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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I'm convinced that all the cool jargon and hip catch-phrases that eventually become ubiquitous in the United States and in pop culture begin in the same place — a group of 12-year old girls at a slumber party, hopped up on junk food and caffeine, and they spend the night trying to come up with clever and elaborate put-downs for classmates they don't like. This is the genesis. Then, once the words have been created, they're released to the middle-school population at large and immediate catch fire. From there, the phrases emanate to the high schools and to the middle-school parents, and the slang sort of ping-pongs between these two groups for a while, until it eventually ensnares the twenty-somethings and college students that are in between. As some point, an ear-to-the-ground pop star or rap musician will catch up and put the phrase into a hit song, and at that point the phrase explodes into the general population.
I like this theory because I've always been intimidated by 12-year old girls, from grade school on, and they still scare the living hell out of me. I'm convinced that they have a power and an influence that is far greater than anyone has imagined. And since most of the really clever buzzwords are kind of mean, it's not a stretch to theorize that our lexicon is moved most by the inspirations and cruel brilliance of the meanest girls in the 7th grade.
I have friends my age who try to keep current with the latest slang and most up-to-date lingo and it's a little embarrassing — occasionally they'll try to show how clued in they are by dropping a hipster phrase in everyday conversation and it always makes everybody cringe. But that's a baby boomer for you — we can't just get out of the way. It's like we have to approve of every thing that happens to the younger generations before we allow them to develop a culture (and sub-culture) of their own. There's a lot of justifying of this behavior — "I just want to be involved in my kids' lives" is a common one — but it just seems representative of a generation that doesn't know when it's time to clear the stage.
But really, what is the proper course to take when you're exposed to a language that's all over the zeitgeist but is not for you and is totally incomprehensible? You'd have to be a pathologically incurious sort not to want to know what's going on. I have a friend who's a school teacher and he dropped a "tl; dr." on one of my Facebook posts that sent me scrambling to the Urban Dictionary to figure out what it meant. (Makes sense that he teaches middle school; he has direct access to on-top-of-it kids. And for the Boomers, "tl;dr." stands for "too long, didn't read," an appropriate response to many of my long-winded Facebook posts.)
I think the best approach to take, if you're a geezer who's trying to make sense of the new language, is to treat the Brave New Words as a language like Latin: never to be used in everyday discourse, but important as an educational tool to understand roots. That way you can be somewhat knowledgeable without having to be conversant. I won't ever "throw shade" at someone and I'll always add the "f" in "fifty" instead of using a "t," but I won't be startled if anyone else decides to use those words. (And yes, I'm well aware that both of those examples are about five years too old for any serious cool person to use.)
I work with a 15-year old girl and she's my personal emissary into the land of what's brand new with the kids. I'm constantly badgering her to tell me what phrases are in play now. Again: for educational purposes only, I'm not gonna start using them. And it's fascinating, but a little tricky: slang evolves so quickly that you're never sure what's destined to become a linguistic artifact after only a few uses. I bet even the kids get a little weary of trying to keep up-to-date with this stuff. It's gotta be hard and it's not like they don't have other things to worry about.
It's no secret that so much of the new lexicon is based on computer and texting shorthand, which makes it even more difficult for old folks to keep up. Though adults are certainly better at navigating computers now, they're still miles behind kids when it comes to technological literacy, and kids are just quicker, more adept. Their eyes are trained to it. And adults just aren't comfortable with texting being their primary method of communication; they do it with their children, because they have to, but they're still resistant to the idea of relying upon it. I used to compare the amount of texts I would send in a day with my daughter's usage: I would be hard-pressed to send a dozen texts a day, while my daughter would easily eclipse three hundred.
But I'm aware that no amount of kveching about the soullessness of texting is going to do too much; the world is going to continue on its course, regardless of any moral conundrums that the older generation may feel about the new language. I do admit that I wish that people weren't' so attached to that bleeping gizmo that causes them to stare at their hands for hours at a time. I wish that public conversation would become commonplace again, that things like long attention spans and good public manners would once again be socially prominent. I also wish it wasn't necessary to be hipster-literate when trying to talk to somebody younger than me. I think all of these things, but trust me, I'll never speak them out loud. That wouldn't be dope; that would be basic.