Why all the cray-cray words?
Slang from web, texting alters English
Have I gone cray-cray, or has English become just a little too adorbs?
Peeps are buying prezzies and making restaurant rezzies, they’re sharing email addies and eating bacon sammies with their swag boyfs. They’re getting jeal cos their hubs chatted up some hottie. They’re tweeting selfies and shelfies and drelfies, liking fails, hearting pics from their BFF’s winter vacay. Totes ridic!
Obvs I get that language changes. It’s amazeballs how the web has changed the way we talk — on computers, on phones, face to face. But sometimes I get a little emo, I think, OMG, if I hear one more Dude or Chickie say “awesome sauce” or “YOLO” I’m going to hashtag hurl! Samesies gets lamesies, you know?
“There’s an element of playfulness to it,” American linguist Ben Zimmer says of the slang, which is popular online, in texting as well as face-to-face communication. “There’s fun in sharing this in-group code. These are forms of language you are sharing with a group that appreciates what you’re doing.”
Call it the cutesification of communication. Or dimi nutivization, if you’re sweet on linguistics. Diminutives are word tweaks that imply smallness or, in this case, affection and familiarity. The -ie or -y ending (pronounced “ee”) is one of the biggies, but other diminutives include -let, -ling, -ette and mini-. They make speech sound fun, casual, less pretentious.
“The childishness of is intentional,” says Zimmer, executive producer of vocabulary.com and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
“It’s a way of being endearing to a particular subject in either a loving or condescending way.”
Take the word “selfie,” a clipped version of self-portrait which Oxford Dictionaries just selected as the 2013 word of the year.
“Selfie” has its origins in Australia, the diminutive heartland. Aussies are famous for their affectionate nicknames ending in that “ee” sound: breakfast is brekkie, barbecue is barbie, relatives are rellies, mosquitoes are mozzies.
Words can be hacked up in all sorts of fun ways to make them more caj, more coolio, more crazypants. Lop off a syllable or two, add an -s, and bam! Good times. Suddenly you’ve got “totes” (totally), “adorbs” (adorable) and “obvs” (obviously).
Zimmer says these sorts of clippings have found a natural home online because we tend to be terser when texting and typing, and may be restricted by character limits. What’s unusual, he says, is how clippings have moved from online into oral speech. “Usually it works the other way.”
Together with web-and-text-friendly slang like OMG, LMAO and WTF, we are seeing “a new, intimate form of English,” Zimmer says. “It’s wonderful fodder for me.”
Young people usually coin the slang. Back in the 1890s, students at Oxford went through a fad of adding “-er” on the end of words, and that’s how we have the word “soccer.” Association football, as it was originally known, got shortened first to “Assoc.” or “Assocer” then “soc” and “soccer,” as distinct from rugby football, clipped to “rugger.”
Kenneth Baclawski Jr., a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, has used Twitter to study the origins of truncated words aptly known as “abbrevs,” which predate the Internet (think of pet names like Wills, Babs and Mags, short for William, Barbara and Margaret).
At a party, a kid might say something’s “totes in apropro” (totally inappropriate), but they will likely outgrow that lingo as they become adults.
“I don’t see it catching on in a way that’s going to replace the words,” he says.
Baclawski hypothesizes that abbrevs and other web and text slang have popped up because they are the first type of written language that’s conversational.
In the past, “a letter wasn’t a conversation, it was a monologue. Now you have an interface where you have to respond in real time.” Because of that, the language must also convey tone, gesture — hence slang and emoticons.
Because of its youthful origins, the slang we’re seeing today “very often gets disparaged as frivolous and unimportant, in the sense that it’s not serious talk,” Zimmer explains.
“But it’s not meant to be serious talk. And very often that’s where the innovative forms of language percolate, bubble up.”
Slang usually works its way into the all-ages vernacular, even if it’s just intended sarcastically. So, don’t be surprised to hear your dear old grandma say “OMG! Nom!” when she sees the turkey and all the trimmings (hashtag awkward).
Abbreviating words into cuter shorter forms is nothing new. We’ve been saying “movie” (from moving picture) for at least a century, and creating diminutives out of first names goes back to the Middle Ages. And clipped military jargon like “intel” and “ops” have simply trickled into mainstream communication.
“Language is still operating in the same ways it always has,” Baclawsi says.
Sure, the speed that goes with texting and social media has accelerated the phenomenon but it’s not always about efficiency.
Slang like “cray-cray” (crazy) or “samesies” (me too) actually takes longer to type and speak. But so what? It’s fun. As long as you don’t go overboard.
Says Zimmer: “If you’re running around always saying ‘Totes adorbs!’ that would get on people’s nerves.”
In this file photo, actress Meryl Streep uses her iPhone to take a selfie of herself and then-secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton following a State Department dinner last year in Washington.