Evolving At The Speed of Speech

by ENN Staff

Contributors: Esme Defenderfer, Trezli Cramer, Evan Fitzgibbon and Hooriyah Kamran. The writers were in Epic’s Junior High Journalism Club. Email enn@epiccharterschools.org for more information on how to participate in the club.

Slay. Rizz. Sus. Yeet. Do these words make sense to you or do they sound like a foreign language, maybe a little familiar but largely indecipherable? 

If you know what they mean, congratulations — you’re probably a teenager. If they don’t, well, don’t worry, they’ll be out of style before you could learn what they mean. 

Trying to fight slang or master slang are both losing propositions for adults. 

Slang is considered a language, and we all seem to use it, whether we know we are or not. Yet few of us can remember when we learned a slang word or phrase, and their origins are often impossible to pin down, said Justin McBride, a linguist at Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow. 

Slang has a brief window before it becomes obsolete, McBride said. 

One day, it’s here. Not long after, it’s gone. But why is that? 

McBride has answers. 

Young people learn languages and culture, he said, but it’s usually not through teaching or anything formal. 

This knowledge comes from people behaving normally in their everyday lives. 

McBride said that slang makes its way into the mainstream through word of mouth and at record speed.

“It actually travels a little faster now, because we have social media, and we have ways for young people to communicate on a grand scale that we didn’t have when we were young,” McBride said. “There’s no way I could say something and have 1,000 people see it the next day, unless I wrote it in graffiti on the side of a building or something. It’s not the way it was when we were young. So it is really easily popularized.”

Young people are easily influenced by social media such as YouTube and TikTok. They take in everything, from words or trends, even things like gender expectations. These turn into slang, informal language and mean something that teens regard as cool. 

Cool, you may remember, was once itself cool. It now is the purview of the middle-aged. Some people that are older use it, but it turns out to be cringey. 

That’s not the case for teens using their own slang, however. They pick it up naturally. 

It’s theirs, after all.

“I just hear them so much that they get ingrained in my vocabulary and it’s easier to talk to other people that talk like that,” Epic freshman Jada Childress said.

We use slang because it’s popular. Some people feel as if they are pressured to use slang and other people don’t really care about it but still use it. It’s omnipresent. 

“It’s just popular, and then I just started following the trend,” said Brayden Record, a ninth-grader at Epic Charter Schools. “That’s honestly why I do it.” 

McBride said slang helps young people fit in, make them feel connected, part of a community. 

Childress can attest to this. 

“I mean, they’re not really good to use if you don’t know how to use them, but they help you fit into certain environments,” she said. 

“People want to belong,” McBride said. “It’s easy to forget the fact that we actually need each other, and how we position ourselves in those groups that we could be part of — or maybe aren’t part of — is how we use language.”  

But just like those who use it, slang ages quickly, and the next generation takes over. As we all know, slang gets old fast. 

People use a particular word or phrase until it’s overused, and then it falls out of favor. 

New slang emerges and people forget about — or even mock — the old slang. 

The slang word YOLO (you only live once) was popular around 2012. It was replaced with yeet (throwing something, projecting) around 2014. 

YOLO could describe slang itself. It has its shining moment and then fades away. After all, there’s always more than one way to express an idea. 

“There is always more than one way to say something, and that’s important, and also because everybody has a little different system, and everybody has a little different way of saying things there’s always going to be change built into language,” McBride said.

Slang, like change, is universal. Even if you don’t understand what your teenager just said. 

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