Teen talk is so bad it’s sick.
As a rough translation, that means it’s great. If you’re a teenager.
If you’re a parent, on the other hand, it is quite literally bad – a foreign language that leaves mums and dads ‘riding the struggle bus’, as their teen-talking kids might put it.
And that, of course, is part of the reason it exists, explains author and father-of-two-teenagers, Mark Leigh.
“It is about using terms your parents don’t know, but it’s primarily about laziness and just making things as short as possible,” he says.
As a regular customer at Starbies (the ‘affectionate’ teen nickname for the coffee shop chain Starbucks), Leigh heard so much indecipherable teenage slang that he decided an entertaining explanatory guide was needed. So he researched (with the help of his children, aged 18 and 19) and wrote How To Talk Teen, a “totes awesome” dictionary of teen slang.
“Eavesdropping on teenagers’ conversations, I was just thinking ‘What are they talking about?’ I wanted to know what they meant,” Leigh explains.
Not only is teen slang often unintelligible, it can also be utterly confusing, even if you think you know what particular phrases mean.
Take ‘poppin tags’, for example. If a teen says they’re off to pop tags they may simply mean they’re going shopping. But if they’re using its alternative interpretation, they could get arrested – it also means shoplifting.
“If you think you’re poppin tags going shopping, that’s good, but if your teen thinks it’s shoplifting, that’s probably not so good,” warns Leigh.
Some of the slang does mean exactly what it says – like the slightly convoluted ‘re-uninvite’.
In a nutshell, this is when someone invites a person to a party, changes their mind and tells them they’re not invited any more, then has a change of heart and invites them again, and finally decides – yet again – that they don’t want them to come.
“So they’re re-uninvited,” says Leigh with a laugh. “There really is a name for it, which is just wonderful.”
A great example of teenagers’ utter lack of spoken effort is the term ‘BT dubs’. Clearly the phrase ‘by the way’ is far too long for teens to bother typing or saying out loud – but, unbelievably, even the by the way acronym ‘BTW’ is excessively lengthy for this age group. That final ‘W’ is three whole syllables and, quite frankly, saying all three is a waste of precious teen time.
So the troublesome ‘W’ is shortened to the easier, single-syllable slang ‘dubs’. Sorted.
“How much effort does it really take to say ‘W’?! It’s so lazy it’s unbelievable,” says Leigh.
In a similar lazy vein, a teenager might use the bizarre phrase, ‘Om, nom, nom,’ when tasty food is mentioned. Apparently this onomatopoeic gem originates from the Cookie Monster in TV’s Sesame Street, who made the sound when munching his favourite cookies. For today’s teen it’s simply much easier to say than, ‘This is particularly appetising’.
“It’s like an evolution of the teen grunt, but I’m sure next year it’ll just be, ‘Om’ because they’ll get bored of saying the rest,” he observes.
Why txt spk?
A major contributory factor to teen speak is text and social media, and young people’s need to get their meaning across with the minimum amount of typing (and effort).
“They want to convey the most information in as short a space as possible, both because they may have a limited amount of characters and also because they just can’t be bothered to type much,” says Leigh.
Part of the motivation for using teen slang is also for young people to show their peers they know the words, and to prove they’re cool.
“A lot of it is middle class suburban kids trying to look cool talking about their ‘hood’ and trying to get one over on their peers, especially if they’re using acronyms,” Leigh points out.
One such acronym is HFFA, meaning ‘hot from far away’ – the closer a person gets to you, the more unattractive they become.
Leigh suggests the plethora of TV channels and US shows now available means American slang is more widely used today, and circulated widely via social media, so it rapidly becomes accepted parlance.
“It’s a combination of all these things coming together, and it’s only going to get better or worse, depending on how you look at it,” warns Leigh.
How To Talk Teen by Mark Leigh is available now.