When Tony Thorne first started researching slang, he was largely on his own.
This was in the ’80s, when, according to Thorne, the academic community “virtually ignored” slang as a part of linguistics.
Today, Thorne is the resident language consultant at King’s College London — a role created specifically for him — and the founder of the school’s Slang and New Language Archive, a living dictionary for novel words and phrases. He’s dedicated the better part of four decades to the topic, which, he says, has only grown more salient over time.
“When you have an accelerated society with rapid change in technology and lifestyle choices, you inevitably have to coin new language to encode these changes,” Thorne told In The Know.
This acceleration, Thorne says, began in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as TV, movies and music introduced new words en masse. Things sped up even more with the popularization of the internet and now through our current social media landscape.
“Language which used to be private is now public,” Thorne said. “New expressions which might have taken years to spread or which would have disappeared eventually can be shared instantaneously.”
A new landscape
The phenomenon is perhaps most clear on TikTok, which Daniel Hieber, a research linguist with a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, says emerged at exactly the right time.
“On TikTok, you’ve got an entire generation coming online all about the same time,” Hieber said. “In the past handful of years, suddenly Gen Z has this huge online presence that they haven’t had before.”
After debuting in the U.S. in late 2018, the app quickly became the primary medium for digital language and culture. Worldwide, TikTok was the most-downloaded app in both 2020 and 2021.
And, as Thorne points out, the app has “empowered” young people to exercise a larger influence over our language. According to a recent survey by Forrester, 63% of people aged 13 to 17 use TikTok weekly, a rate that now tops both Snapchat and Instagram.
There’s a clear process at play when terms like “mid” and “understood the assignment” explode online. First, the words find footing on TikTok, often among younger creators. Those users drop the words in increasingly viral videos, reaching more people — and more social platforms — until the term reaches universality.
“One of the most important things in language, and how new words come into being, is frequency,” Hieber said. “So if something goes viral, obviously it has a very high frequency of use.”
Today, the list of words following this playbook is near infinite. In 2021, former In the Know reporter Kelsey Weekman began archiving these terms in a sprawling Gen Z glossary. The project’s sheer size is a clear statement about how powerful TikTok has become.
Starting with Shakespeare
However, each linguist that spoke with In The Know for this story noted that while TikTok is shaping our current language ecosystem, it’s not reinventing the wheel.
“I don’t actually think TikTok is necessarily accelerating the process of language change,” Hieber said. [But] it’s definitely accelerating how quickly new words and constructions are brought into the public mindset and made available.”
For earlier generations, language modification was a slower process, albeit still a highly influential one.
In the 16th century, words like “overblown,” “watchdog” and “dawn” entered the mainstream thanks to Shakespeare, who included the then slang terms in his dialogue. Meanwhile, American slang has its own historical lineage, which has relied heavily on Black culture.
Sunn m’Cheaux, a Harvard professor who teaches in the school’s African Language Program, explains that coded language has always been a part of the Black American experience. During slavery, Jim Crow and beyond, slang often served as a “survival instinct.”
“Our freedoms, our liberties, were all predicated on the ability to communicate with one another, often in the presence of other people who we knew could hear us and so we had to be able to speak over their heads,” m’Cheaux told In The Know.
‘Internet slang is Black language’
Like Hieber, m’Cheaux has seen firsthand how social media shapes our everyday language. In addition to teaching Gullah, a creole language spoken mainly by Black inhabitants of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, m’Cheaux also runs a popular TikTok page, giving him a distinct insight into how easily Black language is hijacked online.
“The majority of what we’re calling ‘slang’ and ‘internet slang’ is Black language,” m’Cheaux said. “It’s African American English that’s been co-opted and crossed over and become so normalized that it’s not even considered slang anymore.”
As “internet slang” has increased its influence over everyday language, so have concerns about how those trends appropriate African American Vernacular English (AAVE). As BuzzFeed reporter Sydnee Thompson detailed in a 2021 piece on AAVE, words like “on fleek,” “AF,” “savage” and “shade” are just a few entries in a near-endless list of examples.
“The people driving that conversation are 100% Black people, which is why I refuse to have any conversation about slang and trends that does not specifically mention the Black correlation to these things coming into existence,” m’Cheaux said. “It’s simply erasure to not mention that.”
