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July 13, 2016

Words, They are a Changin’

By: W.F. Strong

Slang is the working class of words. Carl Sandburg said “slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.”

But slang is always changing. For an older guy like me, It’s hard to keep up with.

Did you know that “on fleek,” “squad,” and “lit” are on their way out? Neither did I. Those words are going out before I knew they were in. Hell, I just learned “hipster” a few months ago, which likely proves I’m not one. It also shows I’m late to learn new slang. No surprises there. By the time I catch up with a new movement, it has generally moved on.

Millennials, by contrast, change slang faster than Taylor Swift changes boyfriends.

One trend that I have noticed lately is how many words or expressions common 20 years ago have either disappeared altogether or reversed meanings.

“Parking” is a case in point. Twenty years ago parking was the term for finding a quiet spot on a country road and enjoying some intimate time with your date.

That meaning is gone. If you bring up that term in front of today’s college students, they will say, “I know. The parking problem on campus is terrible.” If you explain what it used to mean they will say, “Oh, you mean Netflix and chill!”

“Shade” is something I’ve always tried to sit in. Now, evidently, it is something you can throw.

“Sick” is the new cool. “Sick” used to mean ill, but now it means that something is hip: “That is a sick tune you’re playin’.” Wicked is also strangely good. “Leah, you’re sick and wicked.” That’s a compliment!

“Savage” used to be a word no one wanted to be associated with. Now it works as praise. “That motorcyle jump was savage, dude.” Or you can use it as a verb, “You savaged that Snickers bar.”

“Dope?” used to be an idiot – as in “He’s a dope.” Now, it is something or someone who is super cool, as in “that’s so dope” or “nobody’s dope as me.” There are even caps that sport the word DOPE right up front. A few decades ago that would have been a punishment.

“Howdy” has largely been replaced, at least among some millennials by “‘Sup,” a contraction of “What’s up?” But I’m sure there’s still a few young “howdiers” out there.

“Awesome” has changed in the sense that it used to be a powerful word, a word that could bench press 500 pounds. It was reserved for Godly things, for divine things. You would use it for a crimson sunset over El Capitan in West Texas. But now this sublime word is used promiscuously – as in “those are awesome tacos” or “You’ll be here in ten minutes? Awesome.” Inflation has set in. “Awesome” has lost its awesomeness. The same is true for “amazing.”

We have some nonverbal reversals, too. Wearing your cap backwards or sideways used to be considered nerdy. Wearing it cocked to the side once made you seem like a clown. Today, wearing it that way can be “dope.” But only in youth culture. If I were to do it, I would look like an old clown. Best for me to stick to Stetsons.

Used to be that wearing your shirt tail out was slovenly. Now, it is stylish. Wearing your shirt tucked in is considered nerdy. Out is in and in is out. Unless you are talking about Western fashion where the tucked tradition mostly prevails.

One word that seems to have weathered the decades without changing is “cool.” “Cool” was cool in the sixties and it is still cool today. And not only is it cross-generational, it is cross-cultural, too. “Cool” is cool in the African-American world. It’s cool in the hispanic world and it’s cool in white culture. It’s cool in rap and it’s cool in country. It’s transcontinental as well. People around the world who don’t speak English seem to know at least two words: “okay” and “cool.” “Cool” is singularly diverse with diverse acceptance. And that’s awesome.

A younger, perpetually cooler friend heard me making these observations and he said to me, “Don’t be throwin’ shade on our slang. You just need to get woke, dude.”

That’s probably true. Workin’ on it.

‘Til next time, YOLO y’all.

W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.


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