Susie Dent: Why slang remains a secret sanctuary for the young
As she gets to grips with some teenage slang, the Countdown lexicographer argues young people devising their own lingo proves English is evolving as it should.
Has anyone ever given you the ick? Especially if they went full factor 50 on you? Don’t let yourself be mugged off, but don’t be a melt either, lest people become a bit salty with you. It’s all a bit extra, don’t you think?
If this paragraph transports you to an alien universe, then you are clearly not a fan of Love Island, a programme that builds its own lexicon with every series, and whose contestants create their own linguistic brand through signature phrases that are inevitably propelled into the mainstream. Lexicographers almost have a duty to watch it in order to keep up with the latest slang.
Of course, it’s not just the Love Islanders who create their own lingo. Most of us have stared uncomprehendingly at teenagers chattering away with joyful abandon in a vocabulary that might as well be Klingon to the rest of us.
And that’s its point in many ways: slang is intended to keep outsiders out and to give insiders a sense of belonging. For the young it is a wordrobe, a thing of fashion and identity, but the moment it becomes too established, it has to move on. Slang is the fastest-moving area of language we have.
Slang is intended to keep outsiders out and to give insiders a sense of belonging
Not all teen slang bamboozles us immediately. Some of it is deceptive – we think we understand because it draws on words we know. When I hear “it’s not that deep” from my own teenager, for example, I assume she means I’m overthinking it or getting too emotional. Instead she means “no big deal”.
If her friends have big gossip to share they have some “T” or “tea” that they’re about to “spill”. The inevitable gasps of “Whaaat?” that this said T inspires will then produce a “no cap!” – aka, “no lie”. Whenever I hear such offerings I type them into the notes app on my phone – the successor to the little black book (the Dent version) I once carried around with me religiously.
I strongly believe any linguist worth their salt must also be a good eavesdropper, particularly in unexpected places, for lexicographers are never really off duty. The ladies’ loo is a publicly very convenient place for picking up the latest slang.
It is here I first encountered the phrase “It’s an iss-you, not an iss-me”, a declaration from one teenager that something was her friend’s problem and not hers. (The loo also happened to be where I heard a teenager complain “I’ve got this awful coleslaw on my lip!”, pointing to what was clearly a cold sore.)
Of course, should an adult try to emulate any of these expressions they are immediately “cringe”. Worse still, they elicit the “big yikes”, a whole extra level of embarrassment. A teen might immediately text their friend to that effect and end with “periodt” – the fullest of full stops and a way of saying: “This is my final word; I’ve proved my point.”
Let’s not even get started on misspellings – we’ve had them for centuries, after all (“OK” is said to have begun as a riff on “orl korrect” in the 1830s). But do we really need “that’s a mewd”, the successor to “that’s a mood”, used for a picture that evokes strong emotions?
Yet if some of these new-fangled creations are jarring to old-fangled ears, they are ample proof that English is alive and flourishing, and evolving as it should. Slang, once described by the US writer Carl Sandburg as “a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”, is as core a part of teen identity as we’ll ever find.
We enjoyed using it ourselves once upon a time, as will all the generations of the future. So let’s embrace it, shrug off the ick, and enjoy it for what it is. Periodt.
This article first appeared in the April 2023 issue of Saga Magazine. Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Saga Magazine today.