Teenage Language

Parents and teenagers speak different languages. ’Twas ever thus; but when your teenager is growing up in a different country from your own background, it can add another layer of mutual incomprehension.

Usually, it’s the parents who have no idea what their children are saying, but in our household it’s just as likely to go the other way around. There’s the obvious language difference, when I confuse my sons with words like “anticlockwise” or “the car boot” (see Divided By a Common Language). And then there’s also the history difference, too. I remember my sons being baffled by the opening scenes of the Chronicles of Narnia movie a few years ago — a mother and children racing to get to the air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden, followed by the trauma of the children being sent on a train to live with a stranger far away. They’d never heard of the blitz or the mass evacuation of children from London.

Getting back to the teenage-language thing. More interesting (at least, to me) are the phrases and slang of the young, that pop up in everyday use. I have no idea if these words are specific to American youth or are more-or-less universal. A couple of years ago there was “squad goals” and before that calling stuff “dope” (nothing to do with drugs per se). Which brings me to two recent examples.

The first came a couple of weeks ago, when I asked the resident teenager, “What does it mean to say a person or thing is ‘woke’?” He laughed so long and hard that it was a full two minutes before he was able, breathlessly, to attempt an answer: apparently, it means aware, fully clued in on the latest issues of our day, and “not falling for any bullshit.”

Did anyone catch this photo that went viral after the women’s marches in January? #wokebaby


A quick google search shows a strong case for “woke” being derived from African American vernacular, giving the term an overlay of awareness of social injustice.

A few days later I asked the same teenager about the word ‘fleek.’ More riotous laughter. “Mom, it’s ON fleek.” “OK, but I still don’t know what it means.” “Like, on point, styled just right, sharp.” (Again, Google hints at an African-American origin for the phrase.)

Got it. So now I’m curious: does anyone know if these two expressions are U.S.-specific? Given the ubiquity of American pop culture, I’m guessing they’re heard by baffled parents in other countries, too?

I like to think that my English accent gives me a bit of a pass with my sons and their friends — so when I say something ‘old’ it comes across as ‘quaint’ rather than ‘hopeless’. But maybe I’m deluding myself.

Either way, for an interesting take on memes, on fleek, and race (because this is America and, yes, many many things boil down to race) check out this Wired article from a few days ago: Want to Profit Off Your Meme? Good Luck if You Aren’t White



About abroadintheusa

An expat Brit who's lived and worked in the USA for more than three decades.
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