If it feels like you need a translator to talk with your teenager, you’re not alone. Between all the shooks, lits, fires and fams, many of us parents are lost, too.
“Language is a lot like fashion,” says Mary Kohn, an associate professor of English at Kansas State University who studies the intersection of language and culture. “Teens coin words and slang partly because using their parent's jargon would be a lot like wearing mom’s jeans. They would come across as old-fashioned and out of touch.”
Sometimes teens use coded language to keep their parents in the dark, say by using sneaky texting acronyms teens to hide communication from adults such as 53X for “sex,” or CD9 for “code 9, parents around.”
But that trend may be waning. Teens can now use disappearing Snapchat messages and “Finsta” (fake Instagram) accounts without parents stumbling upon them.
“Parents used to go through their kids’ text messages, so they would use slang, emoji or abbreviations more,” 17-year old Lauren Trujillo of Oakland says.
“But now I don’t think they even have to worry about that. They just go over to a different app and can communicate freely.”
Trujillo and several other teens also say they’re communicating more with gifs and memes now more than ever before.
Lauren Trujillo, 17, texts on her smartphone. She says she and her friends mainly use the newest slang words "ironically," and to joke with one another. (Photo: Jennifer Jolly)
So why do they do it? For the most part, teens use slang as a way to create their own identity, fit into specific social groups and express independence.
“I just talk with a lot of my friends in this weird language my parents don’t understand, not because I don’t want them to understand it, but because we just think it’s kind of weird and funny and ironic,” Trujillo says.
Mahala Herron-Rutland, a 20-year old UCLA student adds, “it’s a free speech sort of thing.”
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“It boils down to identity,” University of Michigan associate professor Scott Campbell says over the phone. Campbell’s work focuses on the impact of mobile communication and social networking on media and society. “It’s a way of marking insiders from outsiders, and certainly if you’re a grown-up, you’re an outsider.”
Tell me about it. Every time I try to slide a trendy word into a sentence, my 17-year old daughter begs me not to be so “cringey,” and calls my attempts at being hip — totally “extra.”
To make it all even more confusing, many of the same words have different meanings, depending on the context. Take the word “addy” for example:
“Addy is slang for Adderall,” my 20-year old neighbor Morgan Austin tells me. Adderall is a prescription drug for ADHD but also is abused as a popular recreational drug among teens. Herron-Rutland agrees. “Yeah, parents if you see that, it’s a red flag. It’s definitely about drugs.”
“Wait, I used 'addy' for address,” 15-year-old high school sophomore Dylan DeMarco says. Sigh.
Each of these words or phrases has its own unique origin story, but any discussion of teen slang also needs to consider cultural appropriation.
Much of modern teen slang – and slang in general – originates in the African-American community. Black musicians, particularly many hip-hop artists, have contributed greatly to the evolution of language over time. The LGBTQ movement has also spawned some of the popular phrases as well. There’s an ongoing debate over whether it’s OK for teens and adults who aren’t part of these communities to adopt their slang – terms such as finna, fleeky, thicc – and use it as their own.
“As far as appropriation goes, there's a sense that groups who have privilege will pick up terms from groups with less privilege, possibly to express a sense of counterculture or coolness,” Kansas State's Kohn writes via email. “Because language is intimately linked to culture and history, such terms often become cool precisely because they arose as a form of resilience in the face of hardship."
When people adopt these terms without recognizing their history or cultural context, she says, they effectively get the benefit – the cool factor – without having to experience the struggle, such as historic racism, that gives rise to the term.
Musician Katy Perry found out just how heated the debate over slang appropriation can be when she said “wig” on an episode of "American Idol" this past March. People use the term “wig” when something so crazy or good happens that your wig (or weave) flies off your head. The phrase comes from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and has become associated with the gay community as well.
Reaction from both communities and opinion over whether Perry should be taking ownership of the phrase was split. Some saw it as a nod of support from the singer, while others felt she was stealing the term and using it as her own.
“That annoys me,” Herron-Rutland says. “You’ve got to be careful and mindful of what you’re saying, and the roots of those words and expressions. You can’t just take ownership of it, or capitalize on it and make money off (of our culture). Context is everything.”
“It’s a little cringey,” Trujillo says. “When a politician says it for example. Recently a lot of famous people who are more associated with formal jobs like politics, when they use it, it’s like, ‘oh, maybe don’t.’ Even if they are trying to connect to the youth, it can be a little extra.”
Slang is always evolving, and in a year or two, the huge list of insider terms you see above will be replaced by a whole new crop of weird words, memes and gifs that don’t mean what you think. It’s OK. We were strange teens once too, and it’s all totally groovy now, right?
Here’s a cheat sheet of the latest teen slang and acronyms.
Beef = a disagreement or hostility
BRB = be right back
Bruh = another way of saying "bro" or "brother"
Canceled = done, deleted, finished, blocked on social media
Clout Chaser = someone who tries to latch on to other, more popular people
Clout Demon = a wannabe
Cringey = awkward, uncomfortable, cringe-worthy
Curve = reject someone’s advances
Dead A--= To be completely and honestly serious
Dead = overwhelmed or exhausted
Dime = rating of attractiveness, 10/10
Down in the DM = direct messaging someone privately, usually to hook up
Drip, Drippin = flashy, ostentatious
Extra = over the top
F2F = face to face, meeting in person
Fam = the friends you are closest with
Finna = going to/about to, short for “fixing to”
Finsta = a fake Instagram account
Fleeky = amazing or great
Glow-Up = an incredible transformation
Goals = a lifestyle to strive for
GOAT = greatest of all time, mainly used in sports
Gucci = good, cool
High-key = a lot, wanting everyone to know something
Hit a lick = to steal something
Hundo P = 100 percent, confirming something
It’s lit = cool, awesome, great
I’m weak = something so funny it made you weak
Juice = credibility, respect, can also mean booze or drugs
Juul = a popular brand of vaporizer used by teens
Kickback = a casual get together
KMS/KYS = kill myself, kill yourself, used sarcastically
Lean = an intoxicating drink made using soda and cough syrup
Meme = a joke or reference to something
OP = out of pocket, used when something is extreme or offensive
Pods = disposable cartridge for a nicotine vaporizer
Ratchet = loud, obnoxious, trashy
Saucy = feisty or sassy
Savage = wild or harsh
Shade = trash talk
Shook = shocked, upset
Sips tea = minding your own business
Smash = to hook up, have sex
Squad = your closest group of friends
Stan = have an intense fandom for a particular object, such as a singer, athlete, or company
Straight fire = popular, trendy, or awesome
Sus = short for suspect, when something is suspicious or sketchy
TBH = to be honest
Tea = gossip
Thicc = voluptuous, curvy body (usually a compliment)
Thirsty = wants attention, or usually from a specific person
Throw shade = talking badly about a person or thing
Tweaking = high, usually on amphetamines
V = very
Wig = when something crazy or unexpected (good) happens
Woke = enlightened about social issues, originally to describe being aware about racism and police violence