If you struggle to understand the teenagers and young people around you when they call their schoolfriend a durkboi and try to cadge some peas, you are not alone. The idea that they are communicating in a different language from their parents has been the subject of excited chatter on parenting websites and among some researchers.
A defining characteristic of youth slang is thought to be its faddishness – the fact that terms have a rapid turnover, quickly coming in and out of fashion and then disappearing before parents and teachers have time to decode them. The reality is more complicated: novelty is all-important but for each generation the expressions they encounter will be new to them. So although each age group and almost every local clique do invent their own words, there is a common core of slang that persists for years: such as cool, wicked, solid and sick for good, and chilling for relaxing.
The new language used by the young is not one unified dialect but an intersection of styles, with vocabulary drawn from a number of sources. There is the edgy street language of gangs which has given us shank and jook for stab; and merk to hurt or humiliate. There is also boyed for shamed, durkboi and wallad for fool, dozens of terms for drugs and money and the greeting braap! picked up and used by innocent teens who may not have realised that it imitates the sound of an automatic firearm.
Many other words belong to MLE – multi-ethnic or multicultural London English – sometimes derided as jafaican, the speech variety strongly influenced by Caribbean usages and non-European accents and parodied by Ali G and TV comedy Phoneshop. Among the most pervasive are bruv, mate, bare, fam, gwop or peas (money), and chirpsin', linkin' and lipsin' – flirting, dating and kissing respectively.
Another component of the teen lexicon, quite impenetrable to outsiders, is the jargon of videogamers, origin of campet, an inert person (someone who “camps” on the fringes of the game); glicther, a cheat (a corruption of “glitch”), and zerg, to aggress (from the name of a race of hostile aliens).
US imports such as bae, sweetheart; (on) fleek, attractive, and turnt, excited or inebriated quickly, cross over from song lyrics, TV and movies into global English and are understood if not perhaps widely used. Homegrown expressions reflect teen habits of overstating: devs or devo’d for devastated (mildly inconvenienced); and feigning indifference – wotevs or whevs. CBA or ceebs (short for “can’t be arsed”) and the contemptuous exclamations meh and feh are other examples.
A wealth of words for the same thing
In fact, a large number of slang terms can be classified under relatively few headings. There are insults and terms of disapproval such as wasteman, gasman, neek (both nerd and geek) dinter and bell for males; and sket, THOT (that ho’ over there) and meg (a dowdy introvert) for females.
Supposedly ugly contemporaries are condemned as busted, finished, flames, hangin’, bruk or just uggz. Gangs and cliques are often territorial, so terms such as endz, bitz, yard meaning neighbourhood, or road and roadboy, someone accepted as local, are especially important.
A feature noted by some linguists is “hypersynonymy” whereby many competing coinages express the same notion. This can be seen in the dozens of words for good and bad and multiple synonyms for drunk or drugged (used by older students as well as schoolkids) such as carnaged, wazzed, hammered, hamstered; and for exhausted: wreckaged, bonked, spanked and clappin’.
The many acronyms and abbreviations used online and in messaging have alarmed parents who can’t interpret them and educators who think they are contaminating standard English. But SMS texting is no longer fashionable and emojis are increasingly replacing txtspk, though it isn’t likely to disappear completely as recent additions such as FOGO (fear of going out), SMH (same here), ICYMI (in case you missed it) and y/y? – an all-purpose question tag like French n'est-ce pas, or a slightly more elegant innit?
Variations on a theme
So what will the next crop of slang terms look like? It’s quite impossible for young users or for trained linguists to predict which expressions will catch on and for how long they may survive. What we can expect is that the most popular terms will come from the same categories as before: sex and dating, dissing and shaming, gushing and moaning and indulging covertly in all sorts of illicit hedonism.
For young people who are socially deprived, the use of street slang and ungrammatical codes could undermine their ability to manage the prestigious forms of language required in exams or job interviews. Most slang users, though, only employ exotic terms and abbreviations sparingly and grasp what linguists call the skill of “appropriacy”, using the right language in the right context.
Knowing that “secret” codes and highly informal language exist in all cultures and given that studies show that those who use texting conventions and emojis can be skilled communicators, adults should not despair. They could choose to find out more about language varieties which, technically if not socially, are not deficient at all but complex and creative. What they must not do – under any circumstances – is to attempt to use them to “get down with the kids”.