I first noticed the communication problem when a woman told me she planned to “hook up”¹ with a man.
“What does ‘hook up’ mean?” I asked, confused while trying to be tactful. “To get together for a cup of coffee, a drink or…?” Does it mean “to date” or “have sex,” I wondered.
The woman didn’t answer, just got a blank look on her face.
Another day, another language barrier. One of the writers I work with turned in an article with the word “piehole”² in it. “Is that an obscene term?” I asked. The publication I edit is “family friendly,” so no obscenities are allowed. The reporter looked at me as if I were crazy.
Around that same time, I sent out an email in which I used the word “cool.” The recipient emailed me back: “I learned that word in 1967 from Donovan. Haha.” So “cool” was no longer cool? Had I made a linguistic blunder?
Everywhere I looked, the English language was changing. I either didn’t understand what was being said or I was being labeled outdated.
It wasn’t just a case of my not being familiar with pop-culture references. True, I’ve been known to say “Star Wars” instead of “Star Trek,” and I’ve confused a basketball team with one that plays football. But what I was experiencing wasn’t just a case of not having watched “Game of Thrones” or of being unfamiliar with the new dance moves, Nae Nae³ and dabbing.⁴
No, the changes were in the language itself. I just didn’t get it.
I signed up for an online class only to have the instructor explain she would be sending the “deets”⁵ to her “peeps.”⁶ Huh? In the local newspaper, a concert was described as a “listening event.” Online, people used “adorbs” instead of “adorable.” Everywhere, “amazing” had morphed into “amazeballs” or “awesomesauce.” “Maybe” and “perhaps” had collapsed into “mayhaps,” “babe” had become “bae,” “bam” was an expression of excitement and “snap” was an expression that meant expression. “Netflix and chill” was a euphemism for sex.
According to Jessica Weiss, author of the article “The Secret Linguistic Life of Girls: Why Girl Speak Gibberish,” teenage girls are the source for much of the change in language. Girls create secret languages, Weiss believes, to create social bonds with each other while excluding other people.
I used to do that. When I was a teen, my friends and I talked pig Latin, which involves taking the initial consonant or consonant group of each word and moving it to the end. That way we could talk in private. “School is boring” became “Oolskay is oringbay” and “dumb parents” became “umbday arentspay.”
Today, as a writer, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring changes in my language. English is my currency. It’s what I use to communicate. So I need to make sure my vocabulary is up-to-date.
Some words, however, do withstand the test of time.
“Is ‘cool’ still cool?” a writer friend recently asked me. Actually, it is. Young people still use the word to mean hip and current. How awesomesauce is that?
Note: Definitions listed below came from urbandictionary.com.
¹A purposely ambiguous, equivocal word to describe almost any sexual action.
²The human mouth.
³A dance from Atlanta where you dance in a way that resembles Sha-Nae-Nae (a character in the 1990s sitcom “Martin”). Typically males participate in this dance, which makes it funny.
⁴To give a sharp nod to your raised forearm. It looks like you are sneezing.
⁵Details, usually details of gossip.
⁶Short for “people.”
Author’s bio: Nancy Woods is an author and writing coach.