This, as m’Cheaux notes in one of his most popular TikToks, is why the “lush melange of words and expressions” that white Americans call “slang,” is really something simpler.
“To us, it’s just talking,” m’Cheaux says in his clip.
And while the exploitation of AAVE isn’t anything new, it’s clear the process has evolved. As m’Cheaux points out, one of TikTok’s defining features is the ease with which creators can copy one another.
On TikTok, trends are shared, borrowed and remixed at an alarming rate, whether it’s audios, Stitch trends or viral life hacks, which often spread so rapidly that it’s impossible to identify their origins.
However, what fascinates m’Cheaux more is how the app actually rewards imitation.
“TikTok is one of the weirdest apps, where you can literally get clout for taking someone’s content whole,” he said.
Language, meanwhile, is more subject to emulation than anything.
Perhaps the archetypical example of this issue lies in the 2020 controversy surrounding Brittany Broski, one of TikTok’s earliest influencers. In a series of now deleted TikToks, Broski, known widely as “Kombucha Girl,” explained why she believed it was OK for non-Black creators to use AAVE.
“When someone quoting that or when someone says ‘periodt,’ ‘sis,’ ‘snatch,’ all that, it’s very much like internet culture,” Broski said in part, according to Insider.
Broski later apologized, admitting she “wasn’t properly educated” on the issue. However, the saga highlights a much larger problem in our current linguistic framework. Often, the person popularizing a new word or phrase isn’t a part of the group that invented it.
Hieber notes that while AAVE has a long history in Western culture, it’s been especially salient among Gen Z-ers on TikTok.
“You’ll see these posts that are like, ‘Here’s a dictionary guide to Gen Z slang,’” Hieber said. “And it’s all stuff that’s taken, like, directly from African American English.”
Hieber ultimately believes that TikTok can be a positive force, as the app has the power to normalize terms that white culture has historically ostracized. However, this benefit can only come if creators are willing to give proper credit.
Additionally, m’Cheaux says, Black TikTokers can have their own part to play.
“What I try to encourage particularly Black creators to do is to raise the bar so high, and make it so unique, that the people trying to not give us credit expose themselves,” he said.
Democratizing slang words
Overall, Thorne says, our current social media landscape has resulted in a sort of democratization.
For centuries, slang has been largely kept out of “standard” English dictionaries, and instead confined to specific books cataloging vernacular, such as the Dictionary of American Slang, published in 1960.
“[The internet] has broken the barrier between spoken language — which previously was used in private — and written language, which is easier for experts to access but is usually a more formal part of social communication,” Thorne said.
However, this doesn’t mean we’re using more slang words than before. Rather, the linguists who spoke with In The Know emphasized, that it’s simply the awareness of slang that’s changing. Because now, as m’Cheaux puts it, “a word can go viral in a day.”
Although it may feel like we exist in a constant stream of new words and phrases, Thorne believes that slang creation is actually “leveling off.” Decades ago, our culture caught up with the way TV and music were adding to the zeitgeist, and an adjustment may now be happening with social media.
Thorne points to the short life of “invented” slang — like “cheugy,” which was seemingly popularized by a single TikToker, named Hal — as evidence that there are still limitations on our ability to adopt new words.
Furthermore, Hieber points out that because language is constantly evolving, it’s possible our current conception of “internet slang” will look completely different in five years. Words, he says, are made to be altered and replaced.
“Words in a language are a little like biological species,” Hieber said. “If you look at all the biological species that have ever been alive on the planet, a huge percent are extinct now. And words are kind of like that too. Most of the words that have ever entered English are gone now.”
Our methods for adopting new language, Hieber says, are mostly the same. What’s changed is the visibility of that language.
Social media gives us a live look at how words evolve and catch on, sometimes in the span of just a few days. It’s a weird sort of funhouse mirror, projecting the raw, often flawed ways we embrace novel language.
Each linguist who spoke to In The Know for this story stressed the same point: Slang is language. Although slang is often defined as “informal” vocabulary, history has shown that it’s actually integral to the evolution of our speaking patterns. It’s a vital, crucial aspect of culture.
That fact has always been true, but the difference is that today, we’re seeing the words evolve firsthand, and learning their true value in the process.
“There’s an idea that slang is like garnish at a restaurant, you’re not gonna eat it, but it looks nice,” m’Cheaux said. “People look at slang like it’s garnishing on the plate, but that’s not how this works.”
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