely came out of nowhere in 2014. So yeah.
Ruben: That sounds about right.
David: It might be that one Vine.
Ruben: It might be one or the other. No idea.
Steph: What about “phat,” P-H-A-T?
Ruben: I feel like that’s more…
Ruben: 90s. Hip hop, yeah.
Yulia: I think it somewhere originated around like Baby Phat, the clothing company, and then we also had Pharcyde with a P-H, so I think there was a lot of taking… And turning into a P-H.
Ruben: I think it’s a… Even though I did not grow up in the U.S., I feel like it’s a West Coast thing and not so much an East Coast thing. I don’t know why.
Yulia: No, it’s an East Coast thing.
Ruben: Is it? Never mind.
Yulia: Yeah. But I think it’s also an everywhere thing. So it’s just a hip hop thing. Like everything is phat.
Steph: You might be surprised to know that Merriam-Webster says that the first recorded instance of this was in 1963.
Steph: Yeah. How about “woke?”
Ruben: Woke is more recent.
Yulia: Did we just wake up to “woke” just recently?
Ruben: I remember seeing it. I don’t know if this was the first time I saw it, but it was like, “Katy Perry is woke.” I’m like, “What? Katy Perry? What does this even mean?” And then it was because she was doing a new record and it was just not so poppy as they normally are.
David: Is woke an identity, and once you’re woke you can’t be unwoke? Or is it like, can you have moments of wokeness? I’ve never known… Is being woke sort of like being enlightened?
Ruben: I think so.
Steph: I think it’s about being politically aware.
Ruben: I think when I read that, the term was probably very fresh, so people didn’t know how to use it. Now I think it means something completely different.
David: I see it a lot in that one Twitter meme that’s like, “Broke, woke, bespoke.” Where you name… Or it’s like, “Tired, wired, inspired.” So I think Twitter has commandeered it and twisted it to fit its nefarious desires. But… It has the same meaning.
Ruben: I think it just means being aware. Even though you may have different opinions, you know. You’re not pretending that nothing’s happening.
Yulia: I almost want to say that originated on Black Twitter, or Black Lives Matter. But I’m not absolutely sure.
Steph: You’re probably right. I think I remember the first time I remember ever seeing that online was in relation to that.
Ruben: Yeah, that makes sense.
Steph: Yeah. Well, Merriam-Webster says that this word was first recorded in 1972, in that context, but if you look at the Google Trends data, it started peaking in 2013, which is right around the time when Black Lives Matter was really peaking.
How about, “give me some skin?”
Ruben: Oh, I have no idea.
Yulia: Oh, that’s like a surfing… Isn’t it? Like surfing or skate term, culture?
David: Is it a high five?
Yulia: It’s a high five from the nineties.
Steph: This actually is a Boomer term, and it’s to ask someone to slap or shake your hand in agreement.
Ruben: That’s why we don’t know. We young kids.
Steph: Right. All right, well, this has been super fun. Thank you guys so much for joining me.
All: Thanks. Thanks for having us. Yeah, it’s been fun. Bye.
Jen: Multilinguish is produced by the content team at Babel. We are…
Thomas: Thomas Moore Devlin.
David: David Doochin.
Steph: Steph Koyfman.
Dylan: Dylan Lyons.
